Alice's road to recovery may suffer a few relapses, it's still a fever dream well worth plunging into.
American McGee's Alice, released in 2000, took place after the events of Alice in Wonderland and its sequel Through the Looking Glass. It showed Alice as an institutionalised mental patient dealing with the death of her parents and sister, who had perished in a house fire. Overcome with grief, Alice started slipping into insanity, her unstable psychosis dragging her Wonderland retreat down with her: it became a vile place where despair reigned supreme.
But the reign was short-lived. Alice took the vorpal blade to the root of all evil, the Red Queen, and saved her precious phantasmagoria and with it, her sanity.
Or so it seemed.
Alice: Madness Returns picks up after the events of the first game. Alice Liddell has been released from the Rutledge Asylum and is now in the care of doctor Angus Bumby, a psychiatrist running his own orphanage in Victorian London. Yet all is not well in Wonderland. A new menace, taking the form of an unstoppable steam train cathedral (yes, you read that right) corrupts the local extravagance, spilling thick puddles of malevolent oil wherever it roams. And so, Alice takes another tumble in an attempt to fix Wonderland and her bedevilled mind once and for all.
If you have played the first game you'll know that it was revered more for the magnificently morbid recreation of Wonderland and its denizens than for the gameplay. I'm happy to say that Alice: Madness Returns doesn't suffer the same pitfall. The twisted art direction is still here but the gameplay, a dichotomy of platforming and fighting, is genuinely good this time around.
Make no mistake, Madness Returns is a clear-cut platformer the likes of which we rarely see these days. There are switches to pull, air gusts to ride and moving platforms to navigate, and plenty of 'em too. Thankfully, the many floating islands can be bridged smoothly by a triple jump and the ability to glide between each hop. These many leap extensions mean that failing a jump will have more to do with miscalculating a moving platform than underestimating a distance. And even if you plummet to your death, the game instantly resets you to the last platform you were on without penalty.
That doesn't mean you can't die of course, which is where the combat comes in. The industrial revolution lingers in Alice's mind, kneading enemies of all shapes and sizes out of thick black oil and porcelain doll heads, but they are the less impressive enemies. Smoking crabs that use their cigars to light the fuse of their arm-cannons? Oni mask-wearing samurai wasps? Zombie playing card soldiers? Now we're talking.
The diversity in enemies leads to interesting combat scenarios as well, as you can be fighting different enemy types at once. With the more powerful enemies requiring a specific tactic to beat, these fights get to flirt with strategy as you have to prioritize which target you'll attack first; that big lump throwing fireballs and dashing into you occasionally, the smaller enemies who don't deal much damage but are numerous, or will you instead focus on destroying those hives, spawning flies that latch onto you and slow you down? Since a lot of the combat is focused on parrying (with an umbrella, no less) or dodging, the combat is a cut above your average button-mashing affaire. You have to keep your head in it, or it could end disastrous.
But even if Alice is down to her last breath, you still have an ace up your sleeve in the form of Hysteria: pressing the right thumbstick when you're low on health turns the entire world into a black and white and blood red goth painting, with Alice herself becoming a spook whose mouth, eyes and forearms are dripping with blood. You cannot be hurt when in Hysteria, and you deal more damage as well. It's a powerful ability balanced by the fact that you have to be dangerously close to death to pull it off.
But it's more fun to deliver death than receive it and you get some neat toys to do just that. The vorpal blade is back as your standard light attack weapon, alongside new additions such as a quake-causing hobby horse, a pepper grinder that can be used as a machine gun and a remotely detonated toy soldier that doubles as a distraction for your enemies.
Each of your weapons can be upgraded up to three times increasing its speed, power and appearance. The hobby horse, for instance, goes from being a simple wooden dummy at rank one to a silver neighing unicorn with flaming eyes at rank four. Obviously these upgrades cost money, with the currency here being the teeth you find on defeated enemies or simply lying around, stowed in the many boxes and vases decorating Wonderland.
Chess puzzles, rhythm games and 2D-sidescrolling sections break up the jumping and bumping, but they are mere distractions rather than fully developed gameplay styles and most of these peripheral portions can be skipped.
There's not much straying to do since levels are a strictly linear progression, complete with doors closing behind you so that you cannot backtrack in case you missed something. And there's plenty to miss; memories (small monologues of various characters that reveal a little more backstory or motivation) - bottles (collecting all of them in a chapter unlocks concept art) - snouts (peppering them will open new paths or reward you with a teeth-filled gift basket) and radula rooms, trials such as quizzes or timed survivals that earn you a rose petal, collecting four of which extends your health meter by one rose.
These collectibles are tucked away in nooks and crannies often masked by invisible walls or platforms, which is where the Shrink Sense comes in handy. You can shrink indefinitely by holding down the L-bumper, allowing you to pass through keyholes or underneath half-opened gates. Shrinking has another benefit though: it allows you to see hidden platforms and markings on the walls; children's drawings showing what enemies are up ahead or what collectible is nearby.
There's a total of six chapters (the final chapter being little more than story exposition and a boss fight) that take maybe fifteen hours total to beat, depending on how obsessive you are over collectibles. Once you finished the game, a New Game Plus option becomes available, and the dresses you've amassed over the course of your first playthrough can be equipped for your next game, each one granting you a special ability. The dress from chapter one, for example, will automatically heal you when you shrink, while the dress of chapter four will allow a health meter of four roses maximum.
But going through it again could prove very unappealing because its impressive length also works against it: the platforming does not evolve whatsoever, making the traversal a grind. Cutting a few hours out of the game would've gone a long way in helping it stay fresh but spending two hours in one chapter, revisiting the same mechanics, is exhaustive and the lack of a boss fight (even though each chapter sets up for one) doesn't even grant you the satisfaction of closure.
For that, you'll have to make do with 2D-animated cutscenes, almost a sickly collage of the drawings of a children's fairy tale book, that prelude and postlude every chapter. We've seen a lot of this in games recently - and not always done well - but since Alice: Madness Returns already draws a lot of strength from its artwork, the animations fit the grotesque universe like a blooded, gib-drenched glove.
Each chapter you explore comes with completely unique art assets and though they tend to repeat as well, they're intriguing enough that it never becomes bothersome. Chapter two starts off on glaciers with frozen animals exposing their vital organs via bite-marks. Chapter three has been severely influenced by oriental art and calligraphy, bringing some serenity to the madness. Sure, the textures are muddy and the running joke of videogame engines, Unreal's texture pop-in, makes another unwelcome appearance, but when you're dealing with such unique and hallucinant landscapes, graphical issues are forgiven.
Yet, despite the often disturbing imagery, the real horror comes from the game's human characters who, without venturing into spoiler territory, dabble in themes that are very uncommon for videogames. It's an ugly time and place, and you'll get to explore a bit of the real world as well to understand why Alice would want to retreat from it.
That said, Alice is still a lot of fun. She's fragile and she knows it, but she's also not letting anyone take advantage of that, retaining her curious yet level-headed personality that made her such a endearing character in the first game. She's also surprisingly emotive, easily showing fear or hatred in those big green eyes. Oh, and the hair. By God, the hair. It's obvious that Spicy Horse spent a lot of care on Alice's character model and animations, and it pays off.
Voice acting is phenomenal as well. Susie Brann, the woman behind the titular Alice, came across as rather inexperienced in the first game, but the ten years have been good to her craft and the dramatic undertones really give her a chance to shine. Even bit characters like nurse Witless are spot-on, and though I greatly enjoy the writing, the era-appropriate jargon can be a little hard to follow at times.
Not all of the audio is commendable, though. The Dormouse's crackling taunts start to grate rather fast and the soundtrack, once again provided by Chris Vrenna, often is nothing more than one-minute loops of dissonant bells and xylophones that just drill themselves into your skull. It's not that they are bad (one particular theme is a big wink to Nightmare on Elm Street) but they repeat for far too long, up to the point where I dove into the sound options to turn the music volume down. Otherwise the music does a great job blending the macabre with melancholy, especially with the piano-heavy opening song.
If you are interested in the precursor, a downloadable HD-remake of American McGee's Alice is included with every new retail copy of the game, but it serves only as a dangerous reminder of those rose-tinted glasses called nostalgia. Still, if you're so inclined to know the full backstory and are willing to brave the archaic gameplay, it's there for you, with a hundred gamerscore points from Madness Returns linked to completing its various chapters.
Some of the game's other achievements just prove the tedium: when you're awarded ten points for having spent seven full minutes riding steam vents, you begin to wonder if the developers actually thought that people enjoy repetition as much as this game presents it. It's all very doable in short bursts but chances are that prolonged gameplay sessions will leave you annoyed by the game's refusal to just get on with it. But, like a good bedside friend, you'll stick with it until it gets better again, because you know it still has so much more to show you, and because you know it will be worth the wait.