Lewis Caroll’s Alice novels are some of the most celebrated works of English fiction, telling the story of a young girl’s journeys into Wonderland – a fantasy place where nothing is quite as it seems, boiling over with weird characters and wonderful environments. Perfect gaming fodder maybe, but back in 2000, American McGee took some liberties in continuing the story of the books in his ‘Alice’ PC game, steering the tale in a more dark, macabre direction. Alice: Madness Returns is a direct continuation of this popular re-imaging, and sees EA handing over to developer Spicy Horse to lead us once again back into the rabbit hole.
Game: Alice: Madness Returns
Developer: Spicy Horse
Publisher: Electronic Arts
The preceding PC game saw an older Alice institutionalised after the death of her family in a horrific and accidental house fire. Troubled by the trauma of the event, Alice slips back into Wonderland – which much to her dismay, is equally as unhinged and troubled as her own psyche. The game told of her quest to undo the twisted impact brought on by the Queen of Hearts’ reign, and Madness Returns begins shortly after the events of this; with Wonderland safe, and Alice back in the real world, free from Rutledge Asylum. Despite this, she is still troubled by visions, and finds herself again returning to Wonderland, only to find a new, unidentified source of chaos tearing it apart. With sights & sounds from her reality also influencing the shape of this new Wonderland, parallels are drawn between its ruin and her own mental collapse – once again, Alice must save Wonderland to save herself.
Along the way you will encounter a number of returning characters, and those who list themselves as fans of the books will no doubt enjoy the references, though it must be said that some of the minor quests along the way involving these characters are less relevant and absorbing than one might enjoy. Alice herself is still a solid character despite her turmoil however, and one whose plight you can easily empathise with. Perhaps most compellingly, through the course of the game and in numerous cut scenes, Alice’s memory begins to re-populate with things she believed forgotten – all aiding the mystery and uncertainty of her entire tale, which is well-teased enough to keep you guessing and entertained throughout.
Whilst technically there is little here to applaud, the creativity of the source material itself allows for some great artistic opportunities, many of which has been well realised in many aspects of the game’s design. Whilst the lifeless buildings and dull greys of the Victorian ‘real world’ environment are perhaps uninspiring, their segments are quite brief and function mainly as connecting vessels between chapters, which juxtapose nicely against the flourish of imagination that hits you when you arrive in Wonderland each time. As your quest sees you pass through a number of areas it’s inevitable that not all will dazzle, and it’s unfortunate that the pacing will keep you trapped in the duller areas just as long as the exciting, yet never is the game too aesthetically dry.
Another of the more pleasant design aspects is Alice herself, whose character model is carefully detailed and dressed in a variety of styles to match her location – if nothing else, it breaks the mould for gaming leads quite nicely. The odd blood splatter on her dress aside, the darker themes of the game are more often characterised in enemy designs than anywhere else, and whilst themed enemies are paired with areas, more generic monsters sporting gunging black ooze and creepy dolls’ masks make for a recurring theme regardless of locale.
Visual creativity may be in abudance, however sonically the title is unfortunately not quite so impressive. Whilst some of the music is pleasant enough it’s rarely memorable, and for the most part there is a minimalism to its score that holds it back from ever being anything above passable. Voice acting on the other hand, is a slightly more uncomfortable topic. Thankfully, there’s been an appropriate degree of care taken with most of the leading characters, however some of the more short-lived appearances are cursed with inconsistent and cringe-worthy vocal performances. Those particularly offended by poorly spoofed accents should probably hover a cautionary finger over the mute button whilst strolling the streets of London’s East End, and whilst some of the blame must also be shouldered by the script-writers – more importantly than blame however, a lot of the hard work establishing environment is unfortunately undone by something so uncomplicated.
Although there’s been an effort to incorporate a variety of gameplay styles, the brunt of your time is spent platforming, and you can expect to see floating platforms, air vents, and gaping chasms aplenty, albeit presented in a range of visual styles. Even with the game never asking for especially precise platforming skills, you’re given enough tools to simplify most tasks, with double and triple jumps possible between a generously slow gliding descent. Perhaps more concerningly, the number of times you are requested to perform these tasks is quite un-necessary, and no manner of visual dressing can disguise that there is a notable quantity of unwanted filler contained within these sections.
Combat is handled by giving you an arsenal unlikely weapons – an umbrella for deflecting projectiles, and a machine gun-esque pepper grinder, to name but two. Victory is not often down to anything above selecting the right weapon for a particular task, but does still prove satisfying. Unfortunately though, there are times when your real battle is with the camera and an unresponsive button press as opposed to the enemy creatures; and although these instances are far from frequent, neither are they isolated. The overly frequent checkpointing suggests an internal recognition of this, and even when failing at the most crucial of moments, you are put back into the action rarely more than a few seconds prior to where you met your demise. Even with a steady but comfortably increasing difficulty curve – as demonstrated – the excessive safeguards stop there from ever being a real challenge, and eliminate a lot of the fear that might’ve spurred the player to sit slightly more on edge.
Along the way there are a number of other meta-games, ranging from a lacklustre side-scrolling shooter and an entirely throwaway rhythm-action segment, all the way up to a surprisingly detailed 2D platformer, complete with a some quite lovely parallax scrolling. Generic puzzles (sliding picture blocks, basic chess puzzles and the like) feature into many of the areas too, and whilst this does keep things slightly fresh, they are drowned out by sheer volume of other activities in the grand scheme of things, and are diversionary at best.
Alice is a long game – upwards of fifteen hours – and it’s unfortunately to its detriment, given many of these hours are articially inflated through its fondness to re-use tasks. Although not especially meaningful, there’s a decent range of collectables and secrets to explore, mostly found by generous use of the secret-plundering ‘shrink mode’ and careful exploration of each area. Thankfully there is logic to these secrets, and those who set their sights on 100% completion can at least expect a fair additional challenge in this. As an added bonus, a download of the original ‘Alice’ PC game is available via a one-use download code, allowing players who missed the first iteration of the game to catch up on the story so far – not to mention filling an supplementary chunk of hours.
Whilst you can sample nearly every aspect of gameplay within an hour or so, it’s still an enjoyable title to play in its entirity. There’s certainly some reward to be found in the story-telling, and in sight-seeing Wonderland itself. By tightening up some of the niggles, trimming some of the padding, and either further developing or cutting back on the half-baked ideas, Spicy Horse could’ve done Madness Returns the world of good and provided a well-rounded title that would appease nearly all. As it stands, it’s unfortunately over-reliant on its nice-gone-nasty theme to captivate the player and numb them to its shortcomings.