Review: Alice: Madness Returns

July 7, 2011, Author: Trent Pyro

Whenever the name “Alice in Wonderland” is mentioned, one of two images spring to most people’s minds. The cuddly yet strangely disturbing Disney telling or the original text penned by the literary legend Lewis Carroll. Recently, however, a new imagining of the tale has been creeping into our cultural history,  a version that is quickly becoming the definitive one for many. American McGee, iD Software (the guys behind a little game called Doom) veteran and gaming visionary showed us his twisted vision of the classic in 2000, introducing us to his broken and insane Alice and scaring the shit out of us with his ruined Wonderland.

Fast forward eleven years and, despite the fact that most of the world has forgotten about it, Alice is back to finish what she started. Alice: Madness Returns, developed by McGee and his Shanghai studio Spicy Horse, is out now for all the consoles and the PC, which is what I’ve been playing it on. Alice has been away for a long time, almost as long as Duke, so can she still compete with the best out there? Titles like Darksiders, Enslaved and Prince of Persia have brought new innovations to the action platformer genre, while the style itself has fallen out of favour in recent times. Does all this really matter? Not at all, and I’ll tell you why…

The Madness… well… returns!
Madness Returns picks up where the last game left off, dealing with Alice Liddell trying to work out her angst issues through a hallucinatory Wonderland. While the first game had her cooped up in the asylum for ten years, this one sees her leave the nuthouse and go all Sherlock Holmes, trying to find out how the fire, which killed her entire family and sent her crazy, was started. In all the police reports, she was the prime suspect and the asylum claimed she was an insatiable pyromaniac, but Alice is having none of that. Venturing into Wonderland now brings a new problem; her frustration and anger at being in the dark is manifesting in her fantasy land, spreading nasty black Ruin everywhere and generally pissing everyone off. There’s also a terrifying, fire-belching steam train smashing its way through her head, a further manifestation of our girls rage that has everyone suitably soiling themselves.

The story is told through cut-scenes mostly, both in-game and paper cut-out. These shadow theatre-style scenes are brilliantly animated and bring a creepy edge to the already messed-up story. Drawn in a gritty, Victorian style they lend an air of graphic novel to the plotline and are always a joy to watch. The in-game scenes are standard fare, but feature some beautiful camera sweeps and epic set pieces.

The action itself takes place, of course, in Wonderland but at times Alice is pulled out of her head in order to run around Whitechapel. These sections are far from boring; the grimy slum bristles with life and there’s always something going on to hold your attention. In these sections the story of Alice’s search for the truth is told, and it’s all neatly tied in with the Wonderland sections.

As a plot, it’s a solid as they come. While the two strands are separate at first, you soon start to see where it all stitches together. Real world things affect Wonderland and vice versa, leading to a climax where you’re unsure what’s real and what’s all in Alice’s head. It’s a welcome break from the usual world-saving and evil-beast-slaying of many of today’s titles, and while it does of course take influence from Carroll’s story, McGee has succeeded in making this Alice his own.

The locations on offer are not only fantastically realised, they’re also wonderfully different. From the corrupted steampunk of the Hatter’s Factory to the lazy ease of the undersea sections, elements of the book and new facets dreamt up by McGee are perfectly interwoven and masterfully crafted. Each one feels different from the last, both by introducing new mechanics and enemies, and through excellent production design and attention to detail. Boredom is not an option, and you may find yourself being forced from a location before you feel like you’ve absorbed all it has to offer.

All the memorable characters from the story are present, although not in their expected places. The Hatter runs the aforementioned factory, now under the control of March Hare and Dormouse, complete with horrifying clockwork parts and machine organs. Mock Turtle is hiding from mechanical sharks in a broken bottle, the once proud master of Wonderland Station reduced to a whimpering coward. The Carpenter is a maniacal theatre director, with a show that’ll certainly make the lead actor, the Walrus, feel warm and fuzzy inside. McGee has found ways to include them all, and none feel tacked on or crowbarred in; each one has a part to play in this barmy tale.

The Vorpal Blade went snicker-snack!
As I mentioned, Madness Returns can be comfortably classed as an action platformer. In a way it feels very old school; there’s no parkour, no sticky jumps and no backflips. The platforming side is just good old jumping, albeit with a neat triple jump and glide to keep things interesting. Many of the platform sections, while not offering the variety and scale of some of Madness Returns’ peers, are varied and enjoyable enough to prevent stagnation. It’s all enhanced by the Shrink Mode. This not only makes her small enough to go through secret keyholes, but allows her to see invisible platforms littered about the place.  Some may feel that Alice should’ve picked up some modern tricks over the years, but I personally feel the platforming is an adequate and perfectly enjoyable side to the visceral combat.

Alice's attendance always makes for a cracking tea party...

Everything in Wonderland, bar a few helpers, is trying to kill Alice, most likely because her teenage angst is wrecking the entire reality. This Ruin stuff is everywhere, spawning basic enemies for you to destroy and blocking pathways constantly. The regular inhabitants get involved too, with everything from angry teapots to ghost pirates having a go. The enemy variety is extensive and keeps you on your toes. Each one requires its own technique, pattern and timing that can take a few battles to nail down. Combine enemy types and you’ve got one nasty headache, albeit one that is immensely rewarding to struggle through. Mini-bosses are also common, if not a little overused, but even they have enough variation to rarely get boring.

To defend herself Alice has four weapons, each one upgradable by spending teeth (yes, human teeth) found in boxes and dropped by enemies throughout the game. The Vorpal Blade is her basic melee attack, and the only weapon even vaguely inspired by the book. It’s a basic blade with quick cutting attacks and is useful for taking down weak foes and getting quick hits on the big boys. The Hobby Horse is another up close and personal toy, used for big smashing attacks and to break the enemies block. The Pepper Grinder is Alice’s first ranged attack, essentially a large, heavy machine gun that shoots pepper. Not only useful for wiping out distant or flying enemies, it’s also used to make flying pig snouts sneeze and reveal new pathways. I did say it was barmy, didn’t I?

The Teapot Cannon rounds out the arsenal, throwing chargeable blobs of scalding tea, just like mortars. I personally found it of little use; it takes too long to charge and is incredibly inaccurate. Either way, using these tools in conjunction, usually in a certain order, is the only way to beat the game’s menagerie of baddies effectively. Kudos to McGee and the team for trying to mix it up, but switching between four kinds of attack in one battle can get very fiddly and frustrating.

Which leads me on to the bad points of combat. Difficult spikes are common and as brutal as they come. One minute you’re comfortably cutting a bloody swathe through slow, easy Ruin monsters and gunning down Boltflys with your grinder. The next you’re having your arse handed to you by four teapots simultaneously spouting AoE tea and rushing in for melee blows. You have almost no practise time to figure out how to beat each new foe before you’re bombarded with them for a good length of time. In a way it’s a good thing, keeping things exciting; you’re forced to learn on your feet and adapt instantly. On the other hand it sucks. You die a lot and feel cheated, like you’re missing something.

Hysteria Mode helps out a little but not much. Activated when you’re nearly dead, it turns the screen all bleach-bypass black and white, turns Alice into a creepy doll complete with smudged eyeliner and makes her invincible and incredibly powerful. It’s your typical ‘last gasp’ mode, usually managing to pull you back from the brink. Unfortunately, with the spikes as they are, you end up falling back on it more times than you’d like.

The controls, as well, are a mixed bag. Despite reviewing the PC version I played with a 360 controller constantly. Why? The keyboard and mouse controls are awful. While the method lends itself perfectly to FPS, RPG and RTS titles (lots of acronyms there) it feels about as comfortable in the third-person action mould as a fat man on a packed, summer coach. The mouse is oversensitive and twitchy and doesn’t lend itself to melee combat at all. Using WASD and Space to platform around is abysmally trial and error, as clunky as FPS platforming only with the added issue of a skatey camera throwing a spanner in the works. The only thing that feels natural is navigating the menu with the mouse pointer, and that’s just not enough. I implore you all to use a controller if you’re playing this in PC. It’s easier and much, much more comfortable. To be fair, there’s not much that could have been done to prevent this issue, so it’s a good job Spicy Horse have included solid controller support.

Looks suitably decayed…
Madness Returns looks awesome. While the actual fidelity of the graphics will of course depend on how beefy your system is, the design is second to none. Everything has been lovingly crafted with a view to create one of the most interesting, unique and downright fucked up universes in gaming history. Every few minutes there’s new stuff to look at as well as running themes that never fail to lend a sense of dread, madness and/or lack of comfort to the game’s range of areas.

As mentioned before, the variety on offer is impressive. The initial Wonderland area is a prime example of destroyed beauty; the rolling hills and pretty flowers are sick and tired, wilting and dying and rotting around you as the Ruin takes hold. The Hatter’s Factory rusts and drips with Ruin-corrupted tea. Steam bursts from decaying pipes and platforms struggle to raise and lower with a decade of oxidisation crippling their cogs and mechanics. The underwater areas glisten with sunshine and are quite peaceful; a nice juxtaposition with the brutally violent sea creatures and mad population of troubled fish.

Whitechapel, too, is a sight to behold. Twisted, soot-stained buildings tower above the young Alice in all directions, perfectly reflecting the infamous crooked alleys where Jack the Ripper made his name. The citizens are horrid caricatures of humans, all bulbous and malformed, squawking in classic Cockney accents and hurling abuse at each other. It’s a terrible place, certainly no place for a young girl and that makes it all the more suffocating to travel through. This vision of one of London’s most historically significant districts is what Fable 3’s Bowerstone Industrial should have looked like; smokey, depressing and scary as hell. Get American McGee in your office Molyneux and make the Fable we all know you can!

As the game progresses, the two worlds begin to collide and some pretty amazing stuff happens. The way this dual reality is presented is masterful and never feels too biased to one side or the other. The genius of it is how it illustrates the story so effectively, making you genuinely see and feel Alice’s madness permeating reality. It is by far one of the most visually arresting worlds I’ve seen in a long time.

Just a little taste of the new Wonderland...

Alice herself is a strange mixture of cute, sultry and gothic. Her Whitechapel self is all rags and scruff, her obvious good looks hidden under the grubbiness of a street child. In Wonderland, however, she looks older, wiser and more dangerous. Her straight, black hair flows as she runs and her dresses reflect the area she’s in as well as her dark mind. Expect lots of belts, chains and cupcake dresses, each one neatly designed and apparent to the location.

The character animation in general is functional, with nothing special being applied to neither Alice nor her supporting cast. The enemies are the real stars here, each one slinking and sliding with their own twisted grace. Whether it’s the Ruin creatures vomiting themselves about or the cannon-toting crabs menacingly crawling around in the sand, they all have their own animations and unique style.

Padded chamber music
Spicy Horse obviously put a lot of work into the auditory side of Madness Returns. The atmosphere created, while different depending on the location, is always brilliant and the audio tracks constantly support the visuals and action.

Music-wise it shines, all creepy glockenspiels  and music boxes underpinned with horror-like strings. All this is woven around an atmosphere track that at times puts Condemned to shame. Darting through the factory as Dormouse repeats ‘A good worker is a happy worker. A bad worker is a dead worker!’ over and over in his creepy little voice is a harrowing experience. Playing alone, in the dark, with headphones on is the best way to experience how unsettled Wonderland really can make you.

The voice work is another star element of this already stellar package. While Alice herself is voiced by a pretty standard, posh English woman (incidentally returning from the previous game), the other Wonderland characters are matched to perfection. Hatter is desperately insane, wailing and panicking constantly, while March Hare and Dormouse are maniacal and cold, changed and destroyed by their new mechanical parts. Mock Turtle is morose and immediately depressing, while Carpenter’s characterisation screams ‘paedophile’ more than any character ever without ever making a pass or comment on Alice. The casting is spot on; sometimes humorous, other times harrowing and terrifying. Well done Spicy Horse!

One ticket to Wonderland please!
Alice: Madness Returns is a brilliant game. The traditional hack-n-slash combat and straightforward platforming feel far from outdated, instead feeling confidently developed and refreshingly simple, respectively. It’s a good length, has lots of variety, is shiny and well made and has very few technical hiccups. All that is secondary to the experience you get.

Madness Returns allows us all, for the first time, to truly be a part of the amazing world Lewis Carroll created all those years ago. The undercurrents of madness, drug use, sexual assault and emotional damage are all there, but coupled with the twisted beauty of the unique world that is Wonderland. All this told through the imagination of one of the seminal visionary game designers of our time, American McGee. The sheer amount of imagination and creative juice flowing through this project is astounding, and it shines in every inch of Madness Returns.

Some people, important people, have dismissed this game as repetitive and unimaginative. These same people give every Call of Duty and FIFA title top marks for copying itself. Madness Returns is not the best game ever mate; it has its flaws and I’ve made them clear. What it offers is an experience like no other, a classic tale told masterfully, wrapped around an immensely enjoyable game full of surprise, excitement and variety.

American McGee and Spicy Horse have taken the risk and done something unique to them, a true auteur title. I cannot recommend this game enough; the experience is well worth the outlay. So pick up a copy, bang it into your computer/console and get the headphones on. Then sit back, hit the ON switch and be prepared to be transported to Wonderland. You won’t regret a second of it.


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