Alice: Madness Returns Review
American McGee’s Alice wowed gamers a decade ago with its bizarre visual spin on Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland. The title predated Tim Burton’s gaudy reimagining of the classic property, so the concept of a classic tale turned macabre was fresh and exciting. The sequel, Alice: Madness Returns, arrives with the signature dark flair of the original, but stripping off the stylish straightjacket reveals unstable gameplay that will disappoint all but the staunchest fans of the original.
The story picks up 10 years after the events of the first game, with an asylum-committed Alice attempting to piece together her family’s death in her tainted mind. The majority of the story takes place in Alice’s imaginary Wonderland, with bits of the narrative strung together with reality checks in England. Guiding Alice through the gray, impoverished city streets is a nice contrast to her over-stimulating make-believe land, but these real life sections are used so sparingly and briefly that they are easily forgotten.
Gamers half familiar with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland will appreciate early references to the absurd tale, such as interactions with the white rabbit, dormouse, and infamous Mad Hatter. I enjoyed leaping on mushrooms in classic Wonderland and surviving the deadly machinery of Hatter Industries. These entertaining stages unfortunately give way to generic locales like a pirate-filled underwater world and a slice of ancient Japan smattered with samurai wasps. These later areas all but ditch the series’ trademark grim art style, with the exception of one section which relies on creepy clichés like eyeless doll heads and 666s to set the mood. Aside from some chilling moments early on, the attempts to make players uncomfortable are largely predictable and bland.
Art style aside, Alice: Madness Returns is an exercise in graphical mediocrity with the exception of Alice herself. The heroine’s character model is wonderfully rendered. Her raven hair realistically flutters around her porcelain face, and her collection of stylish dresses flap as she glides through the air. The world she inhabits isn’t nearly as pretty. Enemies appear to be missing a few animations, resulting in unintentionally stilted movements. The game encourages exploration, which means you’ll be examining the environment closely. It’s too bad that all that searching pays off with bland textures and seams in the game’s construction.
Though poorly put together, the denizens of Wonderland pose a threat to Alice. She defends herself with a butcher’s blade and other creative weaponry like a weaponized pepper grinder, tea kettle, and hobby horse. I loved chopping apart gremlins and other close range fiends with the knife, then switching to the Gatling gun-like pepper grinder to drop flying foes. Projectile weapons are on a cooldown timer, which forces players to constantly swap between attack styles. I adored the variety the unique arsenal fostered, and unlike other action titles, I actually enjoyed using and upgrading every weapon. On the other hand, God of War or Devil May Cry fans looking for a deep combat system should look elsewhere. Let me put the simplicity of Alice’s moveset this way: she can’t attack while jumping.
Speaking of jumping, you’ll spend much of your time leaping and floating across Wonderland. Alice packs a generous triple jump and glide ability, resulting in platforming similar to Spyro. Navigating moving platforms and lava pits is simple early on, but later stages require you to steer the camera while milking every centimeter from Alice’s glides. Combine this with frequent snags on the scenery and the fact that Alice can’t grab ledges, and you’ve got a recipe for some infuriating deaths.
In an effort to cleanse gamers’ palates of the repetitive fighting and exploration, several minigames sprout up. A handful of spots in the game require you to hunt down pieces of a puzzle or press buttons in rhythm with a selection of music. These puzzles are laughably formulaic, but fortunately players can skip the nursery school exercises altogether. They seem ingenious, however, compared to diversions such as a side-scrolling shooter segment and odd doll head-rolling game. These half-baked gameplay mix-ups are absolute nightmares, and you’ll groan every time you encounter one.
What starts out as a promising romp through a demented Wonderland devolves into a few good ideas stretched across redundant gameplay. Like any game based on a popular property, there will be those who can overlook Madness Return’s shortcomings and scrape together a good time. To anyone considering picking up Spicy Horse’s latest in hopes of a rewarding adventure coated in psychedelic scenery, Alice’s encore is a disappointment.