STAFF REVIEW of Alice: Madness Returns (Xbox 360)

Thursday, July 14, 2011.
by Adam Dileva

Alice: Madness Returns Box art If you played the first Alice game by American McGee back when it released over a decade ago, then you have an idea of what to expect from a very dark twist on the girl we know Alice and her Wonderland. Don?t fret though if you?ve not played the original, as new copies come enclosed with a download code for a full port of the PC classic. To those new to McGee?s take on Alice?s story, you?ll realize from the moment you see the EA logo at the beginning of the game that morphs into a demented Cheshire cat; you realize you won?t be in the regular Wonderland any longer. Alice: Madness Returns is a completely dark and twisted retelling of the classic novel by Lewis Carroll that I would argue even makes Tim Burton?s take on the movie adaptation look inferior.

Alice has been set loose from the insane asylum after the event of the first game and is now an orphan. She still has troubling and disturbing memories of the fire that killed her family years ago and will slip between the realities of the London streets to the Wonderland that she?s created in her mind to try and keep sane. As she delves deeper into Wonderland she?s slowly piecing together bits of truth of what actually happened the night of the fire which in turn slowly starts to destroy her beloved and beautiful Wonderland. Destroying Wonderland is an evil Train of unknown origins and she?ll run into familiar faces along the way such as The Rabbit, Caterpillar, Req Queen, Hatter and others, though they have seemed to have been changed as well during all these years. The Cheshire Cat will help you with riddles and cryptic messages along your path as you fight your way to find the truth about the night of the fire. The game is split into five separate and lengthy chapters that will always have you starting in 19th century London (?reality?) before delving into Alice?s madness that is Wonderland. During the early century London segments (much like Tim Burton?s style), Alice is only able to navigate and there?s nothing to do but explore the scenery as there?s nothing to do or interact with until you simply come to the correct spot for the cutscene to begin. At first I was a little deterred by these short segments, but as you progress during the game it?s a nice change of pace as most of the time (in Wonderland) you?ll be frantically platforming or fighting enemies.

The game begins to shine through its amazing art design and structure once you witness Wonderland for the first time. Your first trip in Wonderland is extremely colorful and vibrant and simply gorgeous; as you delve deeper into Alice?s psyche though you?ll notice quickly how things deteriorate into grotesque and twisted surroundings. Each chapter has a completely unique look and feel and fantastic visual variety, unfortunately though every level is progressed in the same exact way other than the odd mini-game here and there to mix things up. No matter what chapter you are playing, you need to find the switch to open the door to jump platforms to fight the enemies to open a new door. Because of this there is much repetition and the surprisingly long chapters in the end hinder the experience as a whole rather than flesh out a deep plot structure.

Alice begins her journey in Wonderland with a simple knife that can slash enemies quickly. As you progress you?ll squire new weapons like the pepper grinder (machine gun), tea kettle (grenade launcher), a Time Bomb (that also distracts enemies) and the Horse on a stick (Sledgehammer). Every weapon has its own strengths and there are certain enemies that need to be killed with certain weapons, so you?ll need to become fluent in quickly changing weapons and targeting the correct enemy. Luckily there is a lock-on system that works for the most part pretty decently. You?ll never really have much trouble trying to find your enemy to lock onto; the issue arises from the sometimes awkward camera angles when locked on that can obstruct your vision from seeing the enemies. Most weapons are also needed to access your next area such as using the Horse mallet to bash through weak walls or the Tea Kettle to do the same from afar. Alice can also defend herself with her umbrella to stop oncoming attacks or simply dodge out of the way almost instantly.

While combat is an integral part of Alice dealing with her madness, the majority of the game will have you platforming and jumping to progress to the next area and finding the secrets that lie within. Alice is able to triple jump to reach high ledges and use her skirt to float long distances. There will be many bouncy mushrooms to launch you into the air and air vents to float you upwards to traverse Wonderland. Many times you?ll need to bounce high, triple jump and then float to your next platform. My few complaints about the mechanics here is that Alice will not grab onto a ledge so if you miss your jump even slightly, you?ll die, though when you are locked onto an enemy you?ll never fall off (thankfully). The other is that when you do fall off and die you?re never always guaranteed where you?ll be put back. Sometimes you?re right where you fell and others you?ll be back at the beginning of the jumping sequence.

Alice also has the ability to shrink down to a fraction of her true size. This allows her to fit into very small keyholes that almost always lead to a secret area with collectables. Shrinking will also allow Alice to see hidden platforms and walkways drawn in a purple outline. Come near the second half of the game you?ll be using Shrink quite often to see where to land in a seemingly open pit (you don?t need Shrink on to be on the platforms, though you are defenseless while tiny). Exploration is an absolute joy with how well the levels are designed and how gorgeous the art direction is.

A large portion of the Alice gameplay is also finding all the secret collectables that come in the form of memory fragments, bottles and teeth. Yes, teeth. These teeth are your currency to upgrade your weapons as you see fit (4 ranks for each weapon) and make an absolute huge difference when fighting the tougher enemies. You?ll be listening for something odd as well; pig snouts snorting. Yes, find these elusive snouts floating around or on walls and use your pepper grinding on them to reveal a secret path to more collectables.

As mentioned before, the majority of the game will be the platforming and combat but there are a few sections that break up the lengthy monotony. There are a few side-scrolling sections that look like paper cutouts, some sliding sections that will make you think Mario 64, a part where you?ll have to roll a baby?s head across a racetrack, and even a brief section where Alice will actually grow ten times her regular size instead of shrinking to take out an army of card guards (which also had the funniest moment in the game).

I cannot say enough glorious things about the art style and direction McGee has brought once again. He?s outdone himself from the first game by far and I could only imagine how he would make Wonderland look on the big movie screen if it were to ever happen. The writing and voice acting is also top notch. Music and sound is creepy and eerie to fit the mood of Wonderland and the overall feel and simply hearing the enemies will make your skin crawl. An issue I had with all these praises though is the length and pacing of the chapters individually. Simply put, the levels were much too long and because of this you sometime lost motivation to keep going other than trying to find out snippets of information about the fire. Normally I?d praise a game that has lengthy levels to prolong the life of it in your system tray, but when you?re mostly platforming the whole time it can get a little old when each chapter is around three hours to complete.

The other small gripes I had with Alice other than the seemingly forever drawn out chapters was the poor texture pop-ins (though it?s more likely an issue with the Unreal engine it?s using than the game itself), no paper manual at all (give it a cheap feeling soon as you open the game box) and some of the animations are nonexistent. Alice turning to and from the camera for example will instantly ?flip? her so one second you?ll look at her face; the next is the back of her head with no animation in between other than her hair ?flowing?.

Like I mentioned in the beginning, the original Alice from McGee is included in new copies for those that never played or want a refresher, but, there is a catch. The original is actually flagged as DLC for the game, not a separate XBLA download. This means you need this Alice in the tray whenever you want to play the old one. Not a deal breaker, but definitely not the norm or expected. Also, make note that the original Alice is simply a port and not an HD upgrade. The game is over a decade old and looks ugly to today?s standards. You?ll play in 4:3 aspect ratio with stiff controls but it was free, so it?s hard to complain.

Once you get sucked into the beautiful world of Wonderland you?ll be drawn in and amazed with how unique McGee?s imagination is about a story we all knew growing up. This is not your friendly Disney version of Alice in Wonderland or anything even close. This is Amercian McGee?s twisted and amazingly complex Alice that tells a tale of a girl who?s on the brink of losing her mind and what she must to do save it and Wonderland. Find the rabbit hole and visit Wonderland, hopefully you?ll be as drawn in as I was.

Not for the developers no, but someone in power please let McGee make his version of the movie!

Overall: 8.3 / 10
Gameplay: 8.0 / 10
Visuals: 9.0 / 10
Sound: 8.0 / 10


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