I review the long awaited sequel to American McGee’s Alice for the guys at SquareGo.
Follow me into the rabbit hole here. (or follow him below the cut)
Alice: Madness Returns
The original American McGee’s Alice was a twisted turn on Alice in Wonderland, where institutionalised young Alice Liddell descends into a mental world of her favourite book after witnessing her parents die in a housefire.
For a game that didn’t exactly register on a global scale, there are definite ripples caused by the aesthetic that have permeated popular culture. The stick-thin brunette Alice and terrifyingly scrawny Cheshire Cat can be seen on graffiti and tattoos, whilst the darker, more adult conceptualisation has been pillaged shamelessly by Hollywood in both Tim Burton’s CGI-heavy bastardisation of the story as well as the more oblique play on the story seen in Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch.
Having the original Alice included with Alice: Madness Returns is a nice little freebie, although it suffers from floaty controls and aiming issues that come from converting a 10 year old mouse-based platformer to console controllers. What it does do is introduce character backgrounds and the origins of the storyline that are sadly missing from the sequel. It’s also more of a puzzle game, relying more on platform sections and switch puzzles and less on the over-difficult combat as Alice fights off the hordes of the Red Queen’s army. However, as splendid as the graphics looked at the turn of the millennium, and even with an HD boost, they are a smidgeon dated.
In contrast, Madness Returns is a sumptuous masterpiece of aesthetic brilliance. It’s almost as if someone had crawled inside the head of Terry Gilliam and laid black eggs of twisted villainy before blowing his brains out onto a canvas. The requisite parts of Wonderland are all present, yet corrupted and tainted by a mysterious black ooze. The World repeatedly changes and even Alice’s dresses alter from chapter to chapter. It all looks incredible, which is good because you’ll be looking at it for a long time.
The levels are lengthy, convoluted and painfully linear. While the constant action is frantic, exhilirating and well balanced, as Alice shoots, slashes, bludgeons and deflects blows, it never becomes impossible. Having borrowed slow motion pauses from Bayonetta, signposting whenever an enemy is about to land a blow, Alice has a chance to dodge out of harm’s way by exploding into a cloud of butterflies. At times it is near gaming nirvana.
Alice’s health is shown via a sanity bar, as she battles her own inner demons the meter can be drained, however this is merely a naming choice as the sanity dropping has no palpable effects such as in games like Eternal Darkness. The theme of fragmented sanity is seen throughout, even in the weapons; a pepper pot machine-gun – or even the ‘Vorpal Bladed’ kitchen knife – hint at the more sinister and subliminal nature of the story. Alice may yet be a lunatic as her now older self takes time out between chapters to walk through a dirty and hideous sepia-hued London filled with cruel and ugly caricatures of people. Sadly these parts are infrequent and underused, leaving the game feeling as if the story is an afterthought.
It’s interesting that the sequel released over ten years after the original should rely so heavily on the story and plotting of the first game. The plot of Madness is so vaguely drawn and barely mentioned that it’s often unclear why anything is happening, which is why it’s a blessing that Spicy Horse have opted to include a download code to access a retooled version of Alice within the box of Alice: Madness Returns; this ought to prove enough of a reason for most to buy the game new. Playing the original game makes the whole shaboodle start to make a lick of sense, although naturally, in a fairly insane manner. The sequel just lets you rampage. Could you ask for more?