Alice: Madness Returns Review (Xbox 360)

Game Review: Alice: Madness Returns
Release: July 14th, 2011
Genre: Action-Platformer
Developer: Spicy Horse
Available Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC
Players: 1
MSRP: $59.99
ESRB Rating: Mature
Website: Alice: Madness Returns Official Site

It is arguably a gamble to put out a sequel for a game after over ten years have passed since the series’ last installment. American McGee’s Alice, released in the fall of 2000, saw the world of Lewis Carroll’s creations siphoned into a macabre mix of insane visuals and mad characters (though with that source material, it really isn’t a stretch). Now, eleven years later, Alice: Madness Returns plunges us back down the rabbit hole for another head-trip through Wonderland.

I’ll admit here: I never played the first Alice. I hadn’t really even heard of it until the announcement of Madness Returns. But my interest was piqued almost immediately, due to the game’s surrealist look and crazy combat. Alice has a triple jump and glide ability, leading to some very tricky and satisfying traversal sections. But she also wields an assortment of colorful weaponry to protect her from the dark forces of Wonderland.

Her story picks up, from what I amassed, ten years after the end of the first game. She’s in “recovery” with a doctor and out of the insane asylum she spent the past decade in. And if you couldn’t already tell, this Alice’s Wonderland exists entirely in her mind, created from the horrific events of a house fire in which her entire family was killed. The story is straightforward and simple, and pretty easy to pick up on without playing the original. I was hoping for the beautifully generated CGI cut-scenes as we saw in teasers for the game months ago, but the game goes mostly with 2D cardboard cutouts of characters to use during most of the cinematics. It takes a bit away from the grandiosity of Wonderland (and, honestly, I was just bitter I didn’t get my CGI cinematics), but mostly gets the job done.

Where this Alice shines is in the gameplay. Alice’s arsenal is wide and delightfully varied. I loved them all, despite the fact that each weapon is basically a normal video game trope with a dark Wonderland-ian twist. She has a pepper grinder to mow down far off enemies, a hobby horse to deal earth-shattering blows, a teapot canon to lob hot globules of the English’s favorite past-time beverage at enemies, White Rabbit timed charges to assist in solving pressure switch puzzles, an umbrella to deflect attacks, and her trusty vorpal blade. As a result, combat is fluid, with each weapon assigned to a face button, and added with her dodge ability (in which Alice explodes into butterflies and teleports away), switching out weapons in the midst of fighting and combo-ing up bad guys is a blast.

The enemies you fight, along with their environments (aside from the few base enemies) also change throughout every level. At one point you’re battling cigar-smokin’, canon-lobbing crabs in an underwater domain, and two levels later you’re dodging katana wielding ninja wasps in a Japanese inspired dojo level. It’s all fun to look at, in general, but from afar. These great vistas are extravagant and amazingly realized, but things up close to Alice – jumbled heaps of debris, side character animations, puzzle elements – suffer from a general lack of polish. Even so, it’s a game where you feel as if you never see any one thing twice. And with the lengthy campaign (took me 15 hours), this variation and constant change-up was fully welcome.

Unfortunately some of these great vistas do suffer the occasional graphical hiccup or two. On more than one occasion, on screens where cut scenes went to black, I would catch ghost images of characters falling through the environment, or other such behind-the-curtain shots.

Coming into the game, I was expecting a sort of survival horror adventure, so I was also surprised by the general lack of any such theme. Yeah, enemies spurt blood, there’s an entire level with bowls strewn on walls, and it is unarguably a mature game, no doubt. But its idea of horror (being disfigured children, foreboding dialogue and creepy-but-not-thoroughly-scary environments) measures on the scare-o-meter at more of a Tim Burton level than, say, Dead Space.

Inconsistencies in the graphical aspect of the game do provide some jarring and experience-breaking moments, and it does have the curious problem of perhaps being a bit too long, but in the end this doesn’t deter from a fun gaming experience to be had. Madness Returns is a gamer’s game, through-and-through. Wonderland’s levels are chock-full of secrets and collectibles to be sought out: from broken memories, to golden jars, radula rooms, rose paint, and teeth to upgrade weapons, most requiring multiple pass-throughs to attain them. The platforming does require the right frame of mind to fully grasp, and can lead to frustration in the later levels, but I was won over by its decidedly old-school feel. It’s easy for me to understand why someone wouldn’t meld well into the game, but to those who can find the ability to lose oneself in this fractured, scarred and beautifully surreal Wonderland, I’ll leave with one message: dive deep.

    +Imaginative levels that twist the clichés of the past into delightfully macabre machinations of a girl’s twisted psyche.
    +Combat. Combat. Combat. I haven’t had so much fun dodging, blocking and kicking ass in years.
    +Oddly placed mini-games sometimes hit the creative mark…
    -But mostly lead to confusion and frustration.
    -So, with all this ass-kickery to be had, where are all my epic bosses?
    -Weapon upgrades desperately needed more detail and longevity.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

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