[Originally published in issue #194 of PC PowerPlay magazine, September 2011.]
Eleven years ago, American McGee’s Alice saw Lewis Carroll’s iconic children’s tale re-imagined as a surreal and gothic third-person platforming adventure, set in the recesses of a tortured teenager’s mind. Alice: Madness Returns broadly extends on the original game in every way, from the inventiveness of the level design right down to the tiresome combat.
With an even richer backstory than the first game, cutaways to dreary 1800s London reinforce ex-asylum inmate Alice Liddell’s urgency to return to Wonderland. Surreal, sketchy-styled cutscenes unravel key plot points; collectibles are echoing voices in Alice’s memories, filling the flesh of people from her tragic, fire-consumed past.
The aesthetics here are top-notch. Exquisitely ugly characters are animated smoothly and flawlessly; the delightful slicing and thwacking of Alice’s toys-turned-weapons, and her ability to quadruple-jump, float, or dodge (dissolving in a cloud of sapphire butterflies) makes the gameplay as gorgeous to watch as it is enjoyable to play. The soundtrack, ranging from bittersweet music-box melodies to thunderous, ominous drumming, always suits whatever nook of Wonderland Alice currently finds herself in.
The teeth-dropping monsters that pursue the waifish Alice are symbolic mashes of visions cribbed from nightmares, ranging from squelching leeches to pointy teapots with giant, bloodshot eyes; the upgradeable weapons she fights them with are powerful and darkly amusing, including the likes of a neighing hobby horse and an exploding rabbit.
Though the lock-on combat system allows for some interesting strategy, it’s let down by unintuitive movement controls and frustrating camera angle issues. Entering “Hysteria” at low health feels less like its intended murderous rampage than an anticlimactic and unimpressive contribution to damage. Despite the Cheshire Cat’s cryptic advice of choosing between “fight or flight”, most of the time you’ll predictably be forced to kill a large enemy in order to proceed. While the autosave feature allows for minimal downtime between deaths, you will sometimes respawn irritatingly far from where you died, which can prove particularly frustrating during difficult fights.
The combat is a minor flaw in the bigger picture, however. Though the same mechanics – such as hopping between platforms, and drifting on upward gusts of air – are employed throughout, the level design never feels old, thanks in part to the endlessly shifting locales. Shrinking not only enables Alice to fit into secret keyholes, but paints Wonderland in an even darker hue, revealing frenzied scribbles and invisible paths. Peppered throughout are a variety of minigames, from a Guitar Hero-style rhythm game to an admittedly abysmal version of pinball, played with a hairless porcelain doll’s head.
The gameplay may not be as polished or as comprehensive as its artistic direction, but that’s okay. Ultimately, despite any misgivings, you’ll find yourself absorbed in this Wonderland’s compelling portrait of insanity.