American McGee's Alice was a little cult classic published by EA around ten years ago. It was meant to get a PS2 port but it was canceled. Console owners like myself were mostly unaware of this game until EA announced a sequel, Alice: Madness Returns. Once the sequel came out, buyers noticed that the online pass was a free download of the original game ported to whichever console you bought on. This finally gives console owners who were interested in the game a chance to play it. Does it hold up like the book it's inspired by? Or does it fall down the rabbit hole, never to be heard from again?
The story follows little Alice after her family dies in a fire. She's been sent to an insane asylum once she realizes she can't deal with what happened. Of course, as we all know, Alice is an imaginative girl and she travels to her Wonderland where she finds it in ruin thanks to the Red Queen. She meets the Cheshire Cat who urges her to find the White Rabbit and stop the Queen. It's not a very in-depth story, but it focuses on Alice's insanity and how her mind warps because of it. It's dark, violent and twisted and it uses the source material very well. It's an entirely different Wonderland, but it feels familiar all the same. Not to mention, the dialogue is well written and keeps you pushing forward. Safe to say that the narrative holds up.
The gameplay, on the other hand, doesn't hold up well at all. You control Alice like in a Third-Person Shooter, you move with the left stick and aim with the right stick. You encounter enemies and attack them with a variety of weapons, some are projectile and others are melee. The projectile weapons work just fine but the melee weapons don't due to the awkward control style. Using projectile weapons drains your blue bar, magic bar I suppose, and you refill it by collecting red glowing orbs around the environment.
The environments are sectioned off into stages and the goal of each stage is to usually find the entrance to the next one. You explore the stages and jump around on platforms and let me tell you, the jumping is awful in this game. It's an old PC action game and that means that when you jump, you are locked into whatever direction you jumped in. The distance you jump depends on how fast you were going when you pressed the jump button and this makes it harder to make precision jumps. Being locked when jumping while the platform you were jumping to moves means the game will not end well.
The jumping becomes even worse when combined with the very platformy stage design. You will be jumping a bit more than fighting and it makes the game very challenging due bad control. What makes things so difficult is that you die every time you fall in a pit. When you die, you reload from your last save and, since this is an old game, the only auto save is at the beginning of a stage. You can save manually at any time, but sometimes I found myself forgetting only to fall into a pit by accident only to start the level over again. Sometimes the game pushes you into pits just by moving. It's a mess and to think that this was the standard for PC games back in it's day, judging by the fact that this game got good reviews and I never seen many complaints about gameplay, makes me glad I owned an Nintendo 64 at the time.
Still, it's level design is fitting with the plot and the book it's inspired by and the game can be fun. Not to mention that it keeps you playing just to see what location you'll visit next. It's not worth playing for the gameplay that's for damn sure.
The music is composed by Chris Vrenna and he does a fantastic job with it. The music sounds creepy and fits with the childlike idea of Wonderland. Some tracks are recorded using both instruments and toys and it creates something truly unique and perfect for this type of game. This is a soundtrack I found myself listening to multiple times, it's that good. The voice work is also good, nothing really special but the Cheshire Cat and Alice sound great. This part of the game holds up extremely well.
The visuals hold up as well as you'd expect a game from it's era to hold up. The HD lick of paint removes most of the jagged edges and the overall level of detail holds up well. Some character models look better than others, however, but it's the art direction that carries the presentation. Wonderland is a representation of Alice's mindset and it's twisted, dark and scary at times. The stages are random and out of place, such as a school floating in a void surrounded by castle walls, and it fits very well with the plot and, once again, the book. As you get closer to the Red Queen, her influence starts to take over the world, you'll see more red and more tentacles around. Over the years it's lost some of it's disturbing nature, but it remains a dark ride through a classic world.
- Dark story
- Fantastic music and great voice work
- A twisted and violent Wonderland
- Puts the source material to great use
- Level design and visuals hold up
- Well written dialogue
- A very curious game, it makes you want to keep playing
- Jumping makes Mario sad and me even more-so
- Controls don't work with the type of game it was
- Visuals obviously show age
- Loading times are awful and the game reloads every time you die
Overall, American McGee's Alice is still worth playing for the story, music and art style. It's just a shame that the gameplay is the way it is and I can't help but think that the game would have turned out better if it was designed for a console first. With jumping so broken that it makes the game super hard it's almost not worth playing. However, this is a situation where the whole is better than it's pieces apart. You'll want to experience what the game has to offer and with no side activities to get stopped by, it's a straight path to the end of the road.