Alice: Madness Returns Review «

Wonderland has always been near and dear to my heart, probably owing in large part to me sharing the same name as the little girl who fell down that rabbit hole oh so very many years ago. But the story of Alice traveling into her imaginary world is so full of beautiful imagery; it’s a rich breeding ground from which to take creative liberties, and Alice: Madness Returns does a good job of twisting the existing material into something new and interesting, yet still instantly recognizable.
Alice’s movements are smooth and effortless, which makes both platforming and combat feel fluid and easy. Switching between her arsenal of weaponry is seamless, and allows you to chain swipes from her Vorpal blade with hits from her Hobby Horse or a barrage of pepper-bullets from the Grinder without fuss. Her abilities to jump (triple jump, even), twirl, float, and dash (in a burst of butterflies) over obstacles, and to avoid enemy attacks are a treat to make use of while working your way through the expansive levels. Alice is even able to shrink down (drink me!) to either enter small keyholes, or reveal hidden platforms and messages painted on walls that can only been seen while tiny.

SCREENS: Click the image above to check out all Alice: Madness Returns screens.
The game’s five chapters each have their own theme, which carries over into nearly every detail of the levels — including enemy types, platforming obstacles, and even the costume that Alice wears. But despite the superb art direction and visual flair, Wonderland is actually not as wonderful as it seems. All of Alice’s freedom of movement should make exploration an extremely satisfying activity; but alas, the expansive levels turn out to be dully linear and mostly empty of reward (except, of course, the beautiful scenery and an obviously placed collectible here and there). While the twisted take on Wonderland is thought out and in full display, the magic doesn’t quite penetrate deeper than a superficial layer. For all the emphasis on the emotional cracks in Alice’s psyche (which are supposed to resonate throughout the game world), the gameplay remains straightforward; the story progresses in a mindlessly linear fashion; and Alice herself doesn’t have much of a believable personality. Even the enemy encounters grow wearisome after encountering the same type of combat blockade (fight monsters to open the door) over and over.

I appreciate the re-imagined supporting cast (like the Mad Hatter, or the Walrus and the Carpenter) who are at their core the same archetypes from the source material — only they’ve been placed in new and amusing situations and surroundings. I won’t explain much further than that, since seeing how the characters are portrayed is part of the surprise and fun of the game, but each character is sadly much more interesting than Alice herself. The dialogue is also inconsistent, and the voice-acting can at times be regrettably cringe-worthy thanks to caricature-esque delivery — not to mention occasional hiccups in the audio streaming which would cause characters to either talk over each other, or for someone’s lines to suddenly stop before finished (as evidenced by the continuing subtitles that are now transcribing audio that’s no longer occurring).

Between each chapter in Wonderland are brief interludes with Alice back in a dreary London. These moments usually don’t serve much purpose other than to link each of the chapters’ storylines together via a loose narrative, and to provide a contrast between the grey real world and her colorful imaginary world. These interludes usually involve Alice running from point A to point B, and then watching a cut-scene before being dropped back in Wonderland.

The story setup is that Alice is receiving therapy, and her return to Wonderland mirrors her working through the emotional mess left behind by the death of her family in a tragic fire. Most times, though, it seems as though Alice is going through Wonderland aimlessly. In a game where even the protagonist isn’t quite sure why she’s doing what she’s doing, the player gets left feeling aimless and lacking in that motivational sense of urgency to make their way through long platforming obstacles or enemy encounters. There’s no sense of purpose to jump over that series of mushrooms to reach the ledge in the distance, other than the fact that it’s really the only viable route to travel. The overarching story is a bit weak, so combined with the repetitive and straightforward gameplay, players will have to content themselves to exploring Wonderland for exploration’s sake, to sate any curiosity they may have at how American McGee has redone their favorite characters, for example.

Thankfully, Madness Returns has a respectable amount of collectibles to find and obtain (although they’re easily found), including an impressive amount of Psychonauts-esque figments that trigger memories (audio clips) from Alice’s life. Besides that, a simple weapons upgrade system also helps pull you through the levels if collectibles aren’t your sort of thing (they’re mine). Sadly, Alice: Madness Returns provides a visually interesting world, with competent gameplay mechanics, but it ultimately fails to completely draw the player into the depths of its promised insanity to satisfaction.

 

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