Lewis Carroll’s seminal classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has an enduring appeal with both children and adults that has lent it well to innumerable adaptations and re-imaginings across a multitude of media in the 150 years since it was originally written. The dream-like ambiguousness of the story and the characters’ arguably sinister leanings have given everyone from Walt Disney to Tim Burton license to add their personal spin to the original tale. Perhaps the most bizarre re-working of Alice’s stories came in 2000 in the form of American McGee’s Alice, a darkly speculative sequel in which Alice’s family were killed in a fire, leaving her mentally unstable and committed to an asylum. In Alice, Carroll’s characters became twisted perversions of their former selves, all ugly and hateful and babbling mad riddles.
This sequel takes place in the immediate aftermath of the first game, with Alice being quizzed by her sardonic psychiatrist before being turned loose to wander the grim, occasionally menacing landscape of a depressed Victorian London. Even in this ‘real’ world, the people Alice runs into are vulgar, grotesque and cruel. Alice begins to encounter objects and people from her traumatic past, loosening her grip on reality until she is plunged once more into Wonderland, albeit a Wonderland even more warped and depraved than usual. Alice finds that a tenebrous, insidious rot is spreading throughout Wonderland, corrupting everything it touches and giving rise to bloated, incomprehensible monstrosities.
The original game was praised on its release for its unusual visual style and inventive take on the original characters. There’s certainly no lack of that style on display with Madness Returns, and most of the first game’s cast return in one form or another. Arresting visuals and macabre storytelling can do only so much though, and underneath the smudged black eye shadow, Madness Returns is revealed as a patchy, inconsistent gaming experience.
Much of the game plays like a re-skinned God of War, albeit one with slightly dated graphics. While many of the levels are obfuscated by water, shadows or mist, other times they are revealed to be angled, disjointed and clunky. Like GoW, the combat is essentially an enjoyable, satisfyingly visceral experience hampered occasionally by a twitchy lock-on and dodgy camera. Alice carves and smashes her way through legions of bizarre abominations using everything from a teapot bomb launcher and hobby horse hammer to the infamous snicker-snacking vorpal sword, all of which can be upgraded by collecting glowing teeth throughout every level. The enemies are interestingly varied, but ultimately rely on the player memorising an attack sequence and weak spot. Some weapons work better than others, but it doesn’t take long for the fights to become repetitive and occasionally frustrating.
By far the most aggravating aspect of this game is its seemingly endless swathes of platform challenges. Here, too, the poor camera control infuriates and hampers the flow of the game, although the penalty for falling to an instant death is far less severe than being slaughtered by Wonderland’s hostile inhabitants, which usually results in being sent back a significant distance to the most recent checkpoint. This can often be averted by using ‘hysteria’ mode, triggered when Alice nears death, that allows her to inflict massive damage while shrugging off her enemies’ blows.
The game’s puzzles are reasonably engaging, although most are variations on spotting a breakable wall, hitting a distant switch object, or discovering a secret passageway. Clues are spread quite liberally throughout Wonderland, requiring the use of ‘shrink vision’ to detect. Despite this, it’s entirely possible to find two passageways, one of which you know leads to a secret stash of goodies, the other continuing the main plot and slamming an impassable wall behind you, rendering the goodies lost forever. For completists such as myself, this was the cause of numerous ‘breaks’ during play.
Madness Returns is a long game. Depending on your perspective, this may or may not be a good thing. Certainly, it offers significant value for money in terms of play time, but for a game that serves up little beyond variations in scenery once you pass the halfway point, some gamers might find themselves wishing that the story had been trimmed by a couple of hours.
This game’s primary audience will be those with an unwavering love for the Wonderland story, especially those who prefer the darker flavour of Burton and McGee’s earlier takes (especially as the game’s prequel is available as a free download for anyone who buys this one). More casual gamers are liable to be put off by the game’s repetition, occasionally flaky level design and its marathon length. Had Madness Returns been released five years ago, it might have been considered ahead of its time. As it is, Alice: Madness Returns is a delightfully dark, frenetically fun – if occasionally exasperating – experience.
MLG Rating: 6/10
Platform: Xbox 360/ PS3/ PC Release Date: 17/06/2011
Disclosure: Midlife Gamer were provided a physical copy of Alice: Madness Returns for review purposes by the promoter. The title was reviewed over the course of two weeks on an Xbox 360. For more information on what our scores mean, plus details of our reviews policy, click here.