After a long journey in Wonderland, I can safely say that the whole place is really fucked up. Nothing ever seems normal and every one of nature’s abominations is always trying to kill you. Wonderland may not be the safest place to live but it sure is a damn fine setting for Alice: Madness Returns.
Alice has been away from Wonderland for a while. The last time she took a visit was back in 2000 for American McGee’s Alice (and HD version comes with all new copies of the game), a game with a cult following and gained demand for a sequel. Alice’s troubled past of her dead family and burnt house has been distressing her as of late and, in turn, corrupting her mental dreamscape, Wonderland. The Infernal Train is also making a path of destruction throughout Wonderland, causing even more headaches and if Wonderland bites the dust, so does Alice. As if that wasn’t enough, Alice needs answers of who burned the house down and needs to save Wonderland at the same time. The premise is unique enough to be intriguing for the duration of the game with revelations happening every so often to keep you tuned in. Not only is Alice in physical trouble with tormented souls trying to murder her, but her mental state is also steadily decreasing. Her insanity from the normal world bleeds into Wonderland and makes for awesome, twisted visuals in both dimensions, with a few definite highlights in the latter half of the game.
Peculiar faces inhabit this peculiar place as well. You’ll recognize the cryptic Chersire Cat, the chain smoking caterpillar, the ludicrous Mad Hatter, and a couple other odd creatures in just about every world. Alice included, I liked seeing and interacting with all of these things and generally helped my enjoyment of the story.
The only quibble I have with the story isn’t really the story itself, but a technical aspect of it. Two dimensional cutscenes tell stories in between chapters and the audio isn’t mixed together very well. Music blares over the dialogue and, since I hate subtitles, I almost could not hear anything of importance.
On paper, the combat doesn’t sound very enjoyable. There are two melee weapons (the Vorpal Blade and Hobby Horse) and two ranged weapons (the Teapot Cannon and Pepper Grinder) and the melee weapons don’t have any complex combos, only mashing the appropriate button. Sounds shallow? Well it is, but combat has a different sense of excitement, one that is not focused on fifty hit combos. Enemy encounters have a semi-puzzle element to them, meaning it’s not how hard you take out the opponents, but managing who to take out first. Prioritizing threats is essential to being successful in combat because it is easy to become overwhelmed and dead. There are plenty of different and creative enemies to take out and you’ll find strategies on who to kill first and how to deal with the combinations of enemy types they throw at you. While it would have been great to have a deeper combat system and better checkpoints (some of which are brutal in today’s standards), what is here is sufficient.
Between bouts of stabbing, platforming pops in. This is way more of a platformer than I would have guessed, with triple jumping and floating making up a good chunk of gameplay. Air vents, jumpy platforms, invisible platforms, and just about every other sort of platform help navigation from one floating piece of geometry to the next. Controls are tight and responsive keeping these parts from feeling like a chore. Maybe another reason why it doesn’t feel stressful is because there isn’t a penalty for falling into the endless abyss below. Similar to Prince of Persia 2008, falling just results in a quick reset to the nearest platform and doesn’t even feel like a slap on the wrists. I actually enjoyed this sort of no-punishment platforming because it keeps the pace of the game from stumbling and keeps the overall game from being frustrating.
If there’s anything bad to say about the platforming, it’s that it doesn’t really change from beginning to end. Level layouts are simple enough. There are usually some platforms, an air vent to boost you, and some sort of switch to hit to keep it going. This cycle repeats a lot in this long game, but at least every level is unique enough to at least throw different coats of paint on each air vent and platform.
Wonderland is my favorite character within the whole game because it is maniacally gorgeous. While technically impressive as well (even with textures popping in frequently), the grotesque art that Wonderland consists of easily steals the show. Every environment is stunning and genuinely creative so much so that I always spent the first few minutes in each chapter admiring the landscape. In between the six worlds, all of the environments ooze sheer imagination with the Queen’s crooked castle being my personal favorite. You need to just see the game for yourself as the art carries this title a long way.
These levels may be unique but they do go on for quite some time. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the places I was catapulted to, but each level goes on for hours upon hours and feeling like they were dragged out. The oriental level took me about four hours alone so by the end, while cool, I just wanted to see what else was around the corner, rather than spend more time in that specific realm. Shorter chapters would have been a benefit to the title because looking at the same background, no matter how cool, can cause fatigue.
A neat little touch to Alice is that her outfits change to correspond with each stage. The underwater level gives her a mermaid-like dress, while the Queen’s palace has a deck of cards-like outfit. Even the hair physics are amazing as strands wave and flow realistically with the wind and her movement. These are small touches but they capture the essence of Alice’s femininity and are just overall cool details.
Alice: Madness Returns must be a hard sell. Selling a long, action-platformer sequel to an already cult game probably won’t attract the typical mainstream crowd. It’s okay because I’m glad this risk was taken to create such a beautiful game. Alice: Madness Returns is different enough in the right ways to deserve a purchase or rent to just about every gamer willing to try something new. So pick up the controller and jump down the rabbit hole for this powerful, if demented, art house.
+Impressive hair physics
+Wonderful art style
+Beautiful, inventive levels
+Combat is quick and demands strategy
-Levels are far too long
-Textures pop-in frequently
Final Score: 8/10