Alice: Madness Returns Review
It's been eleven years since American McGee unleashed his twisted take on Lewis Carrol's classic children's tale. Now, McGee and his crew at Spicy Horse have invited us back for another tea party in Alice: Madness Returns. And while his unique brand of storytelling and artistic vision shine throughout, there are a few bad oysters on the table that keep this sequel from being a feast fit for cabbages and kings.
A Good Worker....
Madness Returns continues the morbid, yet intriguing tale of Alice Lidell's life after the events of 'Adventures in Wonderland' and 'Through The Looking Glass'. Now free from the confines of Rutledge Asylum, Alice lives out a humdrum existence at the Houndsditch Home for Wayward Youth, still bothered by the memories of the house fire that killed her family, and desperate for the truth about the events that led to that fateful night. What was originally an errand for medication suddenly becomes another fight for survival, as Alice is once again summoned to Wonderland to help defeat a new and terrible evil that threatens to destroy them all.
And what a Wonderland it is. I have always found McGee's whimsical, yet dark aesthetic to be quite enjoyable, and he certainly did not disappoint me. The environments, atmosphere, and character design are absolutely breathtaking. Much like the original, each of Wonderland's worlds are ripe with personality and pleasing to the eye. From beautiful blue skies, to undersea kingdoms, to foreboding ruins, the game offers up one visual feast after another, with a bit of the macabre throw in for extra flavor. In between your trips to Wonderland are jaunts through late 1800's London. Standing in stark contrast to the unpredictable fantasy world you explore, London's streets are muted, grimy, and populated with a motley assortment of store owners, shoppers, vagrants, sailors, and prostitutes.
Alice, herself, has also received quite the makeover since her days on the Quake 3 engine. Her awkward style of movement in the original has been replaced with a more graceful array of animations. Now, Alice jumps, twirls, floats, and fights like a pro. The realistic cloth and hair animations she has are also a nice touch, as are the different styles of dresses she is outfitted with during each level (and more that can be purchased as DLC). The supporting cast and enemies are no slouch, either. The baddies you fight run the gamut from wacky to creepy, and the denizens of London are portrayed in an amusingly exaggerated style.
Backing up the visuals are an appropriately moody soundtrack from Jason Tai, Marshall Crutcher and Chris Vrenna, some decent vocal work from the cast, and a story that's even more compelling (and twisted) than the one found in the original. Spicy Horse certainly wasn't afraid to take Alice into some rather dark and uncomfortable places this time around, and I feel that the end product is better for it in that regard. For the completionist, there's plenty of hidden collectibles to be found, with the most useful being the various memories that are scattered about. These memories help to further develop the characters and their back stories.
A Bad Worker....
While I feel that Madness Returns, as a visual and storytelling experience, is fantastic, I also feel that it falls a bit short as a game. This is due in part to some redundant level design, and a couple of annoying bugs.
Normally, I would consider an action/adventure game that lasts fifteen to twenty hours on your first play through something to be happy about. However, for some reason, Spicy Horse felt it necessary to pad out each level with nearly identical platforming segments and puzzles. It was tolerable at first. I mean, let's face it: just about every game out there has a bit of repetition to it. But after having to hop on yet another pointless slip 'n slide to bring me to yet another two hours of awkward platforming to another easy block puzzle to another stupid mini-game.......it just got to be too much after a while. And that's sad, because the story is so compelling. It just begins to feel like a chore to get from one plot point to the next. And that's never a good thing, as it totally breaks the pacing of the narrative. You know what else isn't a good thing? Removing the ability to grab onto ledges. Alice did it in the original, so it's omission here is rather questionable.
At least the annoying level repetition is balanced out by some solid combat. Here, Spicy Horse takes a page out of Zelda's playbook, and for the most part, it works. You can lock onto enemies, dodge, and fight back with unique takes on the standard adventurer's arsenal. Your enemies aren't always a challenge, but they'll still overwhelm you if you get too careless. However, there are some bugs here that can rear their ugly heads during the most inopportune moments. Some are tolerable, such as getting stuck in the floor for a brief time. Others, such as being unable to move or attack after performing a combo or removing lock-on, are damn near game breaking. Granted, you might not encounter any of these bugs. But I did, and it negatively impacted my experiences.
VERDICT3.5 out of 5 stars
While I wasn't impressed with Alice: Madness Returns as a game, I still found it's narrative, characters, and atmosphere quite enjoyable. And regardless of my experiences, I would still recommend this game to anyone who enjoys the genre. And, lest I forget, every new copy of Alice: Madness Returns will also come with a free download* of American McGee's Alice. That's two games for the price of one, folks. There's certainly nothing wrong with that!
(*via registration of Online Pass. Game can also be purchased for $10 or 800 MSP on the Playstation Network or Xbox Live Marketplace. Madness Returns disc required to access American McGee's Alice. Retail copies of the PC version do not include the original. However, you can still get both games via The Complete Collection on EA's Origin service)