Alice: Madness Returns – Review
“A proper guest never overstays her welcome,” croons the Red Queen as you jump from one platform to another for what seems like the millionth time; Perhaps Spicy Horse, American Mcgee’s Chinese development house, could have taken that advice for themselves.
Alice: Madness Returns is the sequel to American Mcgee’s Alice, a cult hit from a bygone era, and since Madness Returns comes with a copy of the first game on it I decided to play through it, wanting to see everything the series had to offer. At least that was my mindset going into the first game. It wasn’t long before that mindset became a morbid curiosity to see just how bad it could get, which eventually turned into a dogged determination to see the damn thing through, no matter how bad it was. Needless to say, the game hasn’t aged well. Madness Returns is its mother’s daughter in many respects; a game whose artistic vision shines through technical faults, but in the end leaves you a bit disappointed in the wasted potential.
In theory, Madness Returns picks up where American Mcgee’s Alice left off: Alice Liddell has survived a house fire that killed the rest of her family. She goes insane and wanders around a twisted wonderland; meanwhile in the real world, she is catatonic in an asylum bed. After defeating the Red Queen (a manifestation of her guilt) she restores peace to Wonderland and regains enough sanity to get out of bed and do stuff, and that’s just what she does. In Madness Returns, you’ll spend some time between each chapter in the gritty, Victorian streets of the real world, where Alice lives under the care of the condescending Dr. Bumby.
That’s the plot in theory. In actuality, there’s no telling what’s going on in this game. The story plays with reality and delusion so much that any or all of the events of either game could be completely fabricated in Alice’s mind. The dialogue doesn’t help much, as it ranges from the cryptic and pseudo-philosophical to the completely nonsensical. Of course this is all part of the charm, but it can get frustrating if you’re lo0king for something more than just a vague swipe at a story. Basically, don’t go into Madness Returns thinking you’ll leave with a clear understanding of what happened. Whether this confusion is the intention of the developer or not, it certainly fits the game’s style.
One of the game’s high points is its voice acting. The Cheshire Cat and Alice, both voice actors making a return from American Mcgee’s Alice, are particularly good. Unfortunately, like most everything about Madness Returns, there are exceptions. For example, the Cheshire Cat randomly repeats many of the things he said in the first Alice game verbatim with absolutely no context throughout the entire game. The reason for this is anyone’s guess, as the game would have only been made better with more original dialogue from the Cat, and the recycled lines only make the game look lazy. My only guess is that they had the old sound bites laying around and figured, “Why not throw these in there? It’ll make as much sense as anything else in this game.” As far as the music goes, it ranges from non-offensive to downright boring; none of it really stands out at all.
As for the gameplay, it isn’t bad. The majority of your time will be spent jumping from platform to platform, scouring the landscape for the various collectibles in the game. For the most part you’ll be collecting teeth, which are scattered across the landscape like some kind of macabre Banjo-Kazooie, and using them to upgrade your weapons. Also scattered around the world are fragments of Alice’s broken memories, taking the form of tiny audio snippets that illuminate some of Alice’s past; as well as bottles, which serve little purpose other than to give you something else to collect.
The platforming itself is actually quite good. You’re given a very floaty triple-jump right from the get go, as well as the option to hold the jump button down to perform an actual floating maneuver. It fits the character of Alice much better than the chunky jumping of the first game and makes her seem very graceful and light. Unfortunately, the game heavily relies on platforming to show you all of its pretty art, and while the art is quite pretty, it can get very monotonous jumping from one pretty thing to another for hours.
After you’ve jumped around for a while, you’ll come to a platform that anyone who’s played a video game ever will recognize as a “combat platform.” As you may have guessed, combat happens here. The combat is standard fare for a 3rd-person action game. You’ll be locking onto targets and attacking them with either your vorpal blade (light attack), hobby horse (heavy attack), pepper grinder (light ranged), or the teapot bomb (heavy ranged). Every enemy has a certain pattern to it, and you’ll need to learn what weapon to use against which enemy and when if you’re going to kick ass up and down in Wonderland. The camera becomes a problem at times, and it can be difficult switching targets on the fly, but it never became so much of a problem that it hindered my progress through the game.
Aside from the platforming and shooting, there are puzzles to solve and level specific mini-games to play. The puzzles are nothing too heady; some simple tile sliders and a few weight puzzles. The mini-games are a nice break from the monotony, but are pretty weak for the most part.
But you haven’t come to Madness Returns for gameplay or story. You’ve come for the art, and Madness Returns has got you covered. You’ll spend the game floating around 6 fantastic landscapes, from mushroom forests to industrial teapot steampunk factories to a warped doll graveyard (prepare for nightmare fuel), and every inch of these landscapes are jam-packed with interesting things to look at. No one can deny that this game oozes with style and artistic creativity.
Unfortunately, the things that you actually interact with are much more monotonous than the things left in your path to oogle at. Another problem is consistency. Look in one area and you’ll see a beautifully textured piece of the landscape; look in another and you’ll see a lazy, outdated texture of lava or the floor of a pit. The poorly done visuals can be distracting, especially since they are usually right next to something that looks amazing. The graphics also suffer from glitches, screen tearing being the chief among them. Alice also has some really weird hair.
Madness Returns is a strange game to review. At its best, it’s breathtakingly creative and stylish. At its worst, it’s still only marginally worse than the average third person action game. That said, it’s definitely worth your time and money, if only to experience the best that it has to offer, and is a must play for anyone with a taste for the twisted.