Taking a very long trip through the Looking Glass
Even with huge AAA titles like Infamous 2 and Mortal Kombat, I thought of no other game the most and the one I was going to own no matter what was Alice: Madness Returns. Having not played the original, that still didn't stop me from checking out every screenshot and video released. With some old-school platforming, a beautiful art design and creative use of the Alice in Wonderland license, my own personal expectations are high. So maybe it's because of this the game hit several sour notes, leaving me a bit sad. There is one central problem with this game and it's an odd complaint given how much people whine about the short length of games lately but Alice is just too long for its own good.
Taking place after the events of the original game, we find Alice Liddell has been released from the Rutledge Asylum and now lives in an orphanage overseen by Dr. Bumby. Still haunted by the death of her family in a house fire, Alice enters the world of Wonderland which is going through some terrible transformations, the least of which is the Infernal Train trying to destroy the whole of Wonderland. With help from the Cheshire Cat, some recognizable faces and the always-dependable Vorpal Blade, Alice journeys to various imaginative locales as she tries to put a stop to the train and gain back the memory of what happened to her parents.
I'm going to get this out of the way: Alice Madness Returns is an incredibly beautiful game and from an art design standpoint, there's so many environments that are really stellar in their look. From a creative use of a more oriental flavor, buildings and bridges made entirely out of playing cards and the very last environment you see, there's no mistaking Alice looks great. That is until you realize "oh yeah, this is Unreal Engine 3, isn't it? So I'm going to see way more texture pop-in then I'd like?" You betcha. It's incredibly noticeable so while you're admiring the design of Alice's dresses, the environments, the weird looking enemies or that remarkable hair tech, you'll notice textures popping in all over the place. Granted this isn't a well-known studio but it's still unfortunate.
Alice's controls are very basic: she can triple jump (!) in mid-air which can turn into a glide to cover long distances, shrink down to see hidden passageways, show invisible platforms or duck under low obstacles and dodge out of the way, complete with a nice flourish of butterflies. In combat, Alice has 5 main weapons at her disposal: the quick Vorpal Blade, the heavy-but-slower Hobby Horse, the machine gun-like Pepper Grinder, a decoy Clockwork Bomb and the long-distance Teapot Cannon. What makes Alice's combat way better than the original and a lot more engaging is that enemies require specific strategies to take down. Some require their own attacks reflected back at them with Alice's umbrella, to dodge and attack them from behind or struck while they're on the ground. Unfortunately the camera can't quite keep up and it's a bit too sluggish to turn and since the AI is kind of relentless, getting a good sense of where everybody is can be a hassle.
The game does also add some weird sequences to break up the monotony which can include sliding down a narrow path avoiding fire ashes, using a doll head to maneuver around a weird obstacle course, or my personal favorite: a 2D platformer with some gorgeous artwork. In fact, if it was more fleshed out, I actually would buy an Arcade version of that alone. However, the repetition sets in and pretty soon you'll be yet doing another sliding block puzzle and going down another slide and it's here where Alice stumbles. This is ultimately the kind of game you do in stages and don't "marathon" it as much which is too bad because the world and creativity's there, but the game feels stretched.
Even with all these complaints, I still think it's quite a good game and I'm betting if Spicy Horse ever made an Alice 3, that they can learn from this game and make a hugely improved game. But as it is, it's a game with some fun gameplay but there's too much of it. A game with a glorious look to it when textures don't suddenly pop in. One of these days I'm sure I'll do another playthrough but not for awhile. Also, it's not necessary but for 160 MS points or so, you unlock 6 additional dresses and a stronger form of Alice's weapons. These can range from being able to constantly go into Hysteria (a type of Rage mode) or have health regeneration or being able to have Shrink sense on permanently. It'll make any playthrough a lot more easier and unlike Shadows of the Damned, this does has a New Game+ so like I said, it's not necessary but it sure does help.
Note: the console versions are bundled with a code to download the original American McGee's Alice which you sadly have to launch through this game's main menu as it is not listed separately in your game library. I'll do a review of that game at a later date.