Alice: Madness Returns

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Click for availability and more information Alice: Madness Returns, developed by Spicy Horse, published by Electronic Arts
I'm not normally a fan of platformers (too much repetition and too little forgiveness to suit my taste), but when American McGee's Alice debuted 11 years ago, I could tell right away that it was something special; a beautiful, macabre, and deeply atmospheric rendition of Lewis Carroll's classic world and characters that continued Alice's adventures in Wonderland.

In Alice: Madness Returns, the story picks up again in true sequel fashion, and like American McGee's prior installment, this story features an older, darker, more cynical, and somewhat damaged version of Alice Liddell.Alice15.jpg Without giving too much away, in McGee's previous game Alice was the sole survivor of a house fire that claimed her family shortly after the events of Carroll's Through The Looking Glass. The tragedy affected her mind to the extent that she had to be institutionalized, and where that game's events unfolded around Alice's efforts to work through her trauma and free her mind by saving Wonderland from the evil machinations of the Red Queen, in Madness Returns Alice is tasked with preventing the complete destruction of Wonderland in order to uncover the truth behind her past and the fire that killed her family. Needless to say, this game (like the first) contains mature themes and grotesque imagery best suited for adults and earns its "M" rating. Despite the classic and beloved source material, this is not one for the kiddies.

A dress for every occasion:
The game itself is absolutely gorgeous. Developer Spicy Horse really took advantage of the Unreal Engine 3's graphics capabilities. If you're running the PC version, you'll want a hefty video card and plenty of memory to see the game in its full glory, but the game engine does apparently scale down suitably for less powerful configurations. The developers lavished detail on all visual aspects of the game, so much so that you may often find yourself stopping mid-play just to enjoy the scenery. One visual failing however is in regard to screen resolution (though it is unlikely to affect most people); I would have liked to play the game at the full 1920 x 1200 resolution of my screen, but the game only supports resolutions up to 1920 x 1080. Not a big deal, but it seemed like an odd oversight not to allow for larger resolutions.

The game sounds wonderful. The music is suitably haunting, the in-game sound effects are clean and original. The voice-over work is compelling and cinematically professional (although you may want to leave the subtitles on for those occasions when you have trouble deciphering some thick English accents). The only niggling point I had with some of the audio was that it could be hard to hear characters speak at times, though this may have been due to camera and character positioning issues (again, the subtitles will come in handy).

As mentioned, I am normally not a big fan of platform games. The only reason I felt any desire to set my bias aside in this case was because of the game's interesting story, lush environments, and high production values. In those terms I was not disappointed. In regard to actual gameplay, there are a few aspects that set this platformer aside from some others. Alice16.jpgThere's the novelty of the weapons you will use to defeat your foes: the Vorpal Blade, a nasty-looking kitchen knife with which you will slice and dice your way through enemy ranks with frenzied abandon, and which is mostly ubiquitous except for close encounters with armored foes; the slower but more powerful Hobby Horse, used both for smashing through armor and destructible obstacles; the Pepper Grinder, which propels a destructive stream of red-hot spice at your targets from a distance (think "mini-gun", but with pepper instead of bullets); the Teapot Cannon, for launching volleys of scalding-hot tea onto enemies from afar that has both a splash damage radius and the ability to knock down barriers. All four weapons can be upgraded as you progress, those upgrades paid for with "teeth" that you collect along the way (they are the coins, gems, and collectible whatzits of every other platformer you've ever played). One other weapon in Alice's arsenal is the Clockwork Bomb, which can be used to destroy or distract enemies, remove barriers, and weigh down pressure plates.
The stuff dreams are made of. Bad dreams, that is.Alice13.jpg
In addition to the weapons she can use, Alice has a number of defenses at her disposal. One of the most beautiful effects I can recall ever seeing in a game is attached to Alice's "dodge" ability, which essentially lets her teleport a short distance away, disappearing and reappearing again amid a flurry of brightly colored feathers. This was my favorite evasion tactic for the simple reason that it can be used repeatedly with virtually no cool-down. In some boss fights the only hint I could see of Alice herself were constant explosions of feathers and the metallic blur of her Vorpal Blade as she took down the lesser foes around her before moving on to the bigger threats.
Dodge THIS!Alice9.jpg
Alice has an umbrella she can use to deflect attacks back at her attackers, though I found myself using it only for certain types of larger opponents using ranged attacks against me; the fact that it requires more evenly-paced timing and can only be used when Alice is "focused" on a particular enemy makes using it a bit trickier than the dodge ability.
Dodging and deflecting aside, Alice can also "shrink", which is useful for evading some enemies. While shrunk, Alice can see invisible platforms, clues written on walls, and she can travel through previously inaccessible keyholes to pick up bonus items and reach new areas.
And to round out Alice's repertoire, she has the ability to "float". Hitting the "jump" key a second time and holding it while she is in mid-air allows Alice to float for a short duration, good for slowing her descent and gaining some distance to her jumps. And she can jump multiple times while in the air, gaining more altitude for harder-to-reach platforms. Much like her "dodge" effect, Alice's jump and float effects are accompanied by pretty bursts of colored feathers and light.

The gameplay itself consists of jumping across platforms, sliding down ramps, fighting enemies, and collecting teeth and other artifacts. There are levers to pull, timers to beat, puzzles to solve, and pressure plates to manipulate. There actually isn't a bad variety of things to do, but even so, the "jumping and fighting" gameplay still felt too repetitive to me at times. Happily, there are a number of novel mini-games interspersed between the regular gameplay that help to add some more variety to the action, and with the exception of one or two I found them sufficiently entertaining (and challenging) as taken in short doses.
Alice3.jpgAlice also "wakes up" from Wonderland at various points in the game so she can make her way through the drab and dreary real world, gathering clues and moving on to the next part of her quest. All of this, along with the aforementioned eye-candy and some very unique environments, makes for interesting and attractive gameplay (despite the inevitable platformer repetition). I did experience some minor control issues, the saving grace there being that at least I was able to map the controls (PC version) to my own preferences for keyboard and mouse.
We're all a little mad here.Alice10.jpg
But sometimes when jumping or dodging, Alice would move in a direction other than the one I was pointing her in, or in rarer instances some invisible and unintentional barrier would hamper on-screen movements, and at the beginning of some levels Alice would begin moving on her own in some direction until I actually hit that direction key to stop her. Perusing online forums verified these as bugs, most likely due to a sloppier process of porting the game from console to PC. But they weren't game-killers for me, just extra hurdles that provided the occasional bits of frustration. Regardless of whatever platform you may play it on however I would highly recommend checking online if you run into any problems as there may be fixes, workarounds or software patches available. The save-game system is automatic, and liberal enough that you'll never have to repeat your trek too far before re-encountering the last challenge that prompted the re-load.

Alice: Madness Returns is a fun and affecting game with some interesting twists on Carroll's original world and characters. A few minor gameplay and coding quibbles aside, I would recommend it to anyone looking to immerse themselves in an experience that is both grown-up and fantastical.
The Cheshire CatHere kitty kitty kitty...

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This page contains a single entry published on September 6, 2011 5:39 PM.

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