Alice: Madness Returns Review
When American McGee’s Alice hit PCs in 2001, fans of the original Lewis Carroll tale and aficionados of the macabre were delighted. While the technical aspects of the game were nothing outstanding, the then-outstanding visuals, interesting take on the character, and unsettling transformation from childhood familiarity placed American McGee’s Alice squarely into the hearts of many gamers.
So ten years later, we are presented with a highly anticipated sequel with Alice: Madness Returns. Alice is long past the mental insanity of the first game, but this sequel chronicles a breakdown for the character, even as she enters her thirtieth year (yep, do the math on the timeline and Alice is in her late twenties or early thirties). Does this contemporary platformer stand up as a classic or falter under some weighty goals?
I’ll address what McGee and his team of developers at Spicy Horse in Shanghai have done well: art direction. If the original Alice shone through creepy reinterpretations of the original stories, then Madness Returns builds on it two-fold. New characters, including the Walrus and the Carpenter, are brought forward and made insane, and returning favorites have seen a moody make-over. Alice herself looks fantastic, with the different dresses she wears fitting the theme of each of the five regions she visits (such as under the sea or steampunk), and she is by far the most visually interesting and developed character of the bunch.
However, when I refer to art direction, I don’t mean graphics. Any hardcore Alice fan should definitely pick up the art book releasing in time for the game. The attention to detail and the impressionist feel of these images are amazing. Unfortunately, what holds so much promise on paper doesn’t hold up in-game. Alice looks great, yes, but the worlds of Wonderland only maintain their structure from a distance. Textures take forever to load, popping in as levels sweep around, and when they do appear, they are nothing more than bland indistinct smears. Certain levels see a high attention to detail, like the beautiful undersea town Alice visits, but these are ignored by bland jumping sections that act as mere pathways to anything interesting.
Once in game, players will soon realize the creepy elements are only halfway in-place. That undersea level? Unsettling elements are only set for just a moment before they're pushed aside for a generic water level. Yeah, it ends climatically, but not in a manner worth caring about. Later levels include a generic “Oriental” stage (ironic considering the Chinese development team) and a dollhouse. Mediocre. Some of the levels, like an MC Escher moon stage, could have been wonderful, but I guess that’s how things go.
Another area the game struggles with is combat. Alice is given various weapons: the famous Vorpal Blade, the heavy-hitting Hobby Horse, a rabbit time bomb, a quick-shooting Pepper Grinder, and a bomb-throwing tea pot. These weapons each have different uses, and they can each be upgraded to deal more damage and look much cooler. The weapons themselves are fine, but combat falls apart.
Combat disappoints for two main reasons. One, Alice: Madness Returns reuses many of the same enemies over and over again, the worst offenders being piles of goo that can be incredibly difficult to kill. It’s even more frustrating when Alice is surrounded by five to ten of these insufferable enemy types, with each one trying to hack away at our girl. More than once I’ve died, only to respawn at a ledge farther off, where enemies can be killed with projectiles from a safe distance. Respawning itself is a weird experience, sending players god-knows-where--sometimes forward, and sometimes ten minutes back.
The second reason combat is terrible is the camera. A classic third-person platforming problem for nearly twenty years now, the camera does some strange things in this game. While it's fine for most platforming sections, occasionally the camera will randomly swing around while Alice is in the middle of a jump, causing her to die. Occasionally during puzzle sections, the camera will lock for a moment and then rush back to Alice while the player is trying to guide her through a specific area. Usually she dies. It’s annoying. And when applied to combat, it's even worse. Alice has a lock-on function, but she cannot rotate the camera while it's enabled. The right stick only changes what character she is fighting. This is a terrible design, for many of the enemies can only be damaged while in a specific animation--meaning if the camera decided it wants to hover over the enemy’s shoulder facing Alice, the player has no idea what to do except unlock, run back and turn around to face the enemy, and lock back on. This is no easy game.
And don't even get me started on the terrible mini-games that break up the action. Easy as pie shoot-em-ups and sliding image puzzles are not worth my time. Some epic boss battles would have been appreciated, but instead we're stuck with only hints at some cool possible encounters.
All of this would be tolerable if the platforming were remotely special. It’s not. Imagine linear stages where Alice runs and jumps on square and round stone platforms with nothing on them, occasionally fighting enemies and occasionally picking up “memories” (which progress the story), bottles, and teeth (used for weapon upgrades). Sure, there is an interesting mechanic where Alice can shrink to uncover hidden areas and platforms, but these segments aren’t very fun. Alice is a slightly loose character, and it’s easy for her to fall off edges. Sometimes her dodge roll will even send her tumbling over. It’s all very dated. I’m not asking for Prince of Persia, but the game would be much better with some of Ubisoft’s polish.
That’s the big problem. Alice: Madness Returns isn’t very polished. While the game touches upon some great elements, it’s kneecapped by dated and boring platforming, frustrating combat, and a generally sloppy application of theme. McGee and his team are clearly a talented bunch of designers, but when the game they make isn’t fun to play, that’s a problem. I don’t doubt that Alice: Madness Returns will sell well because plenty of people liked the first, but I hoped that when McGee re-imagined Wonderland after all these years, he could at least make a decent game out of it.
[Reviewed on Xbox 360]