Alice: Madness Returns [Available on PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC]
ESRB Rating: M
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Spicy Horse
Release Date: June 14, 2011
Parent Talk: If you’re not familiar with American McGee’s Alice, then Madness Returns may surprise you. The books and movies carry dark themes, but are generally family-friendly. Alice: Madness Returns, however, isn’t just dark, but surprisingly profane and visceral. Beware of strong language and blood.
Plays Like: God of War and Devil May Cry. The heavier emphasis on platforming makes it games from the late 90s/early 2000s, such as Soul Reaver.
Review Basis: Completed the game once on Normal.
Note: Playing doesn’t require experience with AMR’s predecessor. You can jump into the story without fear of missing out. Also, new copies of the game ship with a free download code for the original American McGee’s Alice.
American McGee’s Alice shocked audiences after its debut. It profoundly darkened the stories by Lewis Carroll. It was unique and original, and even now, the game holds appeal. Madness Returns brings that experience to the current generation with an unlikely, but enjoyable sequel. While it lags behind the competition in mechanics, the unique visual style, bizarre narrative and lineage give it its own personality.
A bizarre head-trip of a story. You don’t have to play Alice in order to understand Madness Returns, but I’d be lying to say it isn’t confusing either way. The plot follows Alice in London and Wonderland, but her world is fractured and broken. Her life in London is in shambles. After her family dies, and she subsequently stays in an asylum, Alice is now engaged in therapy—but it doesn’t do much good. The world around her is oppressive and dark, and she has no true friends for comfort. Her personal refuge, Wonderland, is no better off. Her weak mental condition has caused Wonderland to become equally dark and insane. Decent voice acting, an imaginative world and effective cutscenes make for an interesting narrative.
+ A colorful, twisted world. Wonderland has changed to reflect Alice’s dementia, showing in the developer’s creative level design. The world is simultaneously ominous and beautiful. Some areas are bright and cheerful, but quickly transition into bizarre, terrifying locales. The dreary, bleak London streets serve as an excellent contrast to the huge, fantastical Wonderland. The art is fantastic too, highlighting how twisted and bizarre the world is. The storybook-style cutscenes perfectly set the stage for a dark fantasy. Character models are uniquely designed, Alice especially.
+ Solid voice work. The narrative is supported by decent performances. Alice sounds as you would expect and the dialog is full of insane babble. The characters feed off each other well.
+ The music is eerie and appropriate for each location.
+ Chapters are long and rich. Each chapter offers a large plot of Wonderland to explore, rich in visual appeal and content. There are many hidden routes, secrets, and special items to find. The game progresses in linear fashion, but the developers allow you to explore Wonderland while making progress in the chapter. The game takes over ten hours to complete.
+ Alice’s shrink ability gives exploration an added sense of depth. Like The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap, shrinking allows you to explore more places that what would normally be possible, and offers a second look at familiar territory. Shrinking also reveals otherwise invisible platforms.
+ Fun combat. Alice moves quickly and gracefully in combat. The dodge mechanics are fast and fluid, and the attack animations are equally well-done. Alice attacks with a vicious tenacity using her Vorpal Blade, while the Hobby Horse, Pepper Grinder, and Teapot Cannon provide handy alternatives. Combat frequently requires you to interchange weapons, which works well and makes combat more fun. Sequences don’t last long, and tend to be easy.
– Platforming. The landscape is fun and imaginative, but the mechanics needed fine-tuning. Most of the platforming sequences are incredibly easy thanks to Alice’s superior jumping skills (she can jump about four times and float). However, the collision detection and awkward camera can make parts needlessly frustrating. If you barely miss a jump, Alice hits the side of the platform, but acts as though she landed on it and transitions into her standing pose while in mid-air. This tends to result in unnecessary deaths.
– Repetitive. Alice: Madness Returns can become tiresome after extended play. The lengthy platforming make the game drag on, thus some areas overstay their welcome due to the lack of boss fights or other interesting elements. The level design has beautiful moments, but more material would have been nice.
– Shrinking offers more depth, but not as much as it should. The mechanic lets Alice find hidden platforms, but it’s restricted by invisible walls. Even if Alice should be able to fit anywhere in her shrunken state, she doesn’t always. It’s like Minish Cap, but not executed as well.
– Horrible textures and other graphical inconsistencies. Madness Returns enjoys a great art direction, but Wonderland is marred by hideous textures. Some areas look unquestionably beautiful, while others are bland and ugly. The Mad Hatter’s domain in particular suffers.
Alice: Madness Returns is flawed, but not broken. It’s still playable and fun, but it’s obvious that some areas would have benefitted from more fine-tuning. The bizarre narrative and imaginative world are the biggest draws to the experience, and the game is still worthwhile for fans of dark fantasy. As an action/platformer, it isn’t anything special.