Way back in 2000 there was a game called American McGee's Alice released for PC. It was one of those titles that flew under the radar of most people, but at the same time managed to garner quite a cult following over the years. American McGee's warped and wicked view of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland now makes a comeback over ten years later with the sequel: Alice: The Madness Returns.
And let me tell you, it comes as a bit of a shock to those of us who grew up with the (original cartoon) Disney version! See, I never played the original game but was intrigued by the sequel. I had no idea what I was getting into! Just the opening cinematic left me slack-jawed, one eyebrow raised, muttering "Ohhhhhhhkay then...."
The story so far is basically thus: after the events that take place in the books, Alice's house burns down killing her family. The incident leaves Alice understandably distraught, and she is committed to Rutledge Asylum. As her dementia grows, Wonderland becomes warped and twisted, mirroring the madness within. She battles the Queen of Hearts and her minions to save not only Wonderland, but her own mind as well.
Flash-forward, and Alice, now orphaned, has left the asylum and is living in squalor in London. She is wracked with guilt, hiding in her self-constructed fantasy world to avoid the pain. She see's one Dr. Bumby frequently. He is a psychiatrist who encourages her to forget her past. But naturally, she can't escape the nightmares over the deaths of her family. But upon returning to Wonderland, she discovers that all is not well there...
For a while I struggled with how much to tell you about the story. To be honest, it's better left for you to discover. Finding hidden memories scattered throughout Wonderland does a lot to explain the back story... and reveal truth behind the conflagration that killed her family. Was she to blame? What's happening to Wonderland, and why? I don't want to give away anything, but as you unravel the mystery I surprised myself by actually being actually angry when I found out what was going on at the end. To elicit such raw emotion is saying something in and of itself.
Upon first arriving in Wonderland, Alice meets a familiar face, er... smile. As it says in the game, "Heed the cat," for Cheshire once again serves as your guide. He pops up all over the place, giving advice and often reminding Alice why she is there, for it is her mind after all. "What have you imagined now Alice?" he asks. Wonderland seems to be rotting from within, mimicking Alice's state of mind.
The place is falling apart; slimy black ooze coagulating into hideous enemies with baby doll faces (creepy much?) and names like "Insidious Ruin" (it's all so over the top its actually good). When Alice isn't platforming (more on that in a minute) she's fighting to save Wonderland, and by doing so, her own sanity as well.
Fortunately, Alice has a veritable arsenal at her disposal. The "Vorpal Blade," is a large butcher knife (see the cover). This is her primary melee weapon (it goes snicker-snack!). Use the "Pepper Grinder" like a Gatling Gun to attack from range. Be careful though, as it can overheat. Her "Hobby Horse" is your heavy weapon (it looks like something from an old fashioned merry-go-round) that deals massive damage but is slow; it breaks through weak walls, and smashes enemy defenses. Then there is the "Teapot Cannon," which basically serves as Alice's bazooka. She also has an umbrella that can be used to block or reflect enemy attacks. Just remember, if you're trying to redirect a projectile attack back you need to get the timing right (when the umbrella is spinning). If it comes to a stop you'll be in trouble.
It's fun trying to figure out how a new enemy type can be dealt with using her toys. But once you do the battles quickly become repetitious. Combat can also be a frustrating affair due to a poor lock-on system and a camera that's even worse. Once you figure out their patterns then you'll be okay, it just takes a bit of practice.
Platforming, probably even more so than combat, is at the forefront of the gameplay. Alice can double and triple jump then glide using her "Twirl" (she spins around and can float down by holding the jump button). She also has a dodge function, which also works like a dash. It's an important tool in combat, but I found myself spamming it often. It kind of makes up for the lack of a sprint button (Alice is a bit on the slow side for my taste). Navigating Wonderland accurately means you must become adept at both of these techniques in a hurry. There are long stretches where platforming is paramount.
But having said that, the platforming can be maddeningly imprecise. If you don't get it just right, like say trying to jump and glide to that bridge over there but you come up just short bumping her shins, then Alice will fall to her death in an explosion of butterflies. Some sections seem to require persistent flubs just to get the timing right, never mind the right path. It can be difficult to judge distances and height as well, forcing you to manipulate the camera mid-flight. Fortunately, the game autosaves often so you don't get pushed too far back.
Despite jumping hither and yon all over the place, Alice must contend with solving puzzles to advance. These usually combine platforming elements with timers, pressure plates, levers and the like. We've seen it all before. But then there are the clever puzzles that Alice can only solve by shrinking herself down via taking the famous "Drink Me" potion (early on she takes a bath in the stuff, so she can shrink at will). This not only shrinks Alice to minuscule proportions, allowing her to fit places she wouldn't normally be able to (such as passing through keyholes), but also shows helpful hints.
When shrunk Alice can see vague lilac scrawlings which serve as guideposts, signs for collectibles and hidden things, clues about how to solve puzzles, show invisible bridges and platforms, and what sort of enemies lie around the corner. It's a good idea upon arriving into a new area to shrink down (provided the coast is clear and free of enemies) and have a quick look around. If you're not sure how to get where you're going, then shrink down and look before you leap. There is almost always a hidden path. Also, there are a ton of hidden goodies and collectibles to find by drinking the "Drink Me" potion. To be honest, I tried really hard to be thorough and I still didn't find them all!
Probably the most immediately noticeable thing about Alice: The Madness Returns is the art style. I'm not even sure how to describe it... macabre? The characters remind me of Tim Burton's older work. Wonderland itself is as colorful and bizarre (but with a sense of mutation, like a cancer eating away from within) as the depiction of London is drab and depressing. It's jarring, but I found it very cool. It's like a weirdly eclectic mix of Goth and Steampunk, but each level is stylized in its own way. Hatter Industries is an impressive monstrosity of gears and cogs, while the Caterpillar's "Mysterious East" has a Far Eastern flair. Don't even get me started on the bridge to the Red Queen's Castle!
But as much fun as Alice: The Madness Returns can be, there are a handful of technical and design problems that hold it back. And I'm not including the frustrating camera here. A lot of the game is all about going and fetching/fixing/finding things for other people. This errand girl routine starts to get old after a while. Even Alice says "Everyone here has an excuse for doing nothing."
Graphically, it's a mixed bag. As impressive as the warped vision of Wonderland and it's denizens can be, some of the environments are, others look... well, last gen at best. This ties in with the technical issues: texture loading and pop in problem, jittery, stilted animations. It seems like Alice: The Madness Returns lacks polish. Alice herself has a bad habit of getting stuck on the environment, especially when platforming. Invisible walls randomly hamper movement. It's just frustrating because you know with a bit more time and effort these wrinkles could have been ironed out.
Some of the level design (again, as cool as it can be) also left me scratching my head at times. Okay developers listen up. For future reference, I hate it, and I mean hate it, when you have multiple paths you can choose from, think "I'll have a peak around this corner first to see what's over here, then go back and explore the other one" and then something catastrophic happens and now your way back is blocked. Now, how was I to know that wasn't a dead end? Even if I had shrunk down and checkout the symbols, you still don't always know. This folly is compounded by the fact that it immediately autosaves and you have no save files. That sort of thing drives me nuts because you just know you're missing out on something.
But my strangest complaint about this strange game is that the levels are really long. Each chapter seems to last forever. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but it does make repeated encounters and tedious platforming start to seem like more of a chore. By the end, it was literally along the lines of "Really? I've done thisexact same thing twice already!" If they had cut out some of the extemporaneous stuff, and thus shortening the length, then I think it would have been less frustrating overall.
A great example of this is when the developers do something inexplicable like throwing in a side scrolling 2-D shooting section in the middle of the level. It comes as a complete surprise and it feels totally out of place. You pilot a ship firing cannon balls and dropping depth charges while mechanical sharks and crabs with cannon arms fire at you. It's weird, it's unnecessary, and it feels tacked on.
But then later, you do the same sort of thing and it works brilliantly! Without giving too much away, there is a part where Alice enters a painting, and it turns into a classic 2-D platformer. It's haunting, it's beautiful, and most importantly, it's fun... unlike the other section.
And that, in a nutshell, can be used to sum up Alice: The Madness Returns. There are moments of brilliance; of clever design, fiendish platforming, loads of secrets, and intense combat. At others, though, Alice's adventure can be an unpolished, frustrating exercise in repetition. To say Alice is trippy would be more than a slight understatement. I have to say I enjoyed my journey into madness as I plunged further and further down the proverbial rabbit hole more than I thought I would initially. Still, I can't help but feel like it could, and probably should, have been better.