American McGee is a name some gamers recognize, but most don’t know exactly who he is. Initially, he was known as that guy who created Alice, but in fairness he worked on a few other large titles in his stint at id Software including Doom, Hexen and Quake. The original Alice is still heralded as a cult classic if for nothing more than its twisted take on these childhood characters. Now, over ten years later, we return to the twisted mind of Alice and her Wonderland. On the surface, this is just another action platformer, but what makes it truly special are the environments and characters, as you traverse this demented Wonderland.
This is not the Alice we grew up with or remember. This is a seriously disturbed girl. Ten years after ,escaping her insanity by defeating the Red Queen, Alice is still struggling to figure out what led to the death of her parents and sister in the fire. Now, living at the Houndsditch Home Orphanage, under care of doctors who continuously urge her to forget the past, Alice once again slips into the mentally unstable world of Wonderland. Throughout the game, you uncover memories as you work to save Wonderland from crashing to the ground. The entire game can be confusing at times and is, at all times, demented, but the production values, voice work and environments are truly the star of the show and more than enough reason to stick with it.
Madness Returns is a straight action platformer that is definitely heavy on the latter. The game is broken down into five chapters, each one exploring a unique aspect of the world. Characters you recognize return, and some are still the way you left them ten years ago. Wonderland is definitely the focal point of the game and serves as the highlight of everything you do. Alice traverses platforms with grace thanks to the spot-on controls, which is good considering how many platforming segments there are. The game is not shy about reusing the mechanics it establishes early. You will spend a large chunk of time jumping from moving platform to moving platform, and often times, to invisible platforms.
You see, Alice has a few tricks up her sleeve as well. Early on in the game you obtain the shrink drink that not only allows you access to other areas, but also a sort of vision that shows you hidden objects and pathways. Think of it like Detective Mode in Batman and you’ll get the idea. Alice also has several jump abilities including a triple jump and a float that make the platforming segments much more manageable. In addition, her dash move can be used in conjunction with jumping and floating giving her plenty of ways to move around the twisted world of Wonderland.
Combat also plays a large role in the game and it is actually done fairly well. It reminds me a lot of the combat in the 3D Zelda games. You can pull the left trigger to focus on targets, which sends the game into a sort of widescreen view. My complaint is that sometimes the camera doesn’t want to cooperate with you, leading to some truly unfair hits from off-screen. Much like the platforming, Alice has plenty of ways to string together moves and combos in combat seamlessly. In the beginning, you start off with only the Vorpal Blade, but as you progress, you unlock new weapons including the Pepper Grinder, which is great for ranged attacks; the Clockwork Bomb, which serves as both a distraction item as well as a weight for some platforming puzzles; the Hobby Horse that serves as your power weapon and, finally, the Teapot Cannon that launches grenade-like projectiles at enemies to round out your arsenal. All are easy and fun to use.
Enemies are also more susceptible to certain weapons, and learning their patterns and weaknesses is part of the fun. One thing Madness Returns does well is to offer up some stellar enemy variety from the standard grunt enemies, to cigar-smoking crabs with cannons and, of course, giant black collections of ooze with baby doll heads attached. This game is about as twisted as they come.
To mix things up, developer Spicy Horse has also thrown some diversion-type segments into the gameplay. There is a 2D segment, a musical button press mini-game and even a horizontal shooter portion. None of them are strikingly fantastic, but they do break up the platforming nicely. I also loved the challenge rooms that reward you with pieces to increase your lifebar. The game throws plenty of varied challenges at you, in addition to being a lengthy adventure already.
If I had to pick apart pieces of the game it would definitely be the tedium that tends to set in after a while. The game has a few tricks and it abuses them frequently. Platforming is the main course, and you will be doing it over and over again with little change-up. Sure, some will argue that this is simply an extension for gameplay, while others will appreciate it. It is a subjective topic, but one that some people will have issue with. The parts that break up this monotony are also not that clever or fun in mass quantities.
Visually, the game is a tormented masterpiece in every respect. Every area of Wonderland is crafted with a unique look and feel. Characters are devious in appearance and some of the landscape is downright twisted. I love it. The voice acting is also top notch, even if some of it was hard to follow due to the British dialect. I felt the need to call on my UK counterpart for some translation on parts of the game. The only drawback is that the game suffers from Unreal Engine texture pop-in, and sometimes areas take a minute before the detail decides to settle in.
Alice: Madness Returns is truly the definition of a sleeper hit. I enjoyed the twisted atmosphere and the solid mechanics. Sure, the tricks the game uses get repeated far too often, but it is easy to overlook when you weigh the value of the entire package. Throw in the fact that you get a free copy of the original game (when you buy new on consoles) and you have a game that is more than worth the price of admission. I recommend that anyone who enjoys action platformers give this game a whirl. That is,of course, as long as you can handle the twisted visions of these childhood characters.
Review copy provided by publisher. Primary play on Xbox 360.