Alice: Madness Returns
Even the most diehard fans of 2000’s mischievous action game, American McGee’s Alice, will admit that it was more notable for its imaginative perversion of Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice in Wonderland than for being a particularly good game. Alice: Madness Returns certainly maintains the first title’s fantastic art style, but will the gameplay be any better?
I got to watch a live demo of Madness Returns for the first time a few weeks ago, and my first thought was how similar it appears to the original. Moment-to-moment action alternates between simplistic platforming and combat against warped card knights, insects, and more. The platforming segments that I saw looked thankfully easy – a blessing considering the frustration that resulted from some of the imprecise jumping required in the original Alice.
Alice will wield four primary weapons in combat, each a nightmarish revision of a real-world item. For ranged attacks, a pepper grinder becomes a rapid-fire machine gun, and the teapot cannon packs a slower but more powerful area-of-effect shot. If you prefer up-close combat, you can use the vorpal blade, a returning weapon from the first game, or a hopping horse which has been reimagined as a giant club. Alice can also toss down mines in the form of clockwork rabbits.
Combat seems much faster and more fluid than in the first Alice game. Since Alice’s ranged weapons can overheat, she’s forced to get into the heart of battle and switch to melee frequently rather than hanging back and picking off her twisted foes. As the game progresses, Alice will gather one of the most disturbing collectibles in gaming history to help upgrade her weaponry: teeth.
Madness Returns’ grim story finds Alice moving back and forth between brief segments in Victorian England, where she is trying to solve the mystery surrounding her family’s brutal murder, and an increasingly messed-up Wonderland. In the Wonderland portions, she can collect memories that slowly unravel the mystery from the real world. Each memory will provide a different clue, be it a short dialogue clip or a full-on, playable vision.
In addition to the regular platforming and combat, the level that I saw had one special set piece moment. In the midst of a maze garden, Alice is confronted by the Executioner, a giant joker card that wields a massive scythe. Since Alice isn’t nearly imposing enough to confront him at this point, the game switches perspectives – she must run toward the camera, Crash Bandicoot-style, avoiding obstacles as the Executioner moves toward her, spinning his weapon in a deadly circle. All hope is not lost for defeating this scary opponent, though; if Alice is able to survive long enough to find some cake, she’ll grow even larger than he is and can then stamp him out.
Based on this first hands-off demo, I’m still not entirely sure what to think of Alice: Madness Returns. The art is still clearly the star of the show. It’s not remotely the best-looking game in terms of pure quality, but from cards flying around the environment ominously to giant red portals spinning in the sky to gnarled vines and crooked walkways sprouting from the ground, a lot of attention has been given to painting every inch of the world with detail.
With the first Alice, the stunning world design was enough to make up for fairly unimaginative gameplay. The design of Madness Returns looks like a step up, but it remains impossible to say for sure until we get our hands on it. Thankfully it shouldn’t be a long wait, as the game is due out in June.