Review by Leigh Carr
Alice Liddell is insane.
She was at home late one evening, again dreaming of her Wonderland in the confines of her bedroom, when the fire broke out. Her entire family perished in a horrifying hellish inferno. Only Alice made it out alive. Driven mad by the loss of her loved ones, she retreats into Wonderland to cope, only there is something wrong in Wonderland. Terribly wrong. The inhabitants are oppressed under the rule of the Queen of Hearts. Even after defeating the Queen along with her guilt, why is Wonderland still in such torment?
Thus begins, Alice: Madness Returns.
Released in 2011, this is a solid third person action platformer features puzzles, rich environments, incredible character designs and a story with enough adult content to pervert your childhood memories of the original Alice books. So why do reviews range from a mediocre 6.5 (IGN), 7.5 (Metacritic) all the way up to a 9 out of 10 (Steam)?
In 2011 I was fucking pumped about this game. The promo trailers were deliciously psychotic. Being a huge fan of the PC original, American McGee’s Alice, I bought this game on Steam upon its initial release. My score, before even playing the title, was 10 out of 10. I had high expectations that I was going to get the same experience as the original only with better graphics, gameplay and a darker, more twisted story. I realized this game was practically unplayable on PC, as it’s designed specifically for consoles. There was a locking system for targetting enemies. Blocking, dodging and attacking were things you had to switch between incredibly fast, too fidgety for my clumsy fingers on a keyboard. The PC snob in me screamed, “Scandalous console port!” And I dropped that score from a 10 to a 0 faster than I could uninstall it from my machine.
Six years later, the memories of time spent with the original crept back into my mind. Much like Alice herself, I craved to fall back into the rabbit hole and re-live that dark twisted world of Wonderland. Finding a copy available as a downloadable purchase proved problematic. Wait a minute, don’t I have a copy of the shitty sequel somewhere? Why did I hate that game again? Something about not having a controller? Well, I own an Xbox controller for my PC now. Let’s give it another shot!
Alice starts in 1870 England under the hypnotic suggestion of her Alienist. She lives at an orphanage and is still struggling to repair her beloved Wonderland. Alice had overcome the loss of her family … so why is Wonderland still in ruins? I’m slowly uncovering this as I play. The story isn’t told as well as one would have hoped, conveyed in-game through cut scenes and stylized, paper-like cut-out layered caricatures. After a brief introduction the player takes control of Alice, navigating through the linear streets of London. Soon, Alice suffers another psychotic episode and is plunged back into Wonderland.
In Wonderland Alice can jump to extraordinary heights, glide, dice her opponents with a vorpal blade, use a parasol to block attacks, dodge, projectile pepper grind creatures (shown right), smash enemy defenses with a hobby horse head, lay a small rabbit like explosives that diverts enemy attention and use a slow charging yet powerful “explosive” teapot projectile for radial damage. The player accesses all of these abilities progressively, and weapons can be upgraded by collecting and then spending teeth. I don’t know the significance of the teeth in relation to the overall story, or even if it has a meaning, but it’s a touch unsettling nonetheless.
The combat is satisfying and can also prove rather challenging. Each enemy type Alice faces will involve a slight change of tactics and a combination of weaponry will be utilized in most fights.
Alice also has the ability to turn very small at will for the purpose of gaining access to secret areas, view hidden messages and hints drawn on the environment as well as see invisible platforms leading to collectables and health upgrades. You’ll be growing from large to small every thirty seconds to ensure nothing has been overlooked.
The levels are mainly linear platform based jump fests (watchout! The ground is lava), broken up with some light or heavy combat in contained locations. It’s fun to map your route before you attempt leaps, bounds, riding gusts of steam to higher platforms, sliding down slopes or clearing seemingly impossible gaps. Some basic puzzles pop up once in a while such as sliding picture tiles or riddles. There’s even a side-scrolling space shooter and a side-scrolling platformer that seems to come out of nowhere.
The environments are varied and look stunning for a game of its age, featuring surrealistic lush gardens, graveyards, oriental landscapes, gothic decrepit castles, the bottom of the ocean (although being underwater doesn’t alter gameplay) and the mandatory industrial factory with boring grey texture packages.
The characters are well put together, nearly on par matching the concept designs from the original Alice. I have to admit, I enjoy the variety of outfits Alice wears to fit the theme of her environment. Don’t judge me.
So why the hate?
Well, it could be the “invisible walls” that keep a player from accessing various parts of the level. You’re jumping along from place to place, navigating a maze of platforms, shrinking every second platform to scour for hidden paths when you notice a ledge that looks accessible from your location. You hurl yourself toward your goal only to find Alice stopping mid air, slowly grinding against a wall that simply isn’t there then fall to her death. This is the games way of telling you, “Ain’t no secret here bub! Move along.” Frustrating, but you respawn at a location not too far from your original point of origin with no health loss.
The game is a bit messy and suffers from a slight identity crisis. One moment it’s a 3D platformer, next a 2D platformer, a side scrolling space shooter, a puzzle game, a third person walking simulator. Although the change of gameplay style is short with large gaps of the core game in between it can be a little jarring. Four hours of platform jumping and vicious combat grows tedious quickly and I find it helps give nice little breaks from the core game and they do try to do it in context, no matter how flimsy the reason.
The story is slow and it seems Alice’s journey through Wonderland almost seems pointless. I couldn’t tell you why I was supposed to find caterpillar atop the oriental mountain or how it really benefitted the plot with the exception of directing me to the next themed environment.
The original Alice had boss fights. I’ve encountered some enemies that are tough and could qualify as boss fights, but it doesn’t seem to have the same fanfare. I was amped when an incredibly large and intimidating enemy was presented to me in an in-game cut scene. Hmm … looks tough. I think I can take it down. Oh, no! Wait. The Mad Hatter just destroyed it with great ease. Ah, well. Guess I’ll watch this cut scene then instead. I wasn’t sure if it was the game’s poor attempt at humor or EA wouldn’t give Spicy Horse the cash to fund the fight. There may be unique boss fights to come, but even if that’s the case after 8 hours of gameplay I’d hoped to have fought one by now. Nothing like toppling the master of its domain.
Creative director, American McGee, (Alice, Quake, Bad Day L.A) wanted the game to be darker and more insidious, claiming EA made him tone it down. Later, he apologized for this statement in the hope of undoing any damage done to his relationship with EA. The game is already filled with various dark themes so my mind is whirling at the possibilities.
Overall, Alice: Madness Returns is a great game! It has a few flaws that I feel are outweighed by its positive qualities. Sure it’s a little repetitive, perhaps even too long, but damn it I’m having fun! If you want a nice platform game with a bit of variety and a dark plot pick up a controller and slice away! Haters gonna hate.
Born of a jackal, Leigh decided to devote his life to all things horror at a young age. Now that he’s an adult not much has changed. He enjoys Board Games, Tabletop Role Playing Games and Electronic games, has a loving family that have put up with his crippling addictions, and is an ordained priest of the First United Church of Cthulhu. In his spare time he is a facilitator for a bank.
Leigh is also the creator and moderator of the Call of Cthulhu Melbourne Facebook community, where he goes by the madness-inducing pseudonym of “Leigh Carrthulu”. If you love Old Squidface as much as we think you do, ask Leigh to join the Facebook community. You can also read the interview with Leigh here on Games vs Play.
Images in this story sourced from EA’s Alice: Madness Returns website.