In the year 2000, American McGee’s Alice took the story of Alice in Wonderland and turned it on it’s already twisted head. As a sequel of sorts to the books, the game opens with an accidental fire destroying Alice’s home in Victorian London, in which her parents and sister die. Alice then attempts to commit suicide (due to survivor’s guilt) and is committed to Rutledge Asylum. While there, her shattered psyche has her (and players) revisiting the Wonderland of her childhood, now decayed under the rule of the Queen of Hearts. By the game’s end, she destroys the Queen (who some believe to be a manifestation of her own insanity) and restores Wonderland to its original charm and glory, and is declared stable (or stable enough) to leave the asylum.
Perhaps that wasn’t for the best, however. In [[[Alice: Madness Returns]]] (out now on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360), it’s eleven years since Alice left Rutledge (and, ironically, eleven years after the original game). Alice is living with and being cared for by a child psychiatrist in London (as his oldest patient), and the death of her family continues to stalk her. Her madness has manifested again, and now she finds herself returning to Wonderland – albeit the Wonderland that we now know to be imagined – in order to restore order to its now-recurring chaos. This time, though, there’s an bigger question fueling her madness: was the fire that caused it all accidental?
The game divides its time between two settings: Victorian London, with its bleak, muted color palette, and the visual mind-bender that is Wonderland. Take Tim Burton, throw him in a blender with Dali and Picasso, and add a dash of steroids and heroin, and you’ll have a rough approximation of the visuals here. The settings are stunning, from the steampunk-esque Hatter stage, to the underwater follies of the carpenter and the Walrus, to the card bridge and the Queensworld…it’s all, well, fairly crazy actually. The animation is also fluid, as Alice jumps, twirls and floats through demonic paranoias and her own destroyed psyche, made visual in Wonderland. She can even shrink in size to pass through keyholes, which also gives her a new perspective on the layout of a level, revealing hidden clues as to where to go next, or thing she just couldn’t see at normal size.
At it’s heart, Madness Returns is a platformer, but there’s a heavy bent on action. Alice has many weapons at her disposal to use against the negative densiens of her mind. At first, black slime with babydoll faces known as “ruins” populate the land, and Alice can dispatch them with her trusty Vorpal Blade (which goes Snicker-Snack!) or a Pepper Grinder (basically a hand-cranked machine gun). Later she gains a Hobby Horse, which she uses as a melee club to bash and smash. All of these weapons flow effectively into one another for combos, and when combined with the dodge move, become invaluable in escaping hasty death from an onslaught of enemies. After traversing some areas, the foes become more familiar, namely the Card Guards, only now more…demon-esque.
As a platformer, there’s also a good amount of gathering collectibles, and each one has it’s own use. Scattered throughout the land are memories, which piece together the story for Alice (and the player). There are also teeth, which Alice gathers from fallen foes or smashable objects, and are used as currency in the game to upgrade weapons. It all seems like typical fare for an action platformer, but teh setting and storyline are really what set this one apart. There’s some truly messed-up things here, and the game really pushes the M rating.
If there were one complaint to make towards the game, it’s more about the little hiccups you encounter during gameplay. Sometimes, Alice will get hung up on an invisible wall or something in the floor, usually after releasing the “shrink” button on the controller. It’s a minor setback, but when the animation is usualy so fluid, getting held up in a graphical glitch can take one out of the moment. Also, the level layout is preposterously long. One chapter can have several individual sections, feeling like their own levels, but are really part of the chapter istelf. Sometimes this works to move the story along, and sometimes it gives the player the feeling of the developers trying to drag out the length of the game. Alice herself even comments on this, in a manor, when asked repeatedly by various characters in the game to do tasks for her, acting as though the level would be much shorter had they simply done teh task themselves. But then, it wouldn’t be a game then, would it?
While it isn’t a perfect game, it is certainly a fun one, and visually, one that will take hold of you, with it’s abstract settings and newspaper cut-out style cut scenes. It’s all very stylized and slick. As an added bonus, the original American McGee’s Alice is included on the disc (unlockable by download on an online pass included with new copies of the game). Playing through it is definitely a treat to those not familiar with the original, though I will say, it hasn’t held up well over time.
If you’re looking for solid action, decent platforming and puzzles, and a intriguing storyline, you needn’t look much further than here. While it may seems a bit unfair at times with the number of enemies beset upon you, the story is one certainly worth going through, and the adventure is truly a fascinating one. Horiffic though it may be for our heroine.
Rating (based on a scale of BUY IT, RENT IT, SKIP IT):