Alice: Madness Returns Review

Playing Alice: Madness Returns isn't as exciting as looking at it, but you'll still enjoy getting lost in this twisted fantasy adventure.

by

In Alice: Madness Returns, the heroine of American McGee's Alice has not escaped the demons she worked so hard to banish. The Wonderland of her imagination has been mangled into a dark and demonic caricature, filled with even more torturous hallucinations than she last encountered. Alice's mind is a dark place indeed, and in this long-awaited sequel, we discover that the real world isn't any sunnier. Creative and creepy visuals give this action platformer a twisted and surreal vibe, drawing you into a land inhabited by fire-breathing doll babies and squirming leeches. The action doesn't display the same kind of creativity, unfortunately. The game recycles the same basic ideas over and again, and its failure to grow and challenge leads to occasional tedium. Nevertheless, leaping and floating through an eerie oversized dollhouse and a Japanese-inspired dreamland is a joy, and there are enough hidden secrets to make it worth inspecting Madness Returns' grotesque nooks. Alice: Madness Returns is a fun but thoroughly ordinary game that takes place in an extraordinary setting.

Wonderland is a dangerous and freaky place to escape to…

In American McGee's Alice, the titular dreamer had seemingly overcome her insanity. A fire at her home had killed her parents and sister, leaving both her mind and her imagined Wonderland in shambles. She eventually triumphed over the Red Queen and her own madness, but it seems that this victory was a temporary one. Alice is still under medical care, struggling to remember the circumstances that led to her family's horrific end. Her psychiatrist urges her to forget her past, insisting that doing so is the only way to wellness. Yet forgetting proves a formidable task, and soon Alice finds herself once again lost in her imagination, where Wonderland lies in ruin. To save herself, she must save Wonderland, and vice versa. But this is not the curioser and curioser world author Lewis Carroll dreamed up when he wrote Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Rather, it is a place of nightmares, where the card guards that once protected the Red Queen are now undead monstrosities, and hobbyhorses are not playthings, but deadly weapons.

Wonderland itself is Madness Returns' finest attribute. Each chapter explores a different visual theme, some of them impossible to describe in a few simple words. Rusted platforms float against a cloudy yellow backdrop, next to clock towers from which giant forks and teapots dangle. Gnarled vines twist into an off-kilter heart above a giant castle whose spires lean in all directions. Alice's clothing changes from chapter to chapter, and her flowery prints and blood-red fabrics subtly match the level art. Wonderland is not the only place you explore, however. At the start of each chapter, you wander about an increasingly morose London. This vision of that city is more grubby and industrial than even Carroll's contemporary Charles Dickens conjured, drained of color and inhabited by impossibly wrinkled old crones and filthy fishermen. This world is not flawlessly rendered, however. The game pauses at bizarre times, sometimes at surprising length, to load data. Audio is an occasional issue as well: characters might talk over their own lines and are sometimes drowned out by the ambient music. At least that music is evocative, if not as excellent as the original Alice's score. The occasional tinkling of a toy piano and the buzz of low double basses provide fine contrast to the pounding drumbeats that accompany battle.

…but it's preferable to this bleak city.

Alice is generally a dream to control due to the effortless way you can string multiple jumps together and float gently downward. When you drift or perform midair leaps, flower petals blossom in your wake, emphasizing Alice's grace in a graceless land. The smoothness of motion makes bouncing from springy mushrooms and catching drafts of air a delight, and rarely is timing or landing a leap a struggle. All this is possible with the mouse and keyboard, but the oversensitive mouselook will have you reaching for a controller, which offers the best experience. Either way, you get caught up in freewheeling around this unusual place for a while, scanning for secrets and admiring the view. You can shrink yourself to minute size and enter keyholes, where you might find lost memories, Madness Returns' equivalent of audio logs. You come across floating pig snouts and can shoot them full of pepper from your pepper grinder to uncover new pathways. Hidden treasures are scattered all over, and hearing the telltale snort from a nearby snout elicits a pleasant Pavlovian response: you hear the oink and immediately move into scouting mode.

Every so often, Madness Returns' level layouts displays a glimmer of creativity, such as when playing cards flip and slide into view, extending your path. However, reaching your destination is a usually predictable affair. You spend a lot of time jumping onto floating surfaces and into gusts of air so that you can flip a switch that creates another set of surfaces and gusts. Sometimes you need to drop bombs to weigh down pressure plates, shrink to miniscule size to bring invisible platforms into view, or run under a spiked ceiling threatening to slam down on you. But Alice: Madness Returns has a limited bag of tricks, and so you frequently perform the same actions in the same context. Monotony too often results, particularly when your objectives are simple fetch quests. (Some residents of Wonderland are unwilling to divulge information unless you do them petty favors.) Levels have no sense of momentum: were it not for the unique environments, you could replace one sequence with any other and not even notice, and navigation is barely more challenging in the penultimate chapter than it is in the first .

If pepper is this deadly, just think of what Alice could pull off with a little coriander.

Luckily, combat freshens things up, due in part to the horrific enemies you face. Hideous monsters dripping with black ooze fling projectiles from above, and goblins wielding dinnerware threaten to stab you. Each enemy requires a slightly different technique to bring down, and Alice is fortunate enough to have the right tools for the job. First up is the returning vorpal blade, Madness Returns' version of a light attack. The hobbyhorse does strong attack duty, while the pepper grinder is your basic ranged assault weapon. Then there's the teapot, which you can think of as a grenade launcher, as well as your parasol, which you use to block incoming attacks. Once you get accustomed to the patterns and weaknesses, the vile fiends aren't difficult to fell. But while fights aren't often challenging, facing multiple enemy types at once is still fun, because you must use your entire arsenal in a single battle. Many battles are too easy to feel like anything but filler, and the sticky target lock can push the camera into awkward positions. But the sound of porcelain shattering when you slam your hobbyhorse into a wretched freak crusted with dolls' heads is worthwhile compensation.

Alice: Madness Returns occasionally tries to enhance the proceedings by wandering outside its comfort zone. You slide down ramps, solve some puzzles on a chessboard, jump about in a two-dimensional version of Wonderland, and so forth. The attempts to vary the pace are admirable, but in most cases, the execution is less than ideal. For instance, there are sequences in which you take control of a rolling doll's head and navigate in 2D and 3D alike. It's a neat idea, but the too-close camera and some awkward transitions in and out of third-person and side views frustrate. Running from a gigantic executioner should have led to pulse-pounding chases, but these sequences have you running toward the camera. It takes a special game to make it fun to run toward the unknown, and Alice is not such a game. An underwater shoot-em-up, a musical minigame--you might welcome the change of tempo at first, only to discover that these sections whistle a boring tune.

Lava? You'd think the Dormouse would be more at home in treacle.

It's disappointing that while the console versions include a code to download a port of the original Alice, the PC release does not include a copy of the game that introduced players to this distorted world. Madness Returns is not a lesser value without the inclusion of the original, however. It's fun to move through Wonderland as if carried by a summer breeze, bringing a touch of beauty to its contorted imagery. It's a shame that the game never expands its fundamentals. Looking back on time spent with Alice: Madness Returns is like remembering a vacation from your childhood: you remember where you went, but not what you did. Yet Alice's broken psyche is so tortured, her waking nightmare so vivid, that you're tempted to push forward to see what deliciously morbid sights yet await.

The Good
Beautifully dark and creepy version of Wonderland
Smooth, graceful controls
Unusual weapons make for fun combat
A good length, with lots of hidden objects and areas to locate
The Bad
Gameplay doesn't evolve, leading to tedium
Puzzles and other attempts to vary the pace are rarely fun
Audiovisual glitches can distract
The other versions include the original Alice; this one doesn't
7
Good
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13 comments
Indecipherable
Indecipherable

I think he understates how awkward the camera angle is during combat. I fight more against the camera than against the enemies..... Other than that, the review is quite fair. It's not a bad game by any right, but nothing to write home about.

gomagomes
gomagomes

'it's boring because it is platform after platform' duh. its the same thing saying 'i don't like doom because it's shooting after shooting only'. of course it is platform, because maybe the game supposed to be a platformer/action game?

Warmuro
Warmuro

Game is interesting when you first play, but after a while you find yourself doing the same things. There are some problems with some dialogues, they stop immediately or other one starts to talk right before the speaker stops talking (hope you got what i mean). Sound actings are wonderful, however Alice's voice could be better. Soundtracks are unique, all of them are cool with atmosphere. Graphics and engine are already good, sometimes textures appear lately but it's very rare, and it's all about Unreal Engine. However, there's no V-SYNC problem. Character models are also great. There're puzzles which are very similiar to each other, but there are also enough combat. In some levels you see yourself playing like other platform games (kinda mario 2D etc.). If you like Alice in Wonderland, and if you like action-adventure-puzzle games, you should try this one. Minimum 7.5/10, Maximum 8/10 from me.

Lamia96
Lamia96

Mr VanOrd. I understand why you don't like this game so much. but this isn't as bad as that! I see that you're a RPG player, me too.

necrosyne76
necrosyne76

I just finished playing through this one.  I have a mid-range PC and did not experience long load times nor any stuttering audio.  My copy did include the original Alice available for play, were I so inclined.  The game itself controls wonderfully and the level designs are both beautiful and intuitive.  When objectives change, the camera does a nice job of panning from your new goal to your current position.  As a result, you'll get lost very rarely.  Madness Returns features six varied environments (not including London, which serves as an intermission set piece of sorts) and you will spend a great deal of time in the latter areas of the game. Which brings to me to the only minor gripe I have about this game: some of these levels feel needlessly long.  Caterpillar's zen garden and the Dollhouse zone stand out in particularly in my memory.  While these areas are truly beautiful, they become rather stale after looking at them for half an hour or more.    All in all, though, it's a solid title and well worth the purchase price on Steam.

Rat_King
Rat_King

Personally I think it's a pretty underrated game, if not JUST for the environment and atmosphere. Seriously, if it's not breathtaking it's hilarious, if it's not hilarious it's creepy, and if it's not creepy then it's probably still pretty cool. The combat is actually very technical. I don't know if I'd call it clunky so much as it takes getting used to. But once you get it, it actually flows quite nicely, even on PC (though it is better suited for a controller I admit). Sorry Kevin, I know you get defensive when people say this, but I simply do not ever agree with you and think you look way too much at technicalities instead of the bigger picture.

 

Seriously though, for $5 on Steam this game is beyond worth it, if not just as a visual art piece. Hell I'd say this game would probably even be worth $29.99 (unless it was your life savings or lunch money for a month or something). And I mean...it's a platformer. Obviously there will be a lot of platform puzzles involved. But they're not horribly tedious. No more than most other platformers. And while Alice's skirt mechanics can be a little funky at times, you get the hang of it, and it's still a good challenge.

 

I'm only maybe halfway through and I still can't wait to beat it and see some of the upcoming settings I know are on the way. I am not at all bored of it yet, just wish I had more time in my schedule to play!

DeViLzzz
DeViLzzz

Well I am watching an old recording of someone playing this on justin.tv and let me say the game doesn't look that interesting.  Platform jump after platform jump after platform jump.  Am I missing something here ?  Is there an interesting game in here somewhere ?  It is marked down to $5.99 on Steam but even for $5.99 I am not sure this is worth it.

Justforvisit
Justforvisit

10 € offer daily deal on Steam made me look this up. Hm....still not decided...

BenderUnit22
BenderUnit22

It's an astonishing game in many regards. The level design is imaginative and the art is often breathtaking. The weapons feel fantastic with the knife slicing through enemies and the hobby horse pounding on the ground.

 

Then again the combat often felt too clunky such as not being able to attack while jumping or animations not stringing together nicely. And while the slow motion effects on hits etc were cool, I had a hard time dodging attacks because I didn't know if the game was going into slowmo because I hit something or because an enemy was about to swing.

 

The game also doesn't do too much with its mechanics, it's too linear for its own good. I would've liked an open-world approach ala Arkham Asylum where you'd unlock abilities and weapons such as the shrinking which would open up new paths throughout Wonderland.

Missusu
Missusu

It's boring. It's platforms after platforms. If you don't like platforms don't play it.

G_gglypuff
G_gglypuff

While I wouldn't come and say that this game deserves to be very high rated, it sure is troublesome to compare it to most stuff out there, since many higher rated games aren't as good as this one.

Killing_Free
Killing_Free

I agree. Underrated. Deserves at least 8.5. Has some bugs yeah and gameplay is the same after a while but it has much more plusses than its bad ways.

Joe295159
Joe295159

Extremely underrated. This games deserves a 8.0 at least. If you like action adventure games, this is for you.

Alice: Madness Returns More Info

First Release on Jun 14, 2011
  • PC
  • PlayStation 3
  • Xbox 360
Alice: Madness Returns is the sequel to the year 2000 PC game, American McGee's Alice.
8.1
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Developed by:
Spicy Horse
Published by:
Electronic Arts, Spicy Horse
Genres:
Action, 3D, Open-World, Adventure
Content is generally suitable for ages 17 and up. May contain intense violence, blood and gore, sexual content and/or strong language.
Mature
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Blood and Gore, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Violence