Alice Madness Returns – The PS3 Attitude Review
It’s been close to eleven years since auteur games director, American McGee, released the first Alice game. In American McGee’s Alice, the developer took the world of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and gave it a darker twist, favouring more murderous imaginings over the cutesy, child-friendly stuff that we all read as a kid. In Alice Madness Returns, we get another chance to explore Alice’s macabre Wonderland.
American McGee’s Alice is set shortly after Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass; our heroine is mad and institutionalised in a mental asylum. Her descent into madness began after her family died in an accidental house fire, which she barely escaped. After the disaster, Alice took refuge in her imaginary fantasy world, but when she arrived she found that it was different; it had become a grimy Gothic and threatening place (in tune with her mental state). Here, equipped with a large kitchen knife (yeah, that’s right), she battled against the horrors in her head in a bid to restore her sanity.
While it isn’t essential to play the first game before moving on to Alice Madness Returns, it’s not a bad idea to visit the origins of the series, and there’s no excuse not to because all new copies come bundled with a remastered copy of the original (a PSN code is in the box). However, you can bypass the first altogether and still feel at home in McGee’s Wonderland.
The sequel begins with Alice free from Rutledge Asylum and living in Victorian London, in a grotty orphanage under the care of a psychiatrist called Angus Bumby. Living conditions are atrocious and she keeps prostitutes for company. She’s also still recovering from the traumas of her past. Her memories of the fire are now blurred and confused; she has repressed them, causing her madness to return (yep, that’s the title), so she must revisit Wonderland to uncover the truth about the fire, and to once again save her sanity.
It’s safe to say that creating Alice’s mad world is McGee’s greatest achievement. He clearly cares about the story and the psychological make-up of his characters. Everything makes sense and is believable (at least while working within the framework of the narrative), but more importantly, it is respectful of the source material; it doesn’t stink of someone cashing in on Carroll’s work. It’s easy to see how Alice, with her fertile imagination, could go mad with the wrong circumstances.
Wonderland’s dreamworld is perfect for gaming. It gives McGee and his team at Spicy Horse a free reign to be as mad and creative as possible without having to worry about boring old realism. And because it’s grounded in reality (short periods at the beginning of each chapter are spent in Victorian London), it has a sense of purpose, stopping it from feeling vacuous.
There’s also the quality of the source material. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is one of the most loved pieces of fiction in history, so to have Wonderland represented in a game really captures the imagination, especially as it has the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and other favourites present. There’s certainly enough fan pleasing to satisfy Alice fans. And sure, Wonderland might have gone to pot and the cat is devilishly creepy, but McGee’s Wonderland certainly has an edge.
That’s not to say that the Gothicizing of everything doesn’t wear thin over the course of the game. There’s only so many times you can think, “oh it’s an upside-down floating house”, and “look, there’s a one-eyed teapot scolding me with hot tea.” Bizarre moments like these are commonplace and can lose their ability to surprise. It’s not an indicator of Wonderland being dull; it’s more to do with the London sections not carrying enough weight to balance out the madness. Alice’s spells in reality are rare and brief, and there’s nothing to do when there. It works fine as a plot device, adding some extra context to the events, but it feels undercooked; it’s a wasted opportunity.
Wonderland also wears thin over the course of the game because the gameplay simply isn’t remarkable. It uses every platforming trick in the book, but it doesn’t introduce anything new. It also takes the word “platform” too literally. About 50% of the game is spent jumping from one platform to the next; it’s all fairly standard.
The paths are always obvious and it’s rarely hard to get across. It requires some skill to manage Alice’s twirls (she twirl her dress to double-jump, triple-jump and to drift) but they won’t take long to master. The predictability of it all wouldn’t be so bad if Alice was great to control, but she is weightless and has a tendency to bounce off edges. The controls certainly aren’t dreadful, but neither are they memorable
If the challenge and excitement doesn’t come from jumping, you expect it to come from puzzle solving. However, there is nothing here that’ll surprise an experienced gamer. Expect to knock down obvious destructible walls, to drop objects on switches and to pull many clearly signposted levers. It’s enough to keep your brain occupied, but never challenged. It feels like a PS2 game, and considering the amount of things you can do with Wonderland, we find this baffling. If only someone like Shigeru Miyamoto had their hands on this world.
Spicy Horse has at least tried to play around with Carroll’s material, even if the team rarely shows the necessary flair to make something truly great out of it. At any time, for example, you can hold L2 to shrink Alice. This not only allows her to sneak through gaps in the wall, it lets her view the world from a different perspective, to see graffiti on the wall (which show hints), invisible platforms and hidden paths.
The other half of the game is dominated by Zelda-inspired combat. It’s basic lock-on hack ‘n’ slach fighting, but it’s pretty good. Each enemy has its weakness. The one-eyed teapot, for example, can be beat by firing your pepper grinder (a gun essentially) at its eye. This stuns it allowing you to go in for the kill. The armoured card guards’ weak spot is on their back; you can dodge their attacks to get in behind, but we’d advise you to stun them with your teapot cannon (which fires scolding hot tea); it’ll give you enough time to get round the back. The combat is simplistic, but it’s satisfying enough, particularly when using Alice’s vorpal blade — a long and very sharp kitchen knife.
Some of the other weapons could have been better. The hobby horse (used like a sledge hammer) should feel much more powerful and the clockwork bomb (a timed bomb) feels pretty useless in combat situations — the bomb is actually mostly used for holding down switches.
Some of the enemies are interesting. Later in the game you will fight speedy samurai wasps and big sludgy monsters called colossal ruins. Both will give players some challenge. In fact, most of the regular enemies are good; it’s the bosses who disappoint (as is often the case this generation). The Executioner, a giant beast equipped with a scythe, is more of an irritant that a great foe (although his death is hilarious) and the final boss battle against the Doll Maker (who we won’t link to save you from spoilers) couldn’t be any more yawn-inducing.
Possibly the biggest problem with Alice Madness Returns is actually its length. At over 15 hours it’s actually too long. It’s a rare complaint, but there’s simply not enough happening. There are few great moments to break up the repetitive play. There are several mini games thrown in to mix things up, including some side-scrolling platforming sections, 2D underwater shooting section sand Mario style sliding sections, and there are even sections where you’ll navigate a head through obstacles. But while these are welcome distractions, they suffer from a lack of polish.
We certainly won’t accuse Spicy Horse of being lazy. The singleplayer campaign is lengthy and there are also a ton of collectibles to discover — which usually involves finding memories and firing your pepper grinder at flying pig snouts. There’s also the remastered first game. That’s a lot of gameplay for your money.
Nevertheless, you don’t measure a game’s value by simply counting the number of hours it keeps you distracted; you look at how much fun and exciting it is to play and how many memorable moments you can remember. Sadly, the truth is you’ll probably struggle to remember many great gameplay moments. Perhaps it should’ve been a shorter game with more care and detail being put into each section.
All the same, Alice Madness Returns is generally a solid, if uninspiring, platformer, and it’s set in a fantastic world. It’s just a shame that Spicy Horse hasn’t fully grasped the opportunities that Wonderland has to offer.
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