Monday, July 11, 2011

Review: Alice: Madness Returns (Xbox 360, Playstation 3, PC)

American McGee’s Alice was a personal favorite of mine back in 2000, presenting us with a visually stunning and wonderfully twisted interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s classic tale Alice in Wonderland. Following over a decade after the original game’s release, Alice: Madness Returns captures the same demented vision of Alice’s adventures down the rabbit hole and brings it into the current console generation, the original having only been available on PC and Mac. Does it succeed at doing justice to the source material, or is this a franchise that should have been left to languish in the depths? Read on to find out.

Alice, the titular character from the original game, returns to us over a decade after the original game ended with her being released from an insane asylum. We quickly discover that the years since have not been kind to her or her fragile psyche, having endued the death of her family in a house fire and being rendered an orphan in Victorian London with her troubled past still haunting her. It doesn’t take long for us to realize that her past is not so easy to purge and Alice slips from the bleak reality she lives in back into the once-fantastical world of Wonderland, only to find it in shambles from the last time she visited. In order to save herself, her sanity and the wonderland of her own creation, she must traverse the nightmarish landscapes in an effort to purge the monsters that inhabit it. The cast of characters that anyone familiar with Lewis Carroll’s story will know and love returns, albeit as twisted caricatures in a demented pantomime that provides some of the most amusing and also the creepiest imagery in the game. The Cheshire Cat and Mad Hatter are unsettle to say the least, but they also provide some of the best dialogue in the game. Throughout the lengthy single player-only experience, Alice slips back and forth between the bleak, Dickensian reality of her life in London and her imagination in Wonderland, and while the story strays from the original source material, it still remains true to the style and spirit of the previous game. 

At it’s core, Alice: Madness Returns is a simple third person platformer that is elevated above the ordinary by its creepy sense of style. The fantastical wastelands of Wonderland give way to some immersive platforming in which you traverse industrial ruins, frozen tundra, underwater shipwrecks and a floating world made of playing cards. Alice herself is equipped with the ability to double-jump and float, which is key to getting across the wide chasms that litter the landscape. The controls are smooth and intuitive, and despite some control and camera hiccups that will sometimes have you falling to your death, the platforming is not overly challenging and you will easily find you next objective without effort. The combat is easily one of the main strengths of Alice: Madness Returns and it is a welcome relief from the typical button-mashing that usually accompanies games like this. The enemies are a wonderfully macabre mix of goo-dripping ghouls, demonic teapots, flying bolts and demented fish that spew ice, among many others. Throughout the game, various weapons befitting the Wonderland setting are made available to you, including the classic butcher knife, a teapot, detonating bombs, a pepper grinder that is the games equivalent to a gun and a “hobby horse” which acts as a sledgehammer of sorts. All of these weapons are upgraded by cashing in teeth from your slain enemies, which functions as the game’s currency. Since different weapons achieve different results, figuring out which weapon to use on which enemy is part of the thrill of combat and it keeps the tedium of button-mashing at bay. Since several different enemies can surround you in a single fight, you will often use a combination of weapons and doing so is essential to surviving the sometimes chaotic battles.

Despite the attention paid to making the environments as outlandish as possible, Alice: Madness Returns is a very linear game that allows for a limited but satisfying amount of exploration in which you can uncover hidden rooms that house various collectables, including memory items, bottles, and hidden rooms where you undertake challenges in order to obtain vials of red paint that your life meter. Your weapons can be used to blow down rubble and Alice also has the ability to shrink herself to fit through small keyholes that lead to hidden rooms. Shrinking yourself also turns the environment purple and exposes hidden writing that will direct you to secrets and collectables. As an added surrealist touch, the levels are also littered with flying pig snouts that you must blast with your pepper grinder in order to expose other hidden areas in the environment. Each level has a determined number of hidden items and pig snouts and collecting them all fleshes out the story and also contributes to getting achievements and trophies, so there is plenty of incentive to replay completed levels to find all of the secrets. Despite the collectables and hidden areas, it is impossible to stray far from the beaten path and there is very little guess work in figuring out where to go next, so those hoping for a more challenging open world experience might be disappointed. However, Alice is a game that requires linearity in order to keep the story moving, so this is very forgivable.

From a graphical standpoint, Alice: Madness Returns is a stylish game that makes great use of the story elements to give you a unique and twisted gameplay experience. The environments are characters unto themselves and you will find yourself quickly immersed and sometimes entranced by your surroundings. Aside from the creative environments, the game lacks polish in other areas such as the cutscenes in which Alice looks like a lifeless doll, and in the numerous graphical bugs and camera issues I encountered. Less concerning are things like screen tearing and draw distance issues, which happen too often to go unnoticed but are ultimately forgivable. However, there are a number of game-ending bugs, including the game not registering that I completed a level objective, teleporting enemies, disappearing platforms, and a few occasions where glitches caused Alice to get stuck in or below the level geometry and thus causing the player to restart from the previous checkpoint. The other issue is the camera, which can be your worst enemy during hectic fights and tight platforming sections. There were occasions where the camera zoomed away from the enemies that were attacking, leading to some cheap hits, and other times where the camera went spastic and caused a missed jump and ultimately death. These instances happened a little too often and will definitely prove annoying and frustrating, so let’s hope that subsequent patches will fix these issues. 

Since American McGee’s Alice never saw a console release, the powers that be at EA have included the original game as part of the Online Pass feature, so those purchasing this title new will be given a code to download it for free on Xbox Live and the Playstaton Network. For those purchasing Alice: Madness Returns used, you do have the option to download the game from the online store for a fairly reasonable price and this is highly recommended. Even by today’s standards, the original game holds up very well despite having rather fidgety controls and not being remastered. The game will look and feel dated, but those who played it back in the early 2000’s, or those who loved Alice: Madness Returns and want to see where it all started, will definitely want to check this out. For achievement/trophy hunters, note that this game is required if you want to achieve 100% completion as there are specific achievements and trophies designated for it.

Alice: Madness Returns is a game that the developers clearly had a great time making and it shows in the wildly inventive environments, the twisted humor and blood-drenched battles. In short, this is definitely not the story as Lewis Carrol intended but it gives mature gamers an interesting twist on an old tale, so both fans of the story and those new to it will have a lot of fun. Take away the style and you have a standard platformer that provides no innovation on an old formula, and the plethora of glitches and camera issues did prove problematic on a regular basis. Despite these issues, Alice: Madness Returns does more right than wrong and it is a thoroughly enjoyable experience that lasts for a solid ten hours. Those who take the plunge down the rabbit hole are unlikely to be disappointed.

Rating: 8 out of 10

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