The Game: Alice: Madness Returns (2011)
Developer: Spicy Horse Games
System: XBox 360, PS3, PC
Buy It On Amazon: RIGHT HERE
The Premise: One year after Alice Liddell is released from Rutledge Asylum, where she was held during the events of the original game, Alice is living in a youth home under the psychiatric care of Dr. Angus Bumby, who is attempting to relieve Alice of her hallucinations of Wonderland. However, his efforts may be in vain, as Alice is sucked back into Wonderland to save it from an infernal locomotive wreaking havoc through Wonderland, leaving corruption in its wake.
Is It Any Good?: The idea of a grim, “mature” version of a fairy tale in this day and age should, by all rights, bring the bile up to about neck level, but, yes, color me surprised it’s actually pretty good.
I shouldn’t be surprised. American McGee’s been doing the whole M-rated fairy tale thing before it was cool and, at least tonally, he’s good at it, primarily because McGee is at least smart enough to know it works by twisting the original tone, not entirely overriding it. The story, which has Alice working her way through repressed memories of the fire that killed her family, feels like an event that could’ve occurred to the literary girl in her twenties, and dives just as abstractly into the psychology of it. It’s not a terrible chipper tale that unfolds here, nor is it terribly hard to figure out the source of it all, but the journey is fascinating enough. Even despite the darkness that invades over time, Wonderland still feels like a magical place here, and all the grim comes from the prevailing threat and the state of Alice’s own mind. It’s not grim for its own sake, is what it comes down to. Perverse versions of Alice In Wonderland are dime a dozen nowadays, and making something that was bugnuts psychofuck to begin with even moreso is a fool’s errand, though it can certainly be done. Madness Returns doesn’t quite plumb the same depths as, say, Alan Moore’s Lost Girls–which is to say it’s not having a bunch of asylum inmates plumbing Alice’s depths, thank merciful Christ–but it does weave a enjoyable twist and extrapolation on the tired formula, and, at the very least, it wasn’t directed by Tim Burton.
It also helps that the game is all virgin material for console folk, who likely never saw the original game on PC, though EA were kind enough to include it as a free download with new copies of Madness Returns (it can be purchased for $10 if you get it used). It’s a pretty stark contrast for those who did, though. Madness Returns, by comparison, is much more refined an experience, where the original, while the art direction still holds up, felt unbearably stiff back in 2000, and feels just dishwater dull now.
For veterans, Madness Returns is an improvement on the original in every way, but that’s not necessarily saying a lot by current generation standards. It is still a very classic experience as far as gameplay goes, and your mileage will vary whether your level of game design snobbery has blocked you off from what is at heart a late-90s/early 2000s platformer wearing 2011 clothes.You run, you jump, you collect stuff, you kill anything that moves. The actual platforming is smooth enough, though relies on camera trickery we’ve long since gotten used to being tighter than this. The combat feels like a loose, freeflowing Zelda, with a blade weapon (the original’s Vorpal Blade), a heavy weapon (a Hobby Horse, styled after the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse, swung like a sledgehammer), and two projectiles (A giant peppergrinder which shoots like a chaingun, and a teapot which shoots explosive blobs of scalding tea). The Zelda comparison is a good thing in theory, but the enemy types get repetitive fast, and until the Queensland stages introduce an inventive, macabre twist on the Red Queen’s card soldiers, the variety isn’t great enough to break up the monotony. The game has its share of bush league glitches, and often times feels like a game where whole mechanics had been stripped out due to not having the skills or ambition to pull it off. That feeling primarily comes from the ends of each chapter, where it’s obvious giant boss fights were planned, but never implemented.
And yet, you might have trouble noticing Madness Returns is kind of a plain Jane platformer when the veneer over that basic platformer is, without hyperbole, one of the most fantastically designed game worlds of the current gen. Your first moments on the streets of London have a cel-shaded Edward Gorey vibe to it, and then Alice’s first trip into an uncorrupted Wonderland happens, and you’re surrounded by overexaggerated, yet logical, organic pretty. It’s always easy to design Wonderland like a Michael’s grew legs and vomited it out, but this legitimately feels like a place of wonder, of imagination.
Of course, later on the insanity begins, and though wild and intricate, it’s still a marvel. The characters who showed up in the original Alice have more detail, their domains are vast. The cutscenes play out like a cardboard pantomime theater. The Mad Hatter’s realm is one of clockwork and new ways to boil and pour tea. A frozen wasteland, where the Mock Turtle has been stranded, is littered with preserved animals and ships. The caterpillar’s stages are an Asian fusion of pagodas, origami people, praying, wasp samurai, porcelain mantis dolls, and mahjong tile platforms. The best, and also most disturbing one is the Red Queen’s world, which is very literally, designed to look like a palace built out of human heart muscle and flesh. It’s horrifying, but aside from one other Grand Guignol moment, involving the Walrus and the Carpenter, it’s also impressive how so little of the artistic distortion of the imagery we know from these tales is reliant on blood and guts. It’s just perfectly twisted, and again, doesn’t stray terribly far from its inspiration.
That’s not to say it’s an excuse for a very, very simplistic game to be just that and little more, but there’s plenty of games far more complex with far less going on under the hood, and far less a game world I’d want to actually be in and explore. At about 5-6 hours, the fall down the rabbit hole is short, but what’s at the bottom is worth the time.
Trivia: Interestingly, up until Once Upon A Time tried to split the difference this current season, this was the only moving version of Alice to not have blonde hair and blue eyes, but to closer resemble the real life Alice Liddell, with dark hair and green eyes.
There’s unused text still embedded in the game’s code for what seems to be real world obituaries from when Alice dies in Wonderland, including Alice burning to death trying to save a cat inside the Mangled Mermaid bar, freezing to death in Billingsgate, ODing in an opium den, dying during a botched lobotomy, and falling onto a set of train tracks. Great concept, but it’s already slow enough jumping back in after a non-bottomless pit death.
Like I mentioned earlier, this definitely shows signs of an even more ambitious game, and there’s a leaked trailer for the beta version (set pretty aptly to the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes score) that proves it. The biggest difference, showcased extensively in the trailer, is a deleted storyline involving Alice murdering Pris Witless, who had transformed into the Jabberwock in Wonderland, and escaping London police across the rooftops.
On the same note, while the other obvious boss moments are up in the air, the Dormouse/March Hare boss fight was definitely supposed to happen. It was even included in the press materials when they brought the game to GDC a few years back.
The first time you get dropped into a black portal by the Executioner, check the secret alcoves off to the right. One of them contains a skeleton belonging to Raz from Psychonauts.
EA originally pushed American McGee for even MORE profanity and gore and M-rated content. Apparently, this was around the time they were convinced Dante’s Inferno and poor, neglected Shadows of the Damned were going to blow up huge. McGee eventually gave them what they wanted: A (VERY NSFW, but hilarious) creature he dubbed “The M-Snail”, which he sent as concept art back to EA, with the intent on including it in the game’s intro. They quietly left him alone after that. Presumably, while backing away slowly and not making eye contact.
If you’ve got 180 bucks to blow, and want that air of authenticity only getting arrested for carrying a concealed weapon can provide on Halloween, Epic Weapons sells a Vorpal Blade replica.
A Kickstarter just finished up on August 4th for a final sequel to the series, entitled Alice: Otherlands. It’s due sometime in 2014. The sorta bad news is that due to EA’s lack of interest, it’s an animated film, not a game.
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