Publisher: EA / Developer: Spicy Horse Games / ESRB: M (Blood and Gore, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Violence) / Played on: Xbox 360
The best childhood tales are the ones that stick with you. They’re the ones that capture you as a kid and resonate with you through adulthood. It’s these stories that often come to define so much of our appreciation for the importance of narrative. Lewis Carroll’s original vision of Alice in Wonderland taught us not just that eating mushrooms is a great way to meet talking cats and smoking caterpillars but about the importance of the power of your own imagination. In 2000, American McGee’s Alice flipped this light-hearted tale on its head with a dark and brooding vision of Alice’s life after her initial trip to Wonderland. Alice: Madness Returns follows up on this vision of Alice, ten years later, as she once again begins to lose her grip on sanity. It’s not difficult to see the potential for a great game here. Some of this potential shines through in the game’s bold, beautifully twisted art style. But shallow and painfully repetitive gameplay combined with a trite, poorly paced narrative prevents Alice: Madness Returns from leaving any kind of lasting mark.
Madness Returns takes place in Alice’s homeland of Victorian London. It’s been ten years since her release from Rutledge’s Insane Asylum in American McGee’s Alice. After a long stretch of mental stability, Alice has once again begun to descend into a state of madness. Memories of her parents dying in a house fire before her eyes have returned to haunt her and she’s stricken with the realization that maybe it wasn’t the accident she believed it was.
Her investigation into this matter results in a string of uncontrollable hallucinations during which she returns to Wonderland. This is where, as you might imagine, about 90% of Alice: Madness Returns takes place. Each chapter presents an allegory-filled acid trip through Alice’s subconscious. It’s here she’ll meet the expected cast of characters: Cheshire Cat, The Mad Hatter, The Queen of Hearts, etc. These encounters, for the most part, boil down to little more than an excuse for you to go and complete that chapter’s particular objective. I couldn’t help but feel that, while beautiful, my time in Wonderland had very little impact on the game’s overall narrative. I found myself wanting to rush through each chapter with the futile hope that the game’s next section would finally present a significant story reveal.
In fact, the only real story elements delivered to you while in Wonderland are in the form of hidden, collectible memories. These memories basically act as audio logs, playing voice-overed quotes from Alice’s past. Each memory contains a clue pertaining to the mysterious house fire and reasons for her subsequent repression of the event. Unfortunately, these memories only act to emphasize another one of my major disappointments with Madness Returns: the lack of character development. Theoretically, running around a physical representation of one’s subconscious presents some interesting possibilities for giving insight into that character. Instead, any and all insight into the character of Alice is rather clumsily handled through these mostly inconsequential memories. I felt no more empathy or understanding for the character of Alice at the end of Madness Returns than I had when I started up the game.
The other 10% or so of Madness Returns takes place outside of Wonderland in the “real world” of Victorian London. It’s through these brief segments that the overall story of Alice’s investigation is revealed. However, these sections are so short and spaced so far apart (only taking place between each of the two to three hour-long chapters) that they leave the narrative feeling disjointed and forgettable. This eventually results in an out-of-nowhere ending that feels rushed and unearned.
It’s worth noting that a familiarity with American McGee’s Alice, while certainly not required, will definitely help you understand the events in Alice: Madness Returns. Luckily, purchasing a brand new copy of the game will provide you with a download code for the original game. This is interesting not just because (I think) it’s the first single-player only game with an EA Online Pass but because it’s the first online pass to provide you with additional content for buying the game new, rather than locking you out of content for buying it used (something it should be commended for).
As with American McGee’s Alice, a large portion of your time with Madness Returns will be spent platforming and, for the most part, it feels great. Alice’s ability to triple jump and float means there’s plenty of long, satisfying platforming to be had here. Unfortunately, when I say “plenty” I mean “way too much.” While initially exciting, the tricks and tropes of the game get old really, really quickly. It’s not long before hovering through air jets and searching for hidden platforms with Alice’s shrink ability becomes obnoxiously tedious and entirely predictable.
Breaking up the platforming sections are combat scenarios that, similarly, make a great first impression but far too often fall into the rut of repetition. Alice has four main weapons at her disposal for hacking, slashing, and shooting her enemies (all of which are upgradable through collecting teeth scattered about the levels). The Vorpal Blade will act as your main melee device for doling out damage, the Hobby Horse can be used for breaking down the defenses of enemies and smashing through walls, and the Pepper Shooter and Tea Pot both function as your ranged weapons. While the game isn’t sporting an incredibly deep combat system, it does feel satisfying to eliminate enemies. Each enemy has a different set of skills required to take it out. Some will need you to break down their defenses before striking or will require you to target a certain a weak spot. Unfortunately, the game establishes about half a dozen enemy types early on and throws them at you over and over again making sure that any interest you may have had in the combat quickly fades away.
The macabre setting of Alice’s twisted psyche is easily the strongest feature of Madness Returns. Your journey through Wonderland will take you to enchanted forests, Japanese-themed gardens, and Hellish dollhouses, all of which are stunningly realized. The environments remain interesting, beautiful, and varied through out. And while you’ll encounter most of them all-too-frequently, the enemy design is also worthy of praise, if for no other reason than they just look really cool.
It wasn’t long into my play through of Alice: Madness Returns that the game’s problems became abundantly clear. Sure, the visuals are hauntingly striking from beginning to end but art style can only carry a game so far. Without enough interesting mechanics and a meaningful narrative, playing Madness Returns became tiresome very quickly. And the disappointing elements of the game become all the more augmented when you begin to consider the absolutely wonderful source material from which this product is derived. Madness Returns is a perfect case of style over substance.