Review

Alice: Madness Returns Review (PC)

I’ll start at the beginning: in the last few days, I’ve done some crazy things. I’ve shot pepper at flying pig snouts to make them sneeze. I’ve smashed samurai wasps in the face with a hobby-horse to protect origami ants. I’ve played hide-and-seek with an alcoholic Scottish playwright octopus wearing a top hat. I’ve shrunk to foot height in order to see and jump on flying chalk hopscotch squares. I’ve negotiated a sea of boiling tea to recover a pair of legs from a despotic dormouse. I’ve been playing Alice: Madness Returns.
 

"The vorpal went snicker-snack! He left it dead, and with its head, he went galumphing back"
As you may have gathered, this is no ordinary game. Neither was its forebear, 2000’s American McGee’s Alice which Madness Returns is a direct sequel to. The very fact that such a frankly niche game (a PC-only platformer that controlled like an FPS) has got a sequel is frankly a miracle. A code to download the first game is actually included in the package (if bought new), so players can experience that for the first time on consoles – plus effectively making this two games in one, and decently sized ones at that.

The story, what there was of it, is recapped quickly in Madness Returns: after watching her family burn to death in a fire she thinks she accidentally caused, Alice’s mind has been overwhelmed with guilt and her Wonderland has turned nasty. After defeating the Mad Hatter, Jabberwocky and Red Queen, Alice regained some of her sanity and was allowed to leave the asylum. She’s now undergoing therapy, but something is clearly rotten in her world – both of them.

The game itself is, for the most part, a mixture of platforming and Zelda-style combat (appropriate given that the game that invented it, Ocarina of Time, is re-released this week). If I have to be critical (and being a critic yes I have to) the one big flaw with Alice: Madness Returns is the way it doesn’t really advance these two gameplay styles. There are some tweaks involving the controls, but otherwise if you’ve played a 3D platformer in the last ten years you’ll know what to expect.

For anyone bored with that type of game who isn’t attracted by the game’s unique style or themes, don’t bother picking it up. Even I started humming a tune from Mario 64 when I hit an ice slide. I’d love to tell you to try a demo, but inexplicably there isn’t one. I’m not sure when “being a platformer”, and a damn good one, became a bad thing, but it’s one that will be moaned about for sure. Those who are still happy to jump between moving platforms, read on.

For those who have played the first game and its weird FPS-like controls, let me reassure you now that Alice controls perfectly. She can now do several jumps and a glide, and for me personally I felt I had more control over her movement than any Mario game. Platforming never ever felt a chore, mostly thanks to the landscape being so beautiful to explore (hey, that almost rhymed).

Combat in general fares well, as most enemies you face require certain strategies to defeat (which you’ll have to figure out for yourself). With the exception of ranged weapons (a Pepper Grinder and a Teapot – yes, really) all Alice’s weapons and moves are available at the press of a button, and all have their own uses. You’ll have to master them all if you want to get through some harder fights later in the game, but fortunately combat has been tightly designed. You’ll never die cursing the controls, either an enemy took you by surprise or it was your fault.
 
Levels are twisted works of art. This one's made of teapots and Steampunk
Strangely enough there aren’t any bosses in the game, which came as something of a relief to me as they’re one cliché I’m happy to see go. Developer Spicy Horse even pokes fun at this at one point by putting in all the unsubtle hints that would usually lead to a boss battle (lots of health, wide open area), but when the “boss” itself turns up it immediately falls apart – incompetent builders, you see. Instead you’ll find progressively harder battles or unique set-pieces, like the aforementioned hide-and-seek chase with an alcoholic octopus (he hides in bottles of wine), a side-scrolling underwater shooter, or a 2D level set inside a Chinese painting.

It’s the beauty of the game, along with its utterly addictive insanity, that drew me in the most. Every level is a work of art. Whether it’s huge, complex towers made of teapots dominating the landscape or the serene beauty of a castle made of cards in the sky, every level is worth playing through in order to see the next. Even the real world, which Alice visits between chapters, has a dreary expressionist style that reminds me of Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, although I promise not to mention him in this review again. He’s a sore point for Alice fans after all.

Not only being gorgeous to look at (in a stylish way rather than a “god these graphics are wicked dude” way, although the Unreal 3 engine is well handled), the levels are also packed with secrets like only the most addictive games are. Some you can only access or even see by shrinking, which activates Alice’s “Shrink Sense” but leaves her a bit vulnerable. I went through the game searching every nook and cranny for teeth and flying pig snouts (don’t ask) and I still have loads to go. That’s impressive considering the lengths the game sometimes goes through to make you go the way it wants you to, like putting invisible walls a metre in front of an actual wall.

The best things to find (apart from Radula Rooms where you can earn more health) are Memories, which are almost like the audio logs you’d find in games like Bioshock and Dead Space. They advance the plot and hint at what’s really troubling Alice. Yes, there is a plot this time, and it’s actually quite a good one (even if it does retcon a few things, like Alice’s older sister). The voice actors are mostly the same from the first game, for better or worse, and they often feel as stylised as the rest of the game. The Cheshire Cat is as great as ever though.

One other big problem the game occasionally throws in your face is one of checkpointing, which is a shaky art at the best of times. Whenever you die falling while platforming the game immediately resurrects you in a safe area, which is superb and really cuts out the frustration. When you die in combat however you go back to the last checkpoint, which occasionally is right at the beginning of the bloody level. Most of the time it will save sensibly, but it doesn’t just often enough to get mentioned here with a growl of frustration. The only other technical complaint I have is occasionally getting caught on scenery, and the aforementioned invisible walls.

I fully expect some people not to get along with Alice: Madness Returns. The gameplay tropes it hangs on are very well worn indeed, and plenty of people will take one look at it and go “oh, not another platformer, boring”. I however do not rush out and buy (or review) every platformer going, it takes a special one to catch my interest. American McGee’s Alice was one such game, and this is another.

This game matches and improves on every area of the original, with one exception: the music simply isn’t as good as Chris Vrenna’s stirring score for the first game. Otherwise I thoroughly enjoyed returning to this twisted Wonderland, gladly taking the arguably derivative gameplay in my stride to enjoy all the surprises and insanity Madness Returns brings. I’ve given it a score to match.
 
"A dog growls when it's angry and wags its tail when it's pleased. I growl when I'm pleased and wag my tail when I'm angry. Therefore, I'm mad"

Alice: Madness Returns may not win awards for genre innovation, but it’s the most darkly fun and gloriously batty game I’ve played since Psychonauts. I can’t think of any higher praise. I’ve now come to the end, so I’ll stop.

Top Game Moment: Lots of stand-out moments, but I’ll go with the 2D Eastern storybook sections which could be their own XBLA indie title. Damn those samurai wasps.

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Comments

By AfricanWoolf (I just got here) on Jul 06, 2011
AfricanWoolf
See this is a decent, well written, understandable review where opinions are backed up with reasoning.

Can someone please explain why IGN gave this game a 6.5\10? I’m about halfway and it is nothing short of a blast.

Not perfect, sure, but a really great experience. Just by being a very functional and beautiful game it should rate higher than 6.5. IGN, go sleep with yourself.