Alice: Madness Returns — Review

Alice: Madness Returns, from Spicy Horse and EA, is the sequel to American McGee’s Alice which, although I have attempted to play the first game, I have never completed. The sequel was developed by Spicy Horse and published by Electronic Arts in 2011. Like its predecessor, this is a third-person adventure game, chronicling Alice’s adventures in a Wonderland that has been corrupted by outside influences.

Under the care of Dr. Bumby and living in his orphanage, Alice undergoes hypnosis in an attempt to forget the terrible tragedy of the house fire that killed her family. The therapy is less than successful, however, because despite the fact that Alice wants to quiet the memories that are upsetting her life, she is unable to let go of the past due to her ravenous desire to remember how the events of the tragedy played out in order to determine her own guilt in the matter. At the end of the session Dr. Bumby sends Alice away to get some pills from a pharmacist and, through a confusing transition, she finds herself back in Wonderland.

Gameplay is divided into six chapters and consists of exploration, collection, puzzle solving, and fights that transition between mêlée attacks with short range weapons and third person shooting with long range weapons. The main goals of the game are to discover and confront an unknown trouble that is looking for you and discover the origins of a train that threatens to destroy Wonderland with its very presence.

Defeating enemies and smashing breakable objects yield teeth and roses which can be used to upgrade weapons and replenish health, respectively. There are also chapter-specific attributes that shake things up by turning the game into a 2D side scroller and having the player manipulate a doll head to move about an obstacle course. Side quests include collecting memories to better understand Alice’s past, obtaining bottles for no discernible reason, and completing radula rooms in order to gain extra health. You also use one of your weapons, a pepper grinder, to pepper flying pig snouts for the duchess, which will grant access to previously unreachable areas in order to complete other side quests or obtain picnic baskets filled with teeth and roses.

Puzzles are broken up into several styles. The first are picture puzzles, in which you gather boxes with picture faces on them. Once the picture pieces are returned to the grid, the player then partakes in a slider puzzle, needing to arrange the pieces into their exact position within a certain number of moves. The second are chessboard puzzles, requiring you to play across the room (someone read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone). Upon reaching certain hallways in the Red Queen’s castle, the player must advance their chess piece across a board while a second piece mirrors their movement. The puzzle is solved when both pieces reach their destination markers.

The game has two visual styles. You bounce back and forth between England and Wonderland, though you mainly stay in Wonderland, and while in England the visual style consists of dull colors – even the black and white outfit Alice wears is dull. Wonderland, on the other hand, is rich with color and each section has its own distinct visual aspects. Alice: Madness Returns plays like a console game and yet it looks more like a PC game.

Madness Returns is without mercy. The difficulty setting does not matter as many of the hazards are environmental in nature (the setting only affects enemies). Early on you will find yourself either moving from platform to platform while in the air or jumping from one side of a chasm to another. Steam vents allow for reaching higher areas and most of them are hovering in midair. Once the introductory stages are over you have to be aware of your surroundings at all times. The stage designs are challenging but also rewarding.

Alice: Madness Returns has its flaws. Most of the words you need or want to read are too small. The Extra Content section of the main menu selection, called Past Matters, consists of six pages of who knows what because nothing is actually legible. You can make some of them out if you try hard enough but there is no reason why this should be necessary. I feel that the remarks on the various objects when you hit the selection button while in the England part of the game should have been spoken dialogue rather than just text. When in Wonderland, the Weapons section of the pause menu has a character called Hallow Yves who provides descriptions of the various weapons via a speech bubble, again voice acting might have been better suited here

Another thing you will notice rather quickly is that, while in Wonderland, the game suffers from what I like to call Invisible Wall Disorder (IWD). You will find this along the borders of the playable areas where it looks like you can make your way through an obstruction but you will be unable to. This is harmless enough, and is kept to areas you would only start exploring once you have gained enough experience with the game that you want to explore even further. So for the vast majority of the time IWD is imperceptible. However, there is one location within the game where IWD will get you killed and you will curse it forever in Chapter Three.

The the final section of Chapter Three is not fully rendered. Here is how the game typically looks.

 

And here is how it appears at the end of Chapter Three.

And here is how it appears at the end of Chapter Three.

This lack of completion combined with the invisible wall issue clearly indicate that Alice: Madness Returns was rushed at the end of its development.

As mentioned earlier, you have the ability to play as a doll head moving about an obstacle course. The controls for moving about are confusing and counterintuitive. When the camera angle changes on you without indication and you adjust the thumbstick accordingly, you stand a good chance of losing the necessary momentum required for reaching the next area. There are acceleration pads along the track you need to use, but it is still a mystery to me whether I need to use the thumbstick at all to have any affect on the doll head’s speed. Then there are cannons the head will enter so you can shoot yourself across to the next area, but using the thumbstick to aim the cannon sometimes causes it to move in the opposite direction. Even allowing the head to move on its own without influence from you can cause a different action to happen under identical circumstances. This game has an achievement for completing one of these stages in less than six minutes and I have been unable to get it because these stages increase the difficulty through handicapping the player.

Alice has the ability to reduce her size at will to reach hidden areas to access Shrinking Violets, flower blooms that emerge from the ground, to regain her full health. However, Shrink Sense is used by holding a button down, which is stupid as no other tasks are assigned to that button. Say you’re using Shrink Sense to reach a Shrinking Violet, and your finger gets tired or it slips from the button, you can kiss full health goodbye.

They story’s cut scenes are terrible. While I enjoy their 2D animation, the dialogue goes tend to be rushed and leaves you to wonder what was said, what it meant, and how it applies to Alice’s story. A small glimmer of hope is that you can replay these cut scenes from the main menu.

Finally, this game commits the sin of being unable to skip through the 27 seconds of logos that appear every time you start the game up. Taking everything into account, I consider this game to be a must have. Despite its flaws this game surpasses its predecessor with flying colors and is well worth the money.

Alice: Madness Returns is available on PC, Xbox 360 and PS3.

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