Saturday, July 30, 2011

Review: Alice: Madness Returns (PS3/360)

It's been eleven years since Alice Liddell began her descent into her deranged Wonderland, in American McGee's Alice, which had earned quite a cult following.  Now, haunted by the death of her family in a tragic fire, that only she escaped, Alice travels to Wonderland once again in Alice: Madness Returns (EA, Spicy Horse Games).  After her release from Rutledge Asylum, Alice still maintains quite a bit of guilt and confusion about the calamitous incident that has turned her life upside down.  Regular sessions with her psychiatrist using hypnosis, seem to be having adverse effects on her thoughts and dreams.  As in the past, Alice retreats to Wonderland to escape, but finds it has drastically changed since her last visit.  Will she be able to unearth the secrets and clues that have led to her "Madness?"  Do the vibrant atmospheres exceed the gameplay?

While technically labeled an action-adventure title, Alice: Madness Returns is basically a 3-D platformer with slight bits of combat thrown in.  Alice has a host of people concerned about her, but who are her friends and who are out to harm her?  Additionally, the familiar cast of characters return, but in limited roles.  It's Alice's Wonderland, it's demise is her doing and she must be the one to repair it.  The story will not be rehashed here, to remain free of spoilers, but it was intriguing and kept me going when some aspects of the game became monotonous.  I kept playing little by little to unravel more and see what was around the next bend.  Before we get to the important stuff, I liked this game, I possibly really like it.  Initially, I was enthralled when I first set foot in Wonderland and that feeling remained with me, almost, to the final screen.  The problem was that the game's repetition in level design, not ambiance, kept it from being Alice's Excellent Adventure.

What would Wonderland be without conflict?  Luckily, Alice has a bevy of weapons (by the end, a total of 4) in her arsenal, all of which have some thematic significance to Wonderland.  These are split into melee weapons, like her Vorpal Blade and Hobby Horse, and ranged weapons like her Pepper Grinder and Teapot Cannon.  The Clockwork Bomb, finds itself somewhere in the middle.  Although I had seen the weapon types in games beforehand, this new twist make them seem fresh and engaging.  Unfortunately, once all of Alice's weapons had been upgraded to the max, I found myself really only using one of the weapons in combat, as it seemed to do the most damage.  

Alice is also quite nimble.  In fact, get ready to jump.  A lot.  Alice: Madness Returns utilizes jumping, double jumping, and floating more than quite a bit.  She also has a power, called Shrink Sense, at her disposal.  When activated, it allows Alice to find hidden doors, platforms, or receive clues on what was ahead, etc.  She cannot do anything but walk, while accessing it, so in the case of hidden platforms that involve jumping to, you kind of have to jump to the memorized spot (although it does leave a brief glowing residue).  As you can imagine, this leads to a multitude of unsuccessful leaps.  I didn't get too frustrated with missing a platform, as Alice's demise is so peaceful and lovely.  When expired, Alice's form morphs into a cluster of butterflies flying away.  Additionally, when she does die, the place that she restarts is quite close to where she met her downfall, so it wasn't too much of a penalty, and surprisingly no loss from her health meter.  I think that the developers might have put those touches in, as they may have noticed that the game was a bit flawed, and their inclusion would reduce frustration

If you've read my other reviews, I've mentioned my affinity for collectibles.  If done the proper way, I don't mind spending extra time on levels, in fact I enjoy it.  This game really does collectible hunting wondrously.  There are multitudes of collectibles, but in this case memories, to hunt for.  The majority are not right out in the open and involve using some crafty contemplation.  Each memory, when located, reveals a little bit about Alice's thought processes or past and delves into her mind, revealing the clues essential in resolving her inner conflict.

The level design starts to get a bit stale on the third (of 6 total) chapter.  While the vistas and locales change, it's essentially jump from and onto platforms, pull levers, fight a few enemies, slide, fight a few more enemies, and repeat 1-2 times more until the end of the level.  The levels, or chapters, are also quite long.  Initially, it threw me, but didn't bother me too much by the end.  While they are broken up into smaller bits, or sub-chapters, they are inaccessible if you need to restart an area (missed a collectible), until the whole chapter is completed.  While I was collectible hunting, chapters could take a couple of hours, or longer to complete.  Obviously less, maybe by half, if you just rushed through, but then again you would be missing key clues to the story, by not accessing memories.

Within each large level, are a few scattered mini-games.  I thought these were well done, as they typified the level they were in.  In fact, I think they should have figured more prominently throughout Alice: Madness Returns.  My favorites were where Alice turned 2-D and had retro side scrolling adventures.  In the underwater levels, she commandeered a ship and had to blast fish and mines, Defender-style.  Alice actually climbed into paintings in the Far East levels and navigated her way around (more jumping!).  Others had you guiding a macabre doll head Super Monkey Ball style, rearranging blocks, pressing musical notes, and even playing rudimentary chess.

American McGee certainly has a unique creative vision.  I marveled at the contrast in styles which were exemplified in each level.  Since the Chapters are so long, the same graphical design does not stay constant, thankfully.  The first introductory chapter begins in a lush, psychedelic tropical environment vibrant in color, yet ends in a semi-monochromatic, steampunk kind of metal-infused world.  The creatures and inhabitants, also have taken steps towards the grotesque, as Alice's damaged psyche portrays them.  It's quite evident that Wonderland is in decay.

The storytelling uses a mix of different types of cut scenes to convey what's happening.  Some are what you'd expect from a video game in 2011, but others are influenced by storybooks, with what looks like, 2-D paper cutouts.. The effects are this mix of nostalgia infused with today's technology.  Even in London, the other characters Alice meets have exaggerated features, and look like they could be creatures from Wonderland.

The voice acting in Alice: Madness Returns is excellent, which makes Alice's story so much more believable and helps you form an attachment to Alice's circumstances.  Music throughout the game is the appropriate mix of violin and/or piano to make the adventure seem a little more creepy.

Replay Value
While there is a New Game + feature available, I can't see much use in it.  Any collectibles missed can be accessed through the sub-chapter level selector.  I do recommend purchasing the DLC outfits and weapons pack for the game.  They make the game a tad easier through various bonuses you get while wearing, and it's only a couple of bucks.  Plus, they look pretty cool.  I played through using them and I think that added to my lack of frustration experienced.  For buyers of the retail copy, the original American McGee's Alice is available to download through a code included (Or available for $10 through PSN or XBL, if you purchased the game used)


I enjoyed my time in Wonderland much more than I thought I would.  I expected a run of the mill third-person action adventure and got much more.  A little more of the mini-games and a little less jumping should be in order for her next game.  While the game at times feels a bit rushed and incomplete, I am definitely up for Alice's next adventure.  Alice: Madness Returns is a pleasant change of pace, and some of the sequences and experiences have stayed with me, even after I've moved on to other games.  A good deal now that it available for $40, and definitely worth a look when it drops below $30.

At the time of this review, Alice: Madness Returns is available from Amazon for $39.99, for both PS3 and Xbox 360 versions.  

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