Review: Alice: Madness Returns (Microsoft Xbox 360)

Alice: Madness Returns
Genre: Action/Platformer
Developer: Spicy Horse
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: 06/14/11

American McGee’s Alice was one of those games that existed as the definition of a cult favorite. While the game was largely not a hit, the game attracted many fans who remembered it fondly and wished for a sequel in some capacity. Had the game been a console release, it might have achieved somewhat better success than it did; as it was, EA is known for investing less advertising revenue in their exclusive titles than in multi-platform releases, and platformers generally don’t draw large amounts of money on the PC platform, as that’s not really what the market wants. Still, the game had its fans, and American McGee was still puttering around, trying to publish a game that would draw the kind of recognition Alice did (his follow-ups have been mostly poorly received, with the exception of Grimm), so it stands to reason that McGee and EA would get around to that sequel sooner or later. And so, we get Alice: Madness Returns, a sequel to an over-a-decade-old game that’s outside of the window of obvious interest, but exists in an age where the technology available to produce such a game can potentially pay off McGee’s vision. The end result, as it happens, is a game that is conceptually and artistically very interesting, but is mechanically incapable of paying that interest off throughout the game.

The storyline picks up where the last game left off, as we join Alice Liddell as she’s residing in a sort of psychiatric orphan’s home, having been discharged from the asylum after the events of the first game. Though the past few years have been relatively issue-free, as the game picks up, Alice is beginning to question what, exactly, caused the fire that consumed her home and family, and her mind is beginning to fracture as a result once again. She begins having episodes that force her back into Wonderland, both as a way of remembering the events of her past and repairing the damage done to her mind over the years, but as one expects, Wonderland is not the happy place she imagined when she was young. Indeed, the world is one of decay, as the wonderful elements she remembers from her youth have been corrupted by her insanity, with violent forces working against her as she navigates the mish-mash of wondrous landscapes and violent holes. On its face, Alice: Madness Returns is a fairly interesting reinterpretation of the Lewis Carroll classic, twisting the elements of the classic story through the lens of madness, but it’s what the game does with its background elements that make it interesting. The game makes its stages from the elements Alice interacts with in the real world, bringing steampunk nightmares to life one stage and Asian environments to life the next, giving the game a conceptually pleasing and authentic feel. Further, the game has a very interesting undertone to it of self-discovery and putting away childish things that’s very subtle, but very well done if you catch it.

That said, the game comes off as a little more high concept than one might be comfortable with; Alice is quite cognizant of the fact that Wonderland, in fact, exists in her mind, and this becomes a problem because she never really resents any of the figures she meets for doing anything to her. While this makes sense in a conceptual sense since she’s aware that these are figments of her imagination, it’s… weird to see in a medium that often thrives on conflict, as the general disdain she feels for a character one moment will be cast aside as she casually converses with them the next. It’s not that the concept is bad, mind you; movies have done this sort of thing plenty of times to great success, and seeing the characters ultimately just try to go back to the way they want things to be over the way things ultimately are is interesting. There’s a very simple scene at the end of the first stage between Hatter, The March Hare and the Dormouse that’s quite interesting in how it comes together that basically exemplifies the mentality that everyone wants things to be “normal” again that’s powerful in its sad simplicity, for example, and the game does a very good job when it keeps to that sort of storytelling. However, it’s hard to adjust to the idea that Alice knows these are just figments of her imagination, and in a game where everything is otherwise trying to kill you, it makes Alice come across less as being aware that she’s talking to her imagination and more as being kind of passive in the events. That said, if you can accept the story for what it’s trying to do, it’s a surprisingly high concept story for a “mature” reimagining of the world of Alice in Wonderland, but it’s never crude or vulgar so much as it is unpleasant for the right reasons, and if nothing else, it’s different in a good way.

Visually, Alice: Madness Returns is artistically interesting, but occasionally technically spotty. Alice herself is very well rendered and looks fantastic in motion, and the hair modeling for Alice is exceptional, as little a detail as that is. The monsters and enemies you face are also similarly well designed, and the different environments you find yourself navigating through are very stylish and varied, and very pleasing to the eyes. That said, the game suffers from some technical issues, most noticeably some obvious texture pop-in at times and the odd full graphical glitch of a character spazzing out and reappearing for a second, though these are thankfully rare in their appearance. Aurally the game is significantly more consistent all around, however. The voice acting, featuring both new and returning voice actors, is very well done and enjoyable to listen to throughout the game. The music is also exceptionally well composed and varied in the different sections of the game, and is largely a joy to listen to as you play. The sound effects are certainly fitting, as the combat and ambient sounds in the game are both well placed and implemented, which adds to the experience well.

Alice: Madness Returns, for all its artistic and experimental presentation elements, is essentially your standard action platformer at heart, and fans of franchises like Banjo-Kazooie and Ratchet and Clank should be able to get down the gist of the game simply enough. The left stick moves Alice around while the right stick controls the camera, A allows you to jump, double jump, and float when held, X and Y produce attacks that can be chained into combos, and B tosses out timed bombs that can be detonated manually if you’d rather. You can lock onto enemies with the left trigger, which allows you to attack an enemy exclusively, and which also converts the A button into a block button, but you can also dodge instead if it’s more practical with the right bumper. The right trigger will bring out Alice’s equipped ranged weapon for firing, and you can either fire at a locked on enemy or press in the right stick to aim manually as needed. The game introduces these mechanics one at a time, mind you, so you’re given plenty of time to adjust to one before the next one comes up, and in general the game is simple enough to play that anyone should be able to pick it up reasonably quickly.

The game bases its gameplay elements as much off of the concepts of the genre as it does off of the story it’s based off of, however, and as such, there are a few elements that are a little more unique to the game. For one thing, the weapons and gear you’ll acquire are all Alice in Wonderland themed in some capacity, meaning that your light and heavy attacks are mapped to your Vorpal Blade (from the Jabberwocky poem) and Hobby Horse, while your ranged weapons can be switched between the Pepper Grinder and the Teapot Cannon. Her defense action is to pull out a parasol as a shield, which can block attacks and reflect bullets, and her bombs are White Rabbit-shaped and can also be used for weighing down switches and attracting enemy attention in combat. Beyond that, however, Alice can also shrink herself with a press of the left bumper, allowing her to fit into smaller areas to progress or find secrets, as well as discover hidden areas or invisible platforms (as when she’s normal size she “overlooks” things she wouldn’t see when shrunk down). Alice can also make use of “Hysteria” when her health is low, allowing her a brief window of invulnerability to slaughter enemies that also heals her as she smites them, so even losing battles can be turned around if you’re skilled.

The game also features a whole lot of collectibles that match the theme, such as lost memories that Alice is trying to recover, pig snouts that unlock hidden areas or loot, bottles that unlock artwork in the menu, teeth that can be used to pay for weapon upgrades, and Radula Rooms, which present challenges to complete that earn you red rose paint, which can help to increase your life bar. It also pops in the odd mini-game during stages to break things up a little, such as a side-scrolling shooter section in the HMS Gryphon, or a side-scrolling platform section, among others, that are short but often amusing and help to keep things interesting. Perhaps most interesting of all, however, is that as an added bonus for fans or those who didn’t play the first game; players who buy the game new receive a code in the box that allows them to download the first game to their console and play it from the main menu. American McGee’s Alice hasn’t held up exceptionally well, mind you, nor has it held up especially well upon being converted to the console medium, but it’s not a bad game or anything and it does help to fill in the back story of the first game at no extra cost, so it’s a nice enough pack-in, especially if you didn’t play the first game.

The game clocks in at around ten to fifteen hours, give or take, depending on how much time you spend trying to find all of the hidden items and secrets the game has to offer. There are multiple difficulty levels to play through to keep you coming back, however, and the inclusion of the first game in the package can add on another ten hours or so, roughly speaking. Further, the game also has a pretty varied Achievement list to plow through, as well as the ability to unlock various pieces of concept art, enemy profiles and so on as you collect the different items throughout the game, and there’s also DLC available for the game that unlocks extra costumes and weapon skins for Alice that give her added bonuses/impairments in play, as the item dictates. There’s enough value to the game to justify the asking price, really, and the game offers enough variety that a fan can justify going back to the game once it’s complete, so in that respect, Alice: Madness Returns makes a good case for genre fans, fans of the original stories or fans of the original game.

That all said, the game has a fairly significant pacing problem that makes it tougher to fight through as the game goes on. In the first stage, the game dumps two thirds or so of Alice’s abilities on her at once, giving her most of the tools she needs to succeed right off the bat or shortly thereafter. This becomes a problem later, however, when the game is only giving you one item in a stage and expecting the game to remain fresh through the multiple hour long stages, and since the gameplay really doesn’t change significantly from one level to the next, this doesn’t work out very well as a result. The game changes up its enemies and visuals somewhat from one section or level to the next, but mechanically it’s mostly the same game from start to finish with some minigames tossed in, and while that’s fine for the first few hours, it’s somewhat boredom inducing towards the end. Further, while it’s nice to have collectibles in a game, three to four hundred collectibles in any game of this type is excessive, as it makes the item hunting part of the experience even more tedious by proxy around the fiftieth time you’re stuck looking for an invisible pig snout. There are other, little things that come up, like puzzles that repeat and don’t really mean anything to the experience, stages that go on for hours and get tiresome after a while, and an almost complete absence of large-scale boss fights that make the game feel more repetitive or less interesting than it should, and the game suffers for these issues as a result. Oh, yes, and the two DLC pieces for the game amount to “something you get for free unless you buy the game used, in which case, give us ten bucks as punishment” and “content that’s on the disc but can be unlocked for two bucks, just because”, which is kind of cheesy, to be honest.

It’s great to see EA revisiting the American McGee’s Alice series with Alice: Madness Returns, as it really feels like there’s some solid potential to the property and American McGee clearly has some high concept ideas in here, but his development studio can’t match his ideas with their development skills, leaving the game interesting but problematic. The story is a multi-layered tale that’s enjoyable on multiple levels, the visuals are artistically interesting and technically pleasant in places, and the audio is all around fantastic. The gameplay is simple enough that genre fans will adjust to and enjoy it easily, and there’s some neat additions, such as the Wonderland themed weaponry, the shrinking mechanics and the various hidden items, objects and puzzles to find throughout the game to keep players engaged. However, the game has some technical issues, visually, and the pacing of the game is awkward, leaving you excited at the beginning and struggling to complete it towards the end. Further, the mechanics are repetitive, the collectibles are excessive in volume, the puzzles are often simplistic and silly, there’s a near absence of boss battles, and the DLC, while fine, amounts to a free game that’s only free if you buy the game new and shows its age, and something included on the disc already. The end result is a game that’s very engaging on a conceptual level but a letdown on a mechanical level, and while there’s enough to the game to keep it engaging if you like the concept, Alice: Madness Returns would have been better off as a shorter, more focused experience, and would have been easier to recommend as a result.

The Scores:
Graphics: GREAT
Control/Gameplay: GOOD
Replayability: MEDIOCRE
Balance: GOOD
Originality: GOOD
Addictiveness: MEDIOCRE
Miscellaneous: MEDIOCRE


Short Attention Span Summary:
Alice: Madness Returns is a game that manages to hit all of the right aesthetic and conceptual notes, but can’t carry that into the mechanical side of things, making for a game that’s great to see, but isn’t always great to play. The story is exceptional in both direct and implied storytelling, the visuals are artistically and conceptually fantastic, and the audio is a joy to listen to. The game is simple enough that genre fans should be able to really jump right into it without trouble, but new players should find it accessible, and the game has plenty of Wonderland themed novelties in its gameplay and tools, as well as collectibles and unlockables to keep things interesting. That said, the visuals have some technical problems at times, and the game has pacing issues that render the game harder to get through as time goes on. Additionally, between the repetitive mechanics, the absolutely overwhelming amount of collectible items in stages, the often simplistic and random puzzles, the almost complete lack of boss battles and the DLC that is designed to punish used game purchasers or take money for on-disc content, the game loses its luster a bit. Alice: Madness Returns is certainly on the better end of the scale, quality-wise, as a product, but one gets the feeling that a little more polish and a little bit less padding of the experience would have done wonders for the game, as the end result is a game that’s fun, but often ponderous, and not for the easily impatient.



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