Alice: Madness Returns Review

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Alice: Madness Returns Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Spicy Horse Games

Platform: Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and PC
Reviewed on Xbox 360

After Alice's family perished when her family home burned in 1863, she spent a decade convalescing in Rutledge Asylum before recovering enough to work at the Houndsditch Home orphanage in return for treatment from Dr. Angus Bumby. At Rutledge, Alice escaped her cruel burns and survivor's guilt by falling into Wonderland, the twisted and cruel world Alice constructed to make sense of the torments that had befallen her. Between working at Houndsditch Home and wandering the seedier side of London, Alice uncovers the suppressed memories that suggest her family's deaths may not have been an accident.

Kyle Ackerman

In one respect, Alice: Madness Returns is exactly like its forebear, American McGee's Alice: the game is a triumph of style mapped onto a perfectly ordinary platformer. It would be easy to look down on Alice as an old-school platformer in the modern era, but platformers existed because it's fun to explore, leap from ledge to ledge, and smash enemies (and it's a nice break from cover-based shooting mechanics). Alice: Madness Returns is a lot like the technical theater geek hanging out in the back of class – it's not nearly as deep, introspective or dark as it thinks, but it's still fun to hang out with.

"If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there."

Alice jumps back and forth between brief sequences in Victorian London, and long sections that delve into different areas of Alice's psyche, in the form of Wonderland. Alice doesn't do itself a favor by starting off in Victorian London. In principle, the London scenes are a splendid counterpart to Wonderland, demonstrating how Alice's fantasy and reality interact. In practice, the art is brilliant and the game in London is seemingly unfinished. It's such a small part of the experience, that it could easily sour gamers before they get to Wonderland and unlock the abilities that make Alice a compelling platformer.

London's problem is that it's not interactive. There's little to find, no jumping, no fighting and no exploration. It's pure background, presenting a world so dismal it firmly feels like Brecht meets a Nazi propaganda take on life in London, full of vice and rotting meat. Even if you find something to examine (a purely optional exercise), you get a drab text box. The furnishings in Alice's solicitor's home are a critical part of the sections of the game leading up to the Caterpillar encounter. A few voice-overs from the character (who speaks regularly in Wonderland) would have made a world of difference. If the text boxes were a conscious choice, they didn't work. They just feel underdeveloped. I wanted to stop and scream at the policeman brutalizing some poor sod and flee from the prostitutes and verbally abusive Johns, but all I could do was stroll in a near-mad haze. London worked best during a wagon ride when it became a mere three-dimensional cut-scene.

"A pleasant walk, a pleasant talk,
Along the briny beach"

Wonderland isn't just more comfortable for Alice – sinking deep into Alice's mental landscape is considerably more entertaining. It's a conventional platformer, so Alice focuses on producing gorgeous backdrops, interesting takes on environmental objects and a splendidly rendered Alice. Alice has grown up both chronologically and technologically in the ten years that have passed since American McGee's Alice, but she's still a comely underage goth. Just checking out the version of American McGee's Alice included in new Xbox 360 copies of the game shows how far the art and textures have come since the original concept. Some of the textures in Alice seem primitive, but not Alice's model, and not compared to the decade-old predecessor.

Like other games from its era, American McGee's Alice was blocky and punishing, with constant deadly falls and vast gulfs between checkpoints. Alice is a platformer, so there were a few inevitable camera problems, but usually it was smooth and comfortable. It plays as a modern platformer should. Miss a jump, and you simply pop back to the beginning of the jump or brief sequence in a flutter of butterflies. The game thankfully doesn't try to prolong its length by forcing you to replay entire levels. The friendly respawning encourages exploration rather than penalizing poor reflexes.

"Long time the manxome foe he sought"

I started to complain about the repetition in Alice, but when I thought about the tremendous length of the game, there was actually little repetition. A few irritating minor enemies repeatedly reappear, but are easily dismissed. There's just enough variety in weaponry and enemies to keep things interesting between platforming puzzles, and occasional mini-games to break that up. Most of the mini-games aren't worth mentioning, but one of the stylized, two-dimensional platforming sequences was pleasant. By halfway through, some fights posed a challenge by presenting difficult combinations of enemies, but the friendly respawn policy eliminated any real frustration.

I was particularly impressed at how varied the regions were. Each discrete segment of Alice's mind is completely different, interesting and avoids constantly reusing art assets in that way that makes other games tiresome. That's important, because the impressive art design is a big part of what kept me plunging forward. Not all textures are great, but the overall style is superb. I particularly loved the gorgeous design of the Mad Hatter's realm, with giant teapots transformed into floating, industrial fortresses, adorned in cogs and chains. The Queen's domain was a bit simplistically grotesque, but the art of the final areas justified much. I even enjoyed the menu design.

"Everything's got a moral, if only you can find it."

As much as I enjoyed the art, in trying to be deep, Alice manages just the opposite. But that doesn't make it less fun. Throughout, Alice can shrink to a bit less than half her height. This lets her sneak through tiny openings to find hidden treasures, but also gives her play hints. When she's small, the world is covered with the crayon-inspired scribbling of insane children that reveal hidden locations, invisible platforms and hints of future danger. Get it? Alice is under psychiatric care? She's seeing a shrink, and when she shrinks, she sees? It sounds like game design from the Sphinx of the Mystery Men film. Yet, it's still fun. It's a decent play mechanic, even if the message feels heavy-handed.

In the same vein, just artistically triumphant moments are scattered throughout, it's often a more juvenile take on Tim Burton-esque gothic fantasy. Sometimes the game takes ordinary objects from the world and themes from Alice in Wonderland and twists them deviously. Sometimes the game simply slathers them in blood and black ooze representing industrial corruption.

Alice: Madness Returns is a substantial and solidly entertaining platforming experience. It's a dark, artistic variant on the world presented in Alice in Wonderland that more than makes up for being overly brooding with solid play. It's a strong entry in a genre that lately has been woefully under-represented in a quality fashion.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on June 14, 2011 2:01 AM.

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