Great Game Marred By Control Issues
When American McGee released Alice back in 2000, the game caused quite a stir in the gaming community. The game was distinctly Alice in Wonderland, but with a gothic horror theme that managed to take a normally delightfully demented world and pervert it into something twisted and morbid. Alice fought to regain her sanity after the tragic deaths of her parents, eventually defeating the Red Queen and Jabberwock and turning Wonderland back into its old twisted ways.
It's been eleven years since American McGee's Alice, and Alice is once again whisked away to Wonderland to deal with her continuing internal conflicts. Despite defeating the red queen and bringing her out of the catatonic state seen in the first game, Alice still battles survivors guilt of having made it out of the house while her parents burned to death. Only in Wonderland can Alice unlock her memories in order to remember the true events that took place that night, and whether or not she was directly responsible for her parent's untimely demise.
The first thing you'll notice about Alice is that the graphics look absolutely stunning. Alice herself utilizes physics that make her hair and dress move with a realistic sway. The themed worlds you'll travel through are distinct in design from an underwater world, to the Mad Hatter's domain, and beyond. The first level you play through is actually the "real world," filled with hideous characters (in a good sense) and dark, dirty roads and back alleys.
Cutscenes are told through movies that look more like you're watching an animated popup book, and are a delight to view (and can be skipped if you decide to play through a second time). The game itself is heavily stylized to each world, from the steampunk environment of the Hatter's domain, to the underwater reefs and fish that populate the Walrus and Carpenter's underwater home.
Most of the characters you remember are back, although even playing through the first Alice will likely not prepare you for their various states of being. The Mad Hatter is back, of course, but this time may be willing to help you if you can help him with his ultimate goal: Making tea time. More prominent characters like the March Hare and White Rabbit appear, with surprising appearances by the Walrus and Carpenter, Duchess, and Mock Turtle, among others. The characters are consistent with their looks in the previous game, with enough changes that you'll still be surprised and disgusted as to how many body parts can be replaced by steampunk machinery.
Alice's odd yet familiar in design weapons are back, with your primary weapon being the vorpal blade. During the game, Alice will also come across weapons like the pepper gun (gattling gun with unlimited ammo that overheats if fired too long), the familiar hobby horse, clockwork bomb, and more. The inventory system has been changed to be more fluid. The vorpal blade is used by pressing the left mouse button, while the pepper gun is controlled with the right. Bombs are laid with Q and your melee weapon is switched by pressing R. Alice also has other weaponry at her disposal, including the ability to shrink or grow at will, in order to seek out hidden areas.
Alice: Madness Returns is one part platforming and one part combat, with a sprinkle of collection mixed in which I'll talk about first. During the game, you will collect teeth that are used to upgrade your weapons. Sprinkled throughout are also pieces of Alice's shattered memories, many of which are in obvious places, but some of which are hidden and must be sought out. You will collect thousands of teeth by the end of the game, but you'll have to decide your weapon of choice early on, because each upgrade requires several hundred teeth. You will also track down and pepper flying pig snouts for the Duchess, who no longer has a taste for little girls.
If American McGee had created a machinima film using everything above, I would have rated it 5 stars. That being said, now we get into the platforming and combat, and thus the problems begin. On the platforming side, Alice moves swiftly and fluidly, for the most part. Alice can perform multiple jumps and glide through the air, although I had a noticeable number of moments where Alice would refuse to glide when needed, or would refuse to jump, resulting in me plummeting to my death. It appears that Spicy Horse was aware of this issue, because death by falling into the endless void causes you to be returned to a previous part of the platform, although your progress is retained. It's as if they are saying "we know our system has flaws, so we won't punish you if they kill you." I also succumbed on more than one occasion to invisible walls.
Dying in combat, however, will send you back to your save point. The combat in Alice is fluid, much more so than the predecessor, but aiming mode has a lot of drawbacks that simply make some sections intolerable. Enemies have a tendency to gang up in large numbers in a relatively small space, exponentially increasing the difficulty to the point of frustration, when you can't get a shot in edgewise with the mixture of ranged and close range enemies taking shots at you. One area I had particular frustration in was being cornered by a teapot and two other creatures, trying to kill the creatures while the close teapot attacked (its attack floors Alice for a short time) while another teapot shot boiling tea at me. Again the targeting system could be less rigid, allowing for simple maneuvers like jumping or a more fluid dodge system.
The dodge and targeting system is great, when it works, and more often than not it tends to not work. When fighting multiple enemies, dodging tends to put you right in the attack path of another creature. Even in one on one fights, I had regular issues with the system not recognizing the direction of my dodge and instead teleporting me directly to the creature I was trying to get away from.
Targeting also has an issue with a lack of functionality. On the PC version, targeting is activated by pressing caps lock by default, and right off the bat often does not lock on to the closest enemy (IE: The one you are fighting) even if it is directly in your path. You can switch targets by pressing tab, but I regularly found this unresponsive. What culminates from this effect is being killed by an enemy I cannot target, because my target is fixated on something far away, the tab button accomplishes nothing, and deactivating and reactivating targeting mode simply puts me back on the far-away object.
For what it's worth, I really enjoyed Alice. The story is great, the characters are fantastically written and crafted, and the story is a mixture of depression and hilarity, like the Hatter's absolute requirement to sit down and have tea at a specific time no matter what is going on around him. The combat, when it works, is fluid and just as much fun to watch as it is to play. If Spicy Horse can get some patches in, Alice will be nearly perfect.
I gave Alice: Madness Returns a 3.5 out of 5, and don't recommend that you jump right into the hardest difficulty like I did. If you haven't figured out by now, this game is not for children. It is rated M for a reason, that being a lot of blood, decapitation, and probably the destruction of one's childhood around the first cutscene when the rabbit starts spewing blood from his head.