Developer: Spicy Horse
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: June 14th, 2011
Available On: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Reviewer’s Note: I played this game on a PC. There may be differences between versions.
2000’s American McGee’s Alice is often considered a cult hit, an interesting take on Alice in Wonderland both from a story and gameplay perspective. Eleven years later and we’re given Alice: Madness Returns, the sequel to the cult classic. Sadly, it seems Alice wasn’t the only one hit with madness as many of the design decisions in Alice: Madness Returns are, well… maddening.
Alice Liddell is having a bad time, somewhere between her hallucinations, shattered memories, and finding herself brought back to the now decaying and destroyed Wonderland. In the real world Alice is basically just wandering around visiting people she knows who all have different opinions about her, while trying to piece together her memories and figure out what started the fire that killed her family. Back in Wonderland Alice is attempting to stop a train that is going around and corrupting everything it touches, and doing so also assists with rebuilding her memories. I think it’s a good premise that is let down by not being very interesting. Characters just sort of come and go without much reason, the mystery of what set the fire was obvious halfway through the game but the game insisted on dragging it out, and the dialogue always felt choppy: like I was coming in halfway through a conversation all the time. The worst offender has to be the Cheshire Cat: he’s always following Alice around and imparting “knowledge” that basically amounts to a very verbose way of saying “good things are good and bad things are bad.” He has a lot to say but says very little during it, and could easily be cut from the game with no negative consequence.
It’s a little tough to put Madness Returns into a single genre, but the best bet would probably be saying it’s a platformer. As Alice explores wonderland she will be spending a lot of time jumping from one platform to another, or riding up streams of air. The platforming has a problem with feeling a little floaty: Alice can jump up to four times but each jump after the first seems to get barely any new height and her gliding doesn’t really seem to be effective for much other than plummeting into the ground. Which is the opposite of gliding. Most of the times I seemed to end up on platforms by sheer dumb luck. Thankfully the consequences for falling is basically just respawning on the nearest flat surface, which amounts to little more than a slap on the wrist.
Alice doesn’t get any new powers to help her platform in the game, though very early in she does gain the ability to shrink herself. This serves a couple of purposes. The most obvious is to get her into areas a bigger Alice can’t, but while shrunk Alice can also see things that bigger Alice can’t see. Notably: she can see invisible platforms, something that I learned to hate. Alice can’t jump while shrunk, so when an invisible platform comes around I needed to shrink to see where it was, memorize its location, pray it doesn’t move, then jump and hope I found it. I found it to be extremely frustrating.
When it comes to the various dangers that live in Wonderland, Alice must take to combat to defeat them. To protect herself Alice has access to a few weapons, most notably (and usefully) the Vorpal Blade, which allows Alice to slice through enemies quickly and effectively, at least in theory. Other weapons Alice gets access to include the Hobby Horse, which allows for her to preform heavy attacks, the Pepper Grinder, which is basically a machine gun, and the Teapot Cannon, which is a teapot that is also, well… a cannon. Enemies come in different varieties that range from tiny globs of goo, to massive monstrosities created out of doll parts, machinery, and more goo. The real enemies, though, are the camera and the lock on system. The camera tends to swing wildly away and get stuck behind objects, while the lock on system seemed to have a really hard time changing targets for reasons I couldn’t understand, and whenever I’m locked on Alice seems to dodge in directions I didn’t ask her to dodge to.
Maybe this is irony, but when the game is based on a book where time plays such an important role (especially with the White Rabbit constantly urging Alice to not be late), nearly all the combat seems to revolve around waiting. Many of the enemies in the game have phases where they can and can’t be hurt, and most of the time I was in combat I was waiting for them to be in the right phase. One flying enemy can only be attacked right before it shoots at Alice, while another enemy can’t be hurt until Alice deflects its first shot back at it. Shielded knights can’t be harmed until they try their jump attacks (at least until Alice gets explosive weaponry), ghost pirates are invincible until they become corporeal, and a wasp samurai-like enemy can’t be hurt until it tries to do a specific attack that, if shot while preforming, stuns it. It becomes infuriating as it felt like every fight took forever thanks to this.
In a way I think it felt like padding for an unfinished game, trying to artificially draw out the length without having the content to go there. My case for the game feeling unfinished comes from the boss fights, or rather the lack thereof. Every chapter ends with the build up for a boss fight, for example the first chapter ends with Dormouse and March Hare, both of whom have been corrupted by Wonderland, hopping into a giant robot with the intent to fight Alice. Then suddenly Mad Hatter drops a teapot on it and the chapter ends. The second chapter looks like it’s setting up a fight with The Carpenter and The Walrus only for the train to show up and suddenly the chapter ends. This ends up being a common theme for every chapter that follows.
As for the padding, it doesn’t get any better. At points the game stopped to have me solve sliding puzzles (which can only be started after Alice finds the blocks for them.) The fourth chapter has chess board puzzles, which can be skipped without solving oddly enough. Another chapter suddenly has clunky 2D platforming segments that mostly just seem to be there to waste time. All this seems to work at wasting time, as Madness Returns clocked in at about 15 hours for me. The long length isn’t really a good thing, and about halfway through I was ready for the game to be done.
Alice: Madness Returns has a beautiful art style, and that’s about all it has going for it. A dull plot, drawn out combat and gameplay, pointless puzzles, and feeling generally unfinished really hurts the game badly. Madness has returned indeed, it’s just that I was the one going mad from this game.