It’s been eleven years since we first took the plunge down the rabbit hole, but today the hugely anticipated, and long awaited, follow up to American McGee’s Alice has come at last. The first was a hit for its adult storytelling and beautiful art style, and it’s obvious Madness Returns has a very high bar to live up to.
Alice’s second adventure in this twisted Wonderland promises the same great story, characters and world we love about the series. The only question is whether or not the the rest of the game stands up to a decade’s worth of innovation between the two games, or should Alice just remain locked away in her padded room? Let’s dig in. The Baby Factor: If Tim Burton and Clive Barker got together… no, not to make love (get your mind out of the gutter you perv), to retell the classic Alice in Wonderland tale – Madness Returns would be their certifiable offspring.
Before we dig in to the particulars, there’s something you should know. I’ve never actually played the first game. Yes, I know, how could I have missed such a gem, but in my defense I was young and stupid. You might say, “Why Adam, what’s changed,” to which I’ll reply, nothing. However, since Madness Returns brings with it the original game, it looks like I’ll finally have my chance to go back to where it all started.
Let’s not bury the lead: Madness Returns has some serious, even fatal issues. With that said, it also has quite a few glowing strengths. The first of which is the audio. Usually I don’t start a review by discussing a game’s soundtrack, but this game’s music and voice work is just so good that it deserves top mention. For the audiophiles, Madness Returns has a lot to love, and for everyone else, it’s haunting tunes will stick with you, long after you’ve heard them.
The voice work, writing and dialogue are also all rather fantastic. This is the type of game I like to play with the volume up, if only so I can really hear and take in every character’s lines. This game doesn’t necessarily wow in the visuals department (more on that later), so it’s left to the voice overs to pick up the slack. The creatures and assorted crazy characters you come across could’ve been nothing but poorly animated stick creatures and the voice work would’ve made them feel alive – that’s just how great it is.
Another of the game’s strengths is its art style. As Alice falls more deeply into insanity Wonderland continues to transform into a more twisted version of itself. Unfortunately, I don’t think the horror aspect was pushed nearly as far as it should’ve been, but it’s still incredibly fun to look at.
The game is divided into six chapters, each with a very unique world and creatures that inhabit it. In one world you’re deep in the ocean fighting your way through jellyfish and wooden sharks and in the next you’re high in the sky, crossing bridges made of cards. There’s a lot of variety in the way the worlds look, it’s just a shame they all play exactly the same. This is one of those fatal flaws I teased earlier, and that flaw is Madness Returns suffers from a serious case of repetition.
Essentially, you can break the game into three parts: puzzles, platforming and combat. These are the essential pieces to any good action/adventure game, but usually a game like this varies the puzzles and platforming a bit to keep them from getting dull. This isn’t so here. When it comes to the platforming, you have geysers that lift you into the air, bounce pads to jump from one level to the next, and the occasional lever that needs to be pulled to reveal the next area.
Scattered about the environments are invisible platforming segments, which can be revealed when Alice shrinks (an ability Alice gets early on in the game). These areas usually require the most effort to pass, but that’s not saying much when the rest of the sections are made up of “float here, jump on this, walk across this, repeat.” There’s really no challenge when it comes to the platforming, and that’s a shame when so much of the game is made up of it.
The other thing you’ll be spending a majority of your time doing is fighting. Surprisingly, this is actually one of the game’s strengths. You have four weapons, two ranged and two for close combat. There’s the Pepper Grinder (machine gun), Teapot Cannon (grenade launcher), Vorpal Blade (knife), and Hobby Horse (hammer). Each of these weapons can be upgraded a few times to make them more powerful. Sadly, you can’t unlock new moves or combo attacks, and the game could’ve used a few more weapons, since you’ll have all of them in your arsenal halfway through the game.
Switching between each of the weapons is easy, and that’s a good thing since several of the fights require fast thinking when you’re fighting several different enemies that each require a unique strategy to vanquish. And if you find yourself struggling there’s always the last resort ability that Alice can unleash when low on health and in a fight: Super Alice. Now, I’m not sure if that’s what it’s called, in fact – I’m pretty sure it’s not, but it describes it well. When Alice unleashes this move the world turns white, as does Alice, and her damage output increases dramatically.
The final activity you’ll be spending some time with is solving puzzles. Unfortunately, there are really only a few different puzzles in the game that just keep reappearing, and they’re also insanely easy. You’ll come across targets that need to be shot to reveal hidden paths, pressure plates Alice can stand on (or place one of her time bombs on) that do the same, sliding puzzles, etc. The only problem is, none of these require any real though to beat, so they’re essentially filler as opposed to something you really have to try and wrap your mind around.
Now, sprinkled over the aforementioned areas of the game are what I affectionately refer to as the “fun” sections of the game. I’m not saying the rest of the game isn’t fun, it’s just that it’s so void of diversity that it becomes less fun over time. Thankfully, there are a few diversions to break up the experience. Every so often the game takes a break from its boring self to bring us incredibly cool sections, including steering a ship as it dives deep into the ocean, dodging sharks and crabs armed with cannons, slipping down slides covered with deadly obstacles, and playing through a gorgeous 2D sidescrolling version of Wonderland. It’s disappointing that these parts of the game are so short, because they’re some of the best parts.
It hurts me to say it, but this isn’t the game we were hoping for. It isn’t the mature, polished experience many of us hoped for, instead it’s a fairly last-gen looking game with a lot of repetition and stale gameplay. Its visuals aren’t up to par with recent games, there are texture popping and texture seams aplenty, and the camera is more than a little wonky. But if you’re willing to overlook these flaws you’ll find a game with a great cast of characters, great art style and satisfying combat.
The Final Word: Alice: Madness Returns is a good game with a lot of issues. Instead of giving us a sequel that compares, or surpasses, the original game, Madness Returns weaves a tale of a developer putting story over gameplay, when it should be the other way around.
This review is based on a retail copy of the Xbox 360 version of Alice: Madness Returns, which was provided by the publisher.
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