Thursday, 29 December 2011

Alice Madness Returns Review

Eleven years ago, American McGee's Alice was released on the PC. The game featured a much creepier, sinister and nightmarish version of Lewis Carroll's Wonderland, with a distinct American McGee style. This year signalled the long-awaited sequel, Alice: Madness Returns.

Whilst the d├ębut game was great, it definitely suffered from a few flaws within the gameplay itself, but has Alice: Madness Returns managed to avoid this? Thankfully, on the whole, this is a worthy sequel that is much, much better than it's predecessor.
In Alice: Madness Returns, Alice, the games returning protagonist, has not managed to escape the demons and hallucinations that plagued her throughout the first game. This time around, Alice's own Wonderland creation inside of her mind has merged with her real Victorian London surroundings, thus creating an even darker and deeper caricature than we have seen before. 

Soon after the games initial cut scene, it is clear to see that the game is a visual treat. Surroundings are packed with plenty of detail, and Alice's Wonderland gives off a surreal, twisted and damn right sinister vibe. Fans of the dark and macabre will love this. Not only does it show off American McGee's now recognised aesthetics, but it also, at least for me, presents itself as a darker version of Tim Burton. Think Tim Burton on acid perhaps. Players are thrust into a world full of gory creatures, great platforming moments, and some brilliant level design. 
To fully understand the significance of Alice's mental struggles in this sequel, it is probably best to take a step back and mention the ending of American McGee's Alice. In Alice, this troubled dark child had apparently won her battle with her insanity. She has visited Wonderland and successfully fought the evil Red Queen. It appears that her insanity, which was provoked after a fire at her home killed her parents and sister, has been sedated. Or has it?

Race forward a few years and we find in Alice: Madness Returns that her recovery has not been a speedy one. Alice is still under psychiatric care, and her own memories of her families tragedy, combined with her visions of Wonderland, are in tatters. Whilst her psychiatrist pushes her to forget her troubled past, Alice has trouble doing just that, and soon enough, she finds herself once again duelling in her imagined world of Wonderland. However, Wonderland is not what it once was. The Wonderland she once remembered as a magical, wonderful place has been replaced by a ruined, terrifying and sinister world. Alice soon realises that Wonderland is in danger from the evil that lurks within. A product of her disturbed and fragile mind, Alice must save Wonderland in order to save herself, and vice versa. Rather than taking the quirky route of Lewis Carroll's classic novel, this Spicy Horse developed game has turned Wonderland into a world of nightmares, with plenty of psychological links. 
Whilst the Wonderland segments of the game, which take up a vast proportion of the gameplay, are excellent, Alice's wanders through the grimy, soot-riddled streets of Victorian London is where the game thrives as well. Alice: Madness Returns manages to convey the seedier side of London, such as the brothels, as well as portraying a stark black and white, miserable, but somewhat darkly amusing depiction of London during the Industrial Revolution. Alice's London is full of filthy, craggy looking people, and is even less attractive than London depicted in Charles Dickens novels.

However, Wonderland itself is definitely Madness Returns' highlight. The game is divided up into chapters, which present a different theme in each one. For example, one area is set in the Mad Hatter's domain, a steampunk style factory where a clockwork style Mad Hatter resides alongside the a robotic March Hare and mechanical Dormouse. Another is an oriental style area, where Alice battles samurai wasps, and one of my personal favourites is the underwater level, where Alice uses her variety of weapons against drowned sailors, sharks and sinister fish. Alice: Madness Returns definitely thrives on it's visuals-from the excellent themed level design, to the Alice's matching clothing which changes from chapter to chapter. 
Another great aspect of Madness Returns is the music. The score is full of creepy tinkling noises, and sounds atmospheric and creepy for the most parts. The tense thumping boss battle music also fits perfectly. Like American McGee's Alice though, occasionally some characters dialogue is drowned out by the overly loud music. I found this is particularly evident during the Cheshire Cat dialogue sections. 

For the most part, the gameplay feels rather fluid, and is a vast improvement on the controls in the previous game. Alice initiates a graceful floating jump which floats her down to the next platform, which is fun to engage in. The combat is also much smoother this time around. Alice locks on to the chosen antagonist then selects one of her weapons-the Vorpal Blade, Hobbyhorse, Pepper Grinder or the Teapot to defeat them. Being a huge Zelda fan, a lot of the gameplay for myself reminded me of the Zelda series, from the lock-on combat, to one musical section in the underwater segment of the game. This section involved playing a tune by pressing the buttons on screen in the correct order. The way this was set out is clearly reminiscent of the Ocarina playing parts of The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. As well as the combat and floaty sections, Alice can also shrink down to a minute size to enter keyholes, where memories or treasures can be found. Come across a floating pig snout (I did mention this game was bizarre, didn't I?) and shoot them full of pepper in order to unlock new pathways which Alice can manoeuvre. The gameplay is a little challenging at times which helps to make things that bit more interesting, but occasionally mini-bosses are repeated which become incredibly easy to beat after a while (the large black ooze dripping creations being one of them). There are a few moments of "fetch" style quests which can get a tiny bit repetitive, but on the whole, it's a lot of fun. 
Alice: Madness Returns platforming sections are broken up by the occasional puzzle, and different gameplay ideas, such as a side-scrolling underwater shooting section, and the paper-craft style oriental side-scrolling platforming. Whilst these sections are only brief, they help to keep the game refreshing, and break up the repetitiveness which sometimes is felt in parts of the gameplay.

Although Alice: Madness Returns is a great game, it is not perfect. The game suffers from a few frame-rate issues at times (most notably during the London sections), and sometimes the textures do not seem to flow as fluidly as perhaps they should. Sometimes the platforming gameplay can get a little frustrating (it can be hard to judge a jump at times, due to a badly placed camera angle). Levels can get a little repetitive at times, but on the whole, Madness Returns is a fun game to endure. The game is certainly a visual treat which is full of macabre imagery, and thrives on creative ideas. It also largely improves on it's predecessor in style, graphics and gameplay. 
Alice: Madness Returns can be completed in around 9 or 10 hours, but thankfully the game comes with a code to download the original Alice, a port of the original PC version. This version has not been updated for a HD audience, and the gameplay may seem a little dated and flawed at times, but this sinister, creepy and eye-catching style is present once more. Oh, and it includes a few bonus achievements/trophies, if you're into that kind of thing. Sadly this game did get a little overlooked upon it's June 2011 release, so I urge you to check it out now.

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