Giant Bomb Review

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Alice: Madness Returns Review

4
  • X360

Like its predecessor, Alice: Madness Returns is a game whose considerable dark artistic visions ease much of the gameplay's burden--but not all of it.

Not everyone, it seems, is happy with Alice's return to Wonderland.

Setting your 3D-platformer-slash-brawler inside the shattered mind of an abused young girl, all within a gothic, dreamlike framework borrowed from the disturbed and narcotic surrealism of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland doesn't jump out as an obvious creative choice, and yet that's exactly what American McGee has done, twice now, and with a fair degree of success. Alice: Madness Returns is a game that deals in equal measures of grotesquerie and whimsy, and while that might not be as novel a notion in 2011 as it was when American McGee's Alice was released nearly 11 years ago, it's still a potent combination with the right imagination.

With a modestly dusted-up version of American McGee's Alice included alongside Madness Returns, it's that much easier to make the direct comparison between the two, and that much more apparent how much more playable Madness Returns is, regardless of era. The gameplay, however, is still a means to an aesthetic end for American McGee and his Spicy Horse studio. Even more vivid, corrupted imagery and dark ominous tones are sifted out of the internal monologue of a person clinging desperately to their sanity, and while the player's involvement often supports the antagonistic puzzlebox of a mind gone mad, the game spreads its tricks a little thin, leaving the player ready to move on before the game itself is.

The Red Queen's domain is as sinister as ever.

Though the Red Queen is gone, there's a new menace in Alice's Wonderland. Now a teenager, and under the care of a seemingly misguided pychiatrist, Alice Liddell returns to an even more twisted version of her private retreat, now under the rule of an unrelenting train being operated by an unknown force. As she delves deeper into her own addled psyche, Alice reunites with many familiar--albeit disfigured and mad as ever--faces, including the Hatter, the Rabbit, the Caterpillar, even the Red Queen herself, as well as the helpful-yet-ever-cryptic Cheshire Cat, while also fighting to uncover the truth behind the fire that took her family from her. It's a tale as grim as it is Grimm, and while its pontificating on the fragility of the mind and the stories we tell ourselves to avoid the stickier truths can have an arm-chair navel-gazing quality at times, it works because it takes its subject matter so seriously.

Considering the wretched state of Alice's fractured mind, it stands to reason that its geography would be equally scattered and mazelike, guarded by menagerie of disturbing visions. That notion informs the overall structure of the gameplay in Madness Returns, which, much like its predecessor, splits its time between tricky platform puzzles and combat sequences. Putting Alice's ability to double, and triple-jump, as well as perform a gliding maneuver to full use, the platforming often has an airy quality to it, with Alice flittering from one platform suspended in the ether to another.

A little exploration, aided by Alice's ability to shrink down and squeeze through hidden keyholes at the push of a button, can net you extra teeth--the game's currency for weapon upgrades--as well as health-replenishing roses, and collectibles like slivers of Alice's own memory. While Alice's mobility is limited in her diminutive form, she's also able to see hidden paths, which contributes to the game's puzzle-solving that often revolves around flipping switches and activating floor panels with specific timing.

Brute force isn't enough--Alice needs to be smart about how she faces each foe.

The weightlessness of the game's platforming is countered by the brutal impact of the combat. Alice, initially armed with her trusty vorpal blade, and eventually aided by a harder-hitting hobby horse, as well as a pepper grinder and a teapot that serve as ranged weapons, has to use all of her abilities in battle to survive the large groups of varied enemies she must face. Madness Returns tends to be generous with the checkpointing when you're platforming, usually only rolling you back a misguided leap or two, but the combat demands sharp reflexes and a good understanding of which enemies pose the most immediate threat, as well as the best way to exploit the specific weaknesses of each.

The lock-on targeting feels snappy, you're never in danger of accidentally fighting your way right off the edge of a precarious platform, and if you're paying attention, the game is good about providing little cues to let you know if you're actually making a dent. That said, there's a certain sluggishness when trying to switch from one weapon to another, one that's compounded once you have to start using the D-pad to toggle between your two ranged weapons.

Each of the domains visited in Alice's Wonderland has a very specific visual style, and without exception, they are singular and stunning. The Hatter's domain combines the crockery of a mad tea party and the bleak, polluted, monolithic arcitecture of industrial London, while Alice's quest to find the Caterpillar takes her to a misty mountaintop realm where origami ant-people are marauded by samurai wasps--a clear departure of Carroll's original vision, no doubt, but one that's rendered with incredible detail regardless.

While nebulous foes of corrupting black tar and neglected doll parts pursue Alice throughout the game, the enemies specific to each domain feel as at home in these places as young Alice and her ever-changing wardrobe feels out of sorts. For me, Madness Returns is at its best when Alice's sooty reality rubs up against the toadstools and fairytales of Wonderland, something the game wrings for good dramatic effect. This is a game of texture, even when the textures themselves can be muddy at times.

Her challenges are significant, but Alice is far from helpless.

The game deviates from its prime gameplay tenets on occasion, presenting the player with sliding puzzles, treacherous downhill slides, and, gratefully, entirely optional rhythm minigames. The quality of these elements is noticeably variable, and the game has rough edges both literal and figurative, with the occasional Unreal texture pop and dramatic moments interrupted by load times, but the biggest fundamental problem with Madness Returns is that it lingers a little too long in each of its areas.

As striking as the visuals are, with a moody score that matches its pitch-black pitch perfectly, I always felt like I was ready to move on to the next domain, and some new treats for the senses, well before the game deemed it so. This isn't to say that the quality of the gameplay degrades over time, but rather, that the production quality stokes the player's impatiences for some sense of progress beyond making it to the next bit of platforming or combat sequence. This pacing also has the effect of presenting you with huge tracts where the game's story doesn't really move forward, exacerbating the issue.

Carving a few hours out of the game's fifteen-or-so hours of runtime would've alleviated Alice's only real negative indulgence, but even as it stands, Madness Returns is an engaging slice of dark fantasy, one that reaffirms American McGee's command of both the unhinged and the fantastical.

90 Comments
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Edited by BonOrbitz

Better review than I initially thought!

Posted by FlamingHobo

Looks like I've got another game to add to my 'Must Buy' list for 2011. Too many good games are coming out this year, my wallet is screaming for a break!

Posted by Animasta

after that QL it was pretty clear what score this would get, this game isn't for me but I respect your decision

Posted by buzz_killington

The game looks absolutely beautiful (visually). I plan to get it as soon as I'm done with exams and such.

Posted by Jackhole

Well that's good to hear.

Edited by isles

Can't wait until I can afford to buy this game!

Edited by thornie_delete

Surprisingly high score, then again, how can any game made by someone named "American" be bad?

American McGee, the Tyler Perry of video games.

Posted by themartyr

Any idea why they had to remove the 'American McGee's' bit from the name?

Posted by benjaebe

Hey, good to see Ryan give the game a good score. I'm loving what I've played so far.

Edited by rmanthorp

Thats more than I was expecting :D

Moderator
Posted by RobotHamster

Better then I thought it would be.

Posted by mnzy

Better than most reviews out there.

Posted by Winsord

Glad the revitalization of this series went significantly better than Duke.

Posted by Grissefar

That seems generous, having only watched the HH, QL and some other reviews.

Posted by Sn1PeR

I would love to pick this game up, but it's not on Steam and I absolutely refuse to buy it on Origin.  That coupled with a heavy reliance on PhysX makes this game a pass in my book.

Posted by ChrisTaran

Very excited to pick this up once it gets a price drop! Game looks amazing! Great review Ryan.

Posted by CosmicQueso

@Sn1PeR said:

I would love to pick this game up, but it's not on Steam and I absolutely refuse to buy it on Origin. That coupled with a heavy reliance on PhysX makes this game a pass in my book.

Origin ain't that bad at all (much less invasive than Steam IMO) and the PhysX effects look pretty great. But hey, take your stand! FIGHT THE MAN! YEAH!

Posted by Vorbis

Great to see a positive review, feel some others had been unfairly harsh, calling 3D platformers out of date for example. Not finished it yet but really enjoying it so far.

Edited by spiralsin

Finally, a reviewer that "gets" this game. I had the impression that Ryan felt positive about it during the Quick Look. Well written and best of all, a fair review.

Posted by ChickenPants
@themartyr said:
Any idea why they had to remove the 'American McGee's' bit from the name?
It still has his name in the tagline. I think I remember him saying that he didn't like having his name in front of the game because it took attention away from the rest of the team.
Posted by Ghost_of_Perdition

I was already convinced by the QL. Should be here Friday.

Posted by onimonkii

nice review. ql of the game was kind of boring to me though, so still unsure.

Posted by Spookie

Incredibly generous considering the terrible combat camera and generally generic gameplay.

Posted by Jost1

That does it, I'm buying this TOMORROW.

Posted by KaosAngel

Bull crap, you telling me this bitch is better than the Duke?!

Edited by spiralsin
@ChickenPants said:

@themartyr said:

Any idea why they had to remove the 'American McGee's' bit from the name?

It still has his name in the tagline. I think I remember him saying that he didn't like having his name in front of the game because it took attention away from the rest of the team. 
 
This is true. In an interview, he admitted that it was EA's decision to put his name on the box. Their reasoning was a dark, twisted Alice in Wonderland game would not have much appeal on its own, so they slapped his name on the box for marketing purposes. I bought the game back then for it's content and art style. I didn't care who's name was on it. Shows what EA knows.
Posted by Jasta
Posted by RampageAssassin

Was waiting for this review. I'll probably pick it up tomorrow along with Child of Eden. Thanks Ryan !

Posted by thornie_delete

@Sn1PeR: Game is also available on "Games for Windows". Which is usually my number one choice any way (for 360 gamer-score reasons obviously).

Posted by Vexxan

That settles it, I'm ordering this game right now.

Posted by BadNews

Good review. Been seeing a lot of bad reviews to mediocre... Or more so bad scores with good reviews. Lots of praise minimal complaints then a score of 6. It's times like these I appreciate knowing the reviewers personalities to help me form my own opinion based on reviews. That said I think ryan is the reviewer I most have in common with.

Posted by PollySMPS

Loving this game quite a bit.  The combat is rewarding and the platforming is pretty solid and pretty challenging at times.  There are more than a few rough spots where things either get a tad tedious or checkpoints make me scratch my head, but my love of the world itself keeps me going. 
Posted by lordofultima

I get an oldschool vibe from this game, which is great. There isn't a normal 3rd person action/adventure/platformer anymore...such a shame.

Posted by metalsnakezero

I wasn't expecting a 4 but hey, I'm sold.

Posted by Pop

I wasn't expecting Ryan to like it this much, I decided to buy it yesterday and having a lot of fun with it, I thought the platforming would be annoying but nope they feel good and the combat is also good, I really like the mood it sets, when she's in the real world at the start everybody look like caricatures except her which looked weird to me, I wonder why they made this decision, maybe I'll find out after I finish it.

Posted by Winternet

Man, after watching that QL I knew Ryan would give it 4 stars. Why didn't I cancel that 3 star bet?

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Posted by Jeffk38uk

A little surprised at the high review given how the rest of the gaming reviewing community has responded, but ultimately its one opinion against another. Seeing the quick look I am definitely going to play this. 
 
Makes you wonder what American McGee would do next. Will he finally get round to doing his old idea of American McGee's OZ?

Posted by Cold_Wolven

This game is great so far but man do the worlds go on for a long time. Two and a half hours just to beat the first chapter and the second is taking almost 2 hours so far but then again I'm trying to explore ever nook and cranny for memories. bottles and teeth.

Posted by Ascardon

Quick look was very enjoyable.Alice madness returns is a game of seeing things wich isn't there at the start,you have to look around and actually feel for yourself how it is.Not every reviewer has the time,or patience to do this.Giant bomb has,wich give credit where credit is due,great effort.The review resemble what this is all about.Got a good vibe of the quick look so this will likely be dropping in my mail box sometime next week.

Edited by beard_of_zeus

Really enjoyed your review, Ryan. Well-written, and from what I have played of the game so far (I'm about halfway through, at the moment), I pretty much agree on all your points, both positive and negative.

Definitely agree that the biggest downfall of the game is that each chapter/area is just a little too long; I've been averaging about 3 hours per chapter (of which there are 6 total, it seems like). If they wanted to keep the game the same length, it would have been nice to see more varied areas, but just making each one shorter, or at least add some more tricks to break up the rest of the gameplay.

The macabre, twisted setting/theme and the combat are my favorite parts of the game, and the main reason to play this game, methinks.

Posted by alexfase

I'll pick it up later in the week. Nice review.

Edited by SaturdayNightSpecials
Posted by JJWeatherman

I think I could handle a bit of pacing drag in a game this beautiful. I'd like to get around to it eventually. Thanks for the review, Ryan.

Posted by PhanThomas

Will get this on PC soon, because of the PhysX gimmicks, I am a sucker for such things. :)

Posted by avidwriter

I called 4 stars while watching your quick look. I could tell you liked it.

Posted by MEATBALL

Glad to see that it's not just us internet assholes who are crazy and that it's actually possible for a critic to enjoy this game.

Posted by SpanxMcFranks

I was already interested in this game, now I really want to play after reading the review.

Posted by OllyOxenFree

"...as well as perform an gliding maneuver to full use". I'm not sure if you use "an" there.

I have played about 4 hours so far and I completely agree with this review.

Posted by Arrested_Developer

I bought it after watching the quick look.

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