Alice in Wonderland is one of those ubiquitous stories that has been told and retold a countless number of times. Born of the mind of Lewis Carroll, it is an unforgettable story, a mad adventure through the imaginings of a young girl called Alice. Bewildering, timeless and unforgettable – it’s no surprise that the story has been adapted to multiple films, cartoons, TV series, comics and games. The wonder comes from the fact that no two versions are ever the same.
In October 2000, American McGee’s Alice was released, depicting a rather different take on the original story. It was dark, twisted and suitably maddening – it’s no surprise that a sequel was to be made. Just over 10 years later and here it is. Alice: Madness Returns. It takes place some 10 years after the original story left off (yes, the game was both released and based 10 years after the original), with Alice moving on with her life… sort of.
You see, it wasn’t all strawberries and ice-cream for Alice; a fire consumes her entire family and earthly possession, leaving her tucked away within the pleasant company of an asylum. Don’t worry, she’s now in the capable hands of a psychiatrist and slowly returning to a normal life… sort of.
Part of her treatment is to ‘forget’ the past, the fire and the loss of her family. Wonderland was her escape, a means to make sense of her surroundings, but by attempting to forget and make new memories, the world of Wonderland becomes corrupt, distorted and disfigured. Alice must now restore Wonderland while trying to figure out the source of the corruption.
Like the original American McGee game, Alice: Madness Returns is a 3rd person platformer with some action thrown in for good measure. The environments are wide, varied and suitably weird; each level brings something new, pushing you forward to see what else lurks within this twisted world. It’s not just the giant snails, over-sized doll houses or the Gothic architecture that’ll grab your eyes, but the attention to detail. While the graphics are by no means super-realistic or even terribly complex, it’s the little touches that bring the environments alive.
As is the new theme in the last couple years, 2D animations are used instead of full-motion cut-scenes. These do not detract from the overall style, but enhance the disparity between the different environments. When the game presents you with it’s 3D glory, you will not be able to help yourself but just stare at world in all its glory. It’s dark, grim and carries a very unnerving juxtaposition between the beauty of Alice and the environments, with that of the other grotesque characters.
For those interested, a short video is included below that covers some of the basic gameplay. This was on the nightmare difficulty, hence why some of the fights went on longer than usual.
The Victorian environment of the real world is almost a child-like representation – a living cliche, from names such as the ‘Mangled Mermaid’ to the caricature representation of the local populous. The whores that line the street are of hideous disfigurement, nonexistent waists, pebble-dashed skin with pointy noses and protruding chins; to the short legged, triangular, big built policemen with nothing more than a helmet for a face. The only resemblance of normality is Alice, with her straight-cut hair, unflattering outfit and linear proportions, but what makes her normal, makes her a freak among the masses. The world is not grotesque – it is Alice.
When the world falls apart and Wonderland emerges, you are blinded by color – a sharp contrast with the grisly hell from which you came. But this is her world, her rules – but not all is right, it’s different. Progression is met with change, sometimes subtle, others instant, but constant it remains. From a forest paradise to arid wasteland; volcanic chaos to a bitter ice-land.
How you deal with aggressors is just as twisted and demented. Starting small with a kitchen knife isn’t particularly novel, but a pepper grinder? Turn the crank and watch them pepper-corns fly; hey, point it at the flying pig-snouts, make’um sneeze and hidden treasures are revealed. How about a wooden horse’s head becoming as destructive as any 5-year-old can make it, breaking down walls and smashing crab shells…
Jumping is graceful, with small twirls mid air for a quick boost and extending her skirt to glide to safety. An umbrella serves as both a shield and a means of deflection too. The amusement comes from the vaporous display of butterflies as Alice dodges attacks. Even death is graceful with just the simple disbanding of more butterflies. Hysteria enables a bloody rage when on low health, bringing with it another unique style element.
Just as you grow accustomed to the flying pig-snouts, the pepper-grinder for a gattling gun, instant shrinking, doll-faced steampunk-esque violent oil spills and the unnerving dexterity with which Alice handles a kitchen knife; bam… killer Teapots, Samurai Wasps and Origami Mantis townsfolk. It’s random, it’s twisted, but it makes perfect sense.