Date: July 6, 2011
Author(s): Jamie Fletcher
Chasing small furry animals down alley ways and rabbit holes remains a vice for poor Alice, her mind yearning for an escape from reality. What creatures can she dream up this time? – nothing too pleasant it seems. Join us as we review Alice: Madness Returns on the PC and see what dark depravities Spicy Horse came up with in this sequel.
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.
The environments are pretty, detailed, fantastical, but the gameplay can only be summed up as ‘console’. We’re big on PC gaming here at Techgage, but as is common practice, we are regularly setup for disappointment. I personally have no problem with controlling a third-person camera with a mouse. Running around with WASD is fine too – second nature even.
On-screen prompts help guide you through the rest of the controls though, with the odd reminder every now and then telling you to dodge when some unpleasant flying bolt latches itself onto you. For the most part, the prompts are of relevance and are helpful, although they can stick around for a while. The problem comes later when certain actions were not converted over from its console heritage, leaving you bewildered when you need to press X to continue…
The number of controls and their placement with which they are lumped upon the PC crowd for this release are truly awful though, and guaranteed to instill RSI, carpel-tunnel and permanent disfigurement upon your left hand.
The real problem is the haphazard nature of the target lock. You aim at the abomination in the distance, press Caps Lock and target the overgrown slug that’s closer to you, shifting the camera focus off the steamy pile of engine oil; you quickly press tab, shifting from other slugs to slightly larger oil stains, until you eventually get hit with a large flaming boulder and die. So I tend to avoid using it when more than two critters be roaming. Speaking of death, it’s quick and over in a couple seconds, letting you get back into the action promptly.
The bread and butter of platformers is quite simple. Provide surfaces, often moving, with which to jump from and too; throw in some environmental distractions and/or death-traps; frustrate us with carefully timed and sometimes rhythm-based events; and give our brains something to ponder over between rampant switch-flicking.
Alice: Madness Returns delivers all of the above and… well, that’s it really. Move from point A to point B via 1, 2 and 3 with the odd switch to pull and monster to slay; all without plummeting to your death, drowning, or being cooked alive in lava. Then repeat for 12 hours.
Alright, so there is a little bit more to it than that. Using a clockwork bomb as a weight on pads and scales, shrinking to see hidden platforms, shrinking to run through small keyholes and jumping on the ever-present shrooms. The only physics based puzzles are those involving weight platforms; you stand on one, the other rises. Sometimes a destructible wall is thrown into the mix as well.
It’s the same puzzles thrown at you time and time again, but in a different order with a new skin. Sometimes you have to make greater use of invisible platforms, sometimes there are spikes or large crushing pistons to worry about, but it’s the same thing over and over.
Don’t get me wrong, the first couple hours of play are great, it’s a journey of exploration. The problem comes with the fact that it just takes forever to come across that next new experience. The environments change 4 or 5 times before the next mind-bender is thrown at you.
What keeps you going is that change in environment, what crazy and bewildering construct can they come up with next? With a game like this, any screenshot could be deemed a spoiler, but there are just some fantastic levels which you can explore later on, such as where the whole place is made from cards that fly in and out from under your feet, or one place that feels like your walking on the set of Nine Inch Nails’ Closer video.
That exploration is fueled by that infamous pastime, gathering. Searching for memories which spring quotes on you from some of the characters important to Alice’s life (both good and bad). The more you collect, the more you unlock, such as various special weapon bonuses and costumes.
Occasionally, a curve ball is thrown at you, leaving you wondering what the hell happened. There a numerous mini-games dotted around the place, too. Some are simple, others not so much. From benign slider puzzles to full on 2D side scrollers, you never know what to expect when you go through that next door.
Read on for our final, if not confused thoughts.
Alice: Madness Returns is a mixed bag. It’s beautiful, stylistic, random, twisted, corrupt and just plain weird in places, and for that, Spicy Horse should be pleased with themselves. Its style and conjuration of a very dark and deranged Wonderland is both commendable and unique. The gameplay could do with some work though.
Repetitive double and triple tapping the space bar with cramp-inducing Tab, Shift and assorted key work for 12-15 hours really brings a downer on the situation.
This is a console game through and through. Rendering is hard capped at 30 frames per second but taking regular dips to 15 FPS for no reason (PhysX related perhaps?). When frames are hard capped at 30 with motion blur on camera movement, it can certainly become distracting when you’re used to something closer to 60 FPS.
It becomes even more distracting when mouse acceleration is forced upon you, making the mouse behave more like a joystick with finer movements. The game is playable with a mouse and keyboard, don’t get me wrong – at times it can even be fun. But when you have to frantically mash your hand on the left side of the keyboard to get Alice to ‘perform’, it wears you out… wait – that came out wrong.
Both PhysX and 3D stereoscopic rendering are available should you have the relevant hardware. Increasing PhysX levels just increases the amount of debris from things being hit and can be played on high without a dedicated NVIDIA GPU – should you have powerful enough CPU. I could not test the stereoscopic effect at this time due to a lack of the correct hardware.
So where does that leave us? For those that love to explore, there is plenty on offer, but the combat may get in your way. There isn’t much of a story either to be honest, but the game is full of amusing moments, such as eating a piece of cake, gaining a few feet in height, and then leaving you to run around on a stomping kill spree.
As a platformer, it can become dull pretty quickly after the novelty wears off. There are still bugs too; landing on the very edge of a platform, walking backwards slightly to get back on and falling off the edge; during a level change while still holding the run key can sometimes result in the run being stuck, with the only way to stop is to jump.
As a piece of art, Alice: Madness Returns is exotic, twisted and beautiful – as a game, it’s a bit of a bore. Whether you are after one or the other is up to you. Madness is within the picking and not just the playing.
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