Alice: Madness Returns Review
Developer: Spicy Horse
Available on: PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 (Reviewed on Xbox 360)
In 2011, one might argue that the pre-eminent fantasy universe in existence is World of Warcraft’s Azeroth. The more old-school might argue that Middle Earth is still, in fact, the daddy of imagined worlds. Few, one surmises, would suggest that, in fact, Alice’s Wonderland is the greatest make-believe world ever created. And yet it just might be. Published in 1865, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland conjures a beautiful and vividly imagined world that has spawned tens of movie adaptations and influenced fantasy writers and fans ever since.
So whether a development team likes it or not, when creating a game about Wonderland and its links to Alice, they must contend with that world’s long and storied history. One suspects that the Spicy Horse development team actually quite enjoy the pressure of the huge expectations surrounding this world, as they have produced a violent and grim representation of Wonderland that even the original game in this series, American McGee’s Alice, struggles to match. However, despite the creativity and imagination that has gone into Wonderland, the developers seem to have played very safe in terms of design, producing an action platformer that instantly evokes memories of Jak and Daxter and Super Mario 64, as much in gameplay style if not in pure quality.
Spicy Horse have set themselves a huge challenge: can this representation of Wonderland live up to the heritage, not only of C.S Lewis’ world but of the incredible games from which it borrows so much?
STORY: The world of Madness Returns grabs you immediately, picking up they story of Alice Liddell as a teenager, still damaged from the events of the first game, as she speaks with her therapist in Victorian London. The game tells Alice’s tale as she travels through a Wonderland that, in the early stages, appears to be nothing more than a reflection of her battered psyche. The story flits between the real world of London and Wonderland, as Alice explores her memories, with the sights and sounds of the old East End distorted cleverly into objects seen in the world of her mind. Transitions between the two worlds are told through cutscenes that not only push the story forward and give the voice actors a workout, but also have a very unique, hand-drawn pop-up book style. These techniques effectively create a very interesting world, and one that provokes the player’s strong desire for explanation, exploration and answers.
It’s not all red roses in the story department though. Some sections of the game are confusing because the story is woefully under-told. Some interactions between characters seem to come from nowhere, and the reasons for taking on certain tasks are never really explained. The game occasionally drops the player into an area and expects them to move forward through the level without any instructions. Without narrative thrust driving the action, many areas are left feeling half-finished.
There are also some quite substantial sections of the game that have no bearing on the story at all, and do nothing more than pad the action. In an era of ever-shortening games it might seem somewhat contrary to complain about extra content, when what is added is something derivative like a fetch quest and adds nothing to the story, it just serves to make the whole experience fluffier and less focused.
GRAPHICS: Alice: Madness Returns makes two immediate impressions when it starts out. Firstly, despite being created with Unreal Technology, it has a personality of its own: a wonky, jagged cartoonish look that defies comparison. The levels in Alice all offer strikingly different art design, and within those levels the look and feel of enemies, backgrounds and environments vary greatly, giving Wonderland the magical dreamlike quality that is a basic requirement for a classic fantasy world. The second impression however, is that there are some fairly ugly technical hitches such as textures that sometimes refuse to come into focus. The makes levels momentarily resemble a mosaic of hi-res and lo-res tiles.*
Despite its successes, Alice Madness Returns is not a visual triumph. For all its imagination, diversity and impressive vistas, the game seems to lack the atmosphere intended for it. The descent into madness is a dark theme; we see women beaten, fight against black ooze covered in severed dolls heads and meet boss enemies committing atrocities, and yet there is never a point where the game is scary or unnerving. The wide open levels, perfect for platforming and exploration, minimise the impact of the Gothic and unsettling imagery, ensuring that whilst Alice Madness Returns looks good, those graphics are somewhat wasted as they don’t meaningful affect to the experience.
SOUND: Despite some really excellent voice acting (the game sounds like it has been voiced by excellent Fry and Laurie impersonators) that really makes the cutscenes and story chatter a pleasure to listen to, the audio in Alice Returns is a little nondescript. Yet again, the atmosphere just isn’t there. Music builds during fights and ticks along pleasantly when you are not brawling, but this is a game about a woman’s battle with insanity and the corruption of a world that she has created for herself. The music never makes you feel that fear and urgency in a way that we know from experience of horror and fantasy films that music can.
On a technical level, surround sound is present but imprecise. One of the discoverable items in the game is a flying pig-snout that gives an audio cue when it is nearby, only it is very hard to pin down the snout’s location using just the the surround sound effects. Some inelegant searching, not helped by the audio, is still required, which is a shame. Enemies’ attacks are also very hard to find with the games’ audio and, as you are frequently surrounded by enemies who mix projectile and melee attacks, it would be useful if the surround sound design gave more precise indications of enemy location. Given how unhelpful it is, it seems odd that surround sound was included at all.
GAMEPLAY: Alice Madness Return is, at its core, a very familiar action platformer. Springs, moving platforms, invisible platforms, double jumps, triple jumps, gliding; they are all present and correct. Fortunately, they are also very well implemented. Platforming is solid and accurate, tricky without ever resorting to being fiddly. Despite this, sometimes these platform sections can drag on a little because, for all of the imagination that has been thrown into the world, the same can’t be said for the game mechanics. In a world where anything is possible, the restrictions on in the platforming sections are palpable and opportunities are wasted. For example, an entire level of the game takes place underwater, yet the developer introduces nothing to shake up the gameplay. The underwater level plays identically to the level set in a Wonderland forest. No one is suggesting that Alice should have to run around sucking up air bubbles to stop herself from suffocating, but if Mario Galaxy has taught us nothing else, it is that when a platformer is over fifteen hours long then variety and imagination in gameplay is just as important as variety and imagination in scenery.
Combat is mixed cleverly into the platform sections, making it one of the game’s highlights. Despite a sometimes errant camera, combat is well-pitched and Alice has a variety of weapons at her disposal to knock off her foes. Very few enemies have set tactics, and almost all can be attacked with a variety of combinations. The Cannon Crab, for example, can be bested either with the Hobbie Horse Hammer and the Vorpal Blade or by using Rabbit bombs to flip it over before attacking its soft underbelly. The difficulty curve steadily rises, with mixed groups of enemies causing different problems with every combination.
There are moments when the combat can get a little clunky, with button presses not quite as responsive as the player might like, and a couple of moments where the player feels as if the developer is using the slightly cumbersome aiming system against them. One particular challenge which sticks in the memory is an incident where a tough enemy with small weak points is surrounded by many insignificant enemies that make it nearly impossible to select the correct target. Other than these niggles, Alice provides a competent, well-gauged challenge, if a slightly safely designed one.
LONGEVITY: It is when considering the game’s longevity that comparisons to the 3D action platformer games of old re-surface. Alice: Madness Returns is a big game. There’s lots of it. The levels are long and interspersed with substantial story sections. There is plenty to collect, lots to explore and the game is littered with optional challenge rooms to test the player’s skill. However, much of what the makes the game so long is the filler content mentioned earlier in the review. Meaningless quests that have no lasting impact on the story are common and they distract from the platforming and combat sections that drive the plot forward.
Those looking for multiplayer combat will be disappointed, as there is none here, but a free download code for the original American McGee’s Alice is included in the box for those who can’t get enough of exploring Wonderland. There is certainly plenty of game for your money in Alice Madness Returns, but the inconsistent quality and importance of all the content means it is not guaranteed to hold a player’s interest until the end.
VERDICT: So what are we left with? Alice Madness Returns is a game that lovingly celebrates and twists the world of Wonderland, but isn’t consistently well executed. Lavish, imaginative and detailed worlds struggle to really feel alive and lack the haunting atmosphere that a game about the collapse of a young mind should warrant. Equally, it is a game of rare length and size, but this size is achieved through clumsy and unnecessary sections that amount to little more than filler. The combat is consistently good, with a variety of weapons and enemies that are always challenging, and the platforming is fun and tight, though it lacks the genius of Mario 64 or even Super Mario Galaxy.
Alice Madness Returns plays it safe in a lot of areas but is still a game bursting with imagination. It is just a shame that its execution holds it back from being something truly special.
*Taking advantage of the Xbox 360’s optional install function seemed to lessen the occurrences of this particular issue, but the same option might not be available on PS3.