By Daniel Wallace
Alice: Madness Returns is the sequel to 2000′s American McGee’s Alice, developed by Spicy Horse for a variety of formats. The plot sees Alice attempt to defend Wonderland from a new threat whilst also facing her own very real trials – battling madness, unearthing a dark conspiracy and discovering the root of the Liddell family’s misfortune.
Alice climbs out onto a rooftop, pigeons cooing her welcome. A vast London skyline stretches out across the horizon, smoke bellowing from chimneys blocking the sunset. We approach an elderly woman and it quickly becomes clear that all is not what it seems. The roof underneath Alice cracks and shatters, sending her tumbling into a tunnel walled with teapots, cogs and severed doll heads. Alice glides to a smooth landing in a very different world. Alice, and madness, has returned to Wonderland.
This latest instalment sees Wonderland under siege by a malicious train, which Alice needs to stop in order to save her make-believe world. Just over a decade has passed since American McGee created the sinister American McGee’s Alice and he has clearly not lost any of his flair for the foreboding – the visually arresting world of Alice: Madness Returns never fails to impress.
The story sees the player travelling through various distinct worlds that are themed around the main NPC that Alice needs to see in order to halt the train’s rampage. Be it the steampunk paradise of the Mad Hatter, or the oriental mystique of the Caterpillar, each area is as rich and refreshingly interesting as the last. Alice is suitably dressed for each occasion too, wearing new themed outfits in each chapter which are almost as interesting as the world around her.
Exploring these areas is done through a mix of platforming, mini-games and puzzles. Luckily for Alice, who according to her sister is ‘part frog’, the platforming is straightforward yet can unfortunately sometimes feel a little bit monotonous until later in the game, when hazards are more frequently added into play. Sometimes Alice does seem to get caught on invisible walls, which can lead to many a frustrating death. Thankfully, there is no penalty whatsoever for death, so the only issue caused is a mildly frustrating break in progress. These invisible walls do raise themselves fairly often though, with Alice getting caught on strange pieces of floor or scenery.
The puzzles are also plagued with being identical throughout the game when they do crop up. Occasionally and tediously, Alice needs to collect the pieces for, then complete, a sliding puzzle. Fortunately, these only appear once or twice in any given chapter.
However, the minigames are not marred with the same problems. These minigames are contextually sensitive to the area that Alice is in and never fail to entertain. One such game sees you pilot a dismembered Alice-doll’s head through a course à la Super Monkey Ball, and another has you piloting a paper cut-out Alice through a 2D feudal Japan – an area, like the rest of the game, which is very aesthetically pleasing.
Whilst exploring the world you are forced to deal with its inhabitants, who are just as diverse and attention-grabbing as the areas themselves. Most NPCs are hostile, such as the disturbing ‘Ruins’ who are consistently trying to end Alice throughout the game, the tableware toting ‘Madcaps’ of the Hatter or the returning ‘Card Guards’ of the Queen. Combat has a consistently challenging difficulty curve during the course of Madness Returns, with new weapons and new enemies regularly appearing to mix things up for the player.
However, combat can sometimes feel slightly repetitive. Alice lacks a combination system, so inputs are unfortunately restricted to button-mashing mixed up with a dodge/dash ability which sees Alice become a swarm of butterflies. Once you work out an enemy’s attack pattern and the timing of these attacks, they are very easy to avoid and counter – the challenge in combat comes from the mixture and number of enemies thrown at you.
If you’re a completionist, there is plenty to keep you coming back for more trips to Wonderland. Additional ‘memories’ can be unlocked by collecting hidden bottles scattered throughout the world and these memories can add additional flavour to what is already a surprisingly dark story.
Alice: Madness Returns is a fun, if not sometimes repetitive game that constantly stuns with its beautiful visuals. Though marred with repetition and the occasional immersion-breaking invisible wall, is a thoroughly enjoyable experience that is supplemented with twists and turns through a well-written story. Any fan of the original American McGee’s Alice should be sure to pick up this great yet flawed sequel and return to Alice’s twisted Wonderland.
7 OUT OF 10