Playing Alice: Madness Returns is like re-reading a book that you’ve enjoyed a few years previous. You’ve temporarily forgotten how good the book was, but after reading a few chapters, the realisation that you already know what’s going to happen is shrouded by the fact that you are enjoying yourself.
American McGee’s rendition of a tortured Alice is indeed back and still haunted by the same horrors that she fought to vanquish all those years ago. Stuck in the depressing locale of Edwardian London, Alice relies on a cocktail of anti-hallucinogens and intense therapy to suppress the daemons in her mind.
But it’s not long before she’s flung back into Wonderland, Vorpal Blade in hand, to continue the fight against the forces that threaten to tear her mind, and her life, apart. Wonderland certainly doesn’t disappoint; incredible art design coupled with extraordinarily creative enemies and set-pieces set the stage from the moment you arrive. From dripping black tar creatures to Donnie-Darko style rabbits, alongside our host – the Cheshire cat with bloody bits of flesh in his teeth. If you’ve seen and enjoyed Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, you’ll feel at home here.
The contrast is stunning; while London is an animated, detailed and spectacularly drawn locale, it’s also brown, dirty and dingy. Alice’s first, slow, drift into Wonderland is like an explosion of colour, the initial rainforest level feels both positively restrictive and mysterious, and every level doesn’t fail to disappoint in creating a genuinely irresistible atmosphere.
The art-direction is easily a standout part of the game, but it doesn’t take long for Alice to fall down the rabbit hole and land on a bed of mediocre platform mechanics. (Sorry!) If you were looking for an exotic, ambitious play-style to supplement the gorgeous visuals, you’re going to be disappointed. Double jumps, linear paths, an assortment of creative weapons with no actual gameplay related trick to them – it’s all here.
From start to finish, Alice’s journey through her perilous mind just, ironically enough, doesn’t seem to take any risks. You’ll be jumping, floating, shooting and running through level after beautiful level, with very little to differentiate the experience from say, Rayman or Darkstalkers. The battle mechanics are fun enough, but it’s just the same third-person “lock on at the enemy, shoot and strafe”. You’ll occasionally have to learn a pattern or switch been your weapons, but you’ll never feel challenged.
That said, every now and again, the game will surprise you with some funny little hook, tricky puzzle or interesting boss-battle. Unfortunately, these moments are rare and unless you find yourself engrossed in the story (hmmm) there’s probably not much to keep you going. You can see that the developers have looked at previous action adventure titles and tried to emulate their best moments – running from bosses in a scripted event, switching the perspective from 3D to 2D, sliding down ramps collecting, err, collectables
. But it all feels forced, like the designers suddenly thought of something cool to add filler in between the combat.
But maybe I’m being too harsh. Alice: Madness Returns is not a bad game by any means, but it’s not a great one either. If it had been released a decade ago, some of the recycled mechanics would feel fresh, but it all just feels like we’ve been here before.
It doesn’t help matters that the PC version seems to have some serious performance issues; I recently updated to a HD6950, alongside an i7 with 6gb of RAM and the game seemed to struggle rendering the textures at times and the frame-rate would dive during fight-scenes. Control issues are abound when using the traditional WASD/Mouse combination; the lack of analogue control means that your mouselook is super sensitive - look forward to falling while making those crucial jumps. If you have a controller on-hand, it’s worth hooking it up – the game supports both USB and Xbox 360 controllers natively.
PC owners also lose out when it comes to added extras – the console version of the game included a free downloadable code for the original Alice, while the PC, the platform the original actually released on, gets nothing. My memories of the predecessor are fleeting, so it would have been nice to have a comparison between the old and the new.
Alice is, frankly, a mixed bag. I can’t praise the art-direction more; the game looks, feels and even “sounds” stunning. At times I honestly felt lost in Wonderland, haunted by Alice’s inner foes, struck by the scale of the lush, creepy and detailed environment. The design of everything, from plants to creatures and heavily caricatured humans is honestly extraordinary. If you don’t find yourself stopping to stare once in a while, you aren’t doing the game justice.
So it’s a shame that the play is so damn ordinary. It’s disappointing when titles so obviously focus on one element of the experience and hope that it’s enough to hide gaping flaws in the rest of the title, particularly when this sort of world allows for a massive amount of creative freedoms. For a story that talks of falling into lunacy, it’s interesting that the game’s quality matches the mind of its antagonist; Alice is a cracked mirror; you can see what it could have been, but you’re stuck with what it is.