Alice: The Madness Returns – Play or Eject

‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked.

‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat: ‘we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.’

‘How do you know I’m mad?‘ said Alice.

You must be,’ said the Cat, ‘or you wouldn’t have come here.’

Back in 1865 did Lewis Carroll realize the implication of those words? The effect they would have on American McGee? The question of whether Lewis Carroll’s novel intended to have a darker undercurrent is perhaps irrelevant now. After the original 1951 animated movie by Disney, later re-interpretations of the story have definitely swung into darker territory and usually beyond the line of reason. Yet some of us bask in this glory and often indulge the more unhinged corners of our minds. Would American McGee’s sequel, Alice: Madness Returns, nestle within the crevasses of our darkest pleasures? Well that is certainly the audience of whom this game is trying to appeal to.

Originally released in June 2011 by EA of all publishers. Many would undoubtedly question their reasoning to publish such a game, as this is a title not typically associated as the type of game EA would release. EA often prefer the money assured safe bet, particularly with the amount of franchises under their heavy belt. However, with EA acquiring Bioware and the Mass Effect series perhaps they were willing to go on a little faith and allow this developer to explore their creativeness to the full. Or maybe at EA they are all a little mad?

Alice: Madness Returns is a psychological horror set between the realms of the infamous Wonderland and the real world. Playing as Alice you find yourself in the care of one Doctor Angus Bumby, your psychiatrist who is using hypnotherapy to help you overcome the tragic events of losing your entire family to a house fire. As you attempt to reassemble your broken memories, questions arise as to whether the fire was an accident. Did you in fact murder your own family and repress the memories? Was it due to a moment of carelessness by yourself that led to the fire? Or possibly there is someone who would benefit from your memory loss?

Every time Alice struggles to see or deal with the truth, she is propelled into Wonderland, which is slowly being corrupted by the “Ruin” and a monstrous imposing train. The world you know is beginning to fall apart, which mirrors the slow decay of your own mind. Alice must now fight her way through a colourful assortment of inhabitants, whilst solving the puzzles before her in an attempt to unlock her memories. Alice: Madness Returns in some ways is a very modern yet traditional plat-former. A mix between Ratchet and Clank and God of War would be a fair description. So if you are looking for a cutesy Mario-esque plat-former I suggest you look elsewhere.

However if you prefer a more adult approach this game is for you. Rated 15 by the BBFC, gore and disturbing imagery are pretty much the norm here. The graphics themselves are questionable in places as you can often see the odd block of scenery, which sadly sticks out like a sore thumb. These graphical over sights really should have been ironed out into something much smoother but taking into account this is essentially a low budget game these are trivial observations, as the reality is Alice is gorgeous to look at. The creators clearly had a definitive look and relish the audience in the aesthetics. For example when Alice decides to see the Queen of Hearts I experienced one of my all time favourite level designs. The setting – thousands of miles up in the air: opened up by a gorgeous and almost clear blue sky. Alice tentatively steps forward into the abyss. Playing cards quickly race to glide under her feet and guide her path. Bioshock Infinite clearly stole the vision of this short introduction to chapter 4 of Alice. But who could blame them. Great artwork has to be appreciated and acknowledged.

The art style and caricatures are also reminiscent of Tim Burton’s Corpse bride especially in the parts set in London. They are dark, dank and pay homage to the gothic style. The game’s tone, in terms of odd yet blasé humour is also comparable, yet Alice confronts the ideas of madness and violence head on, rather than shying away from them like Tim Burton repeatedly has. Instead we are thrown into a world more likened to the scarecrow sequences in Batman Arkham Asylum. Innocence is cast aside here as our lead character is put through hell. Even as a spectator it is hard to keep up with some of the plot elements with the constant jump in time frame. This really adds to the authenticity of Alice’s character. In an attempt to make the player confused and disorientated against the offset of the real world segments this essentially accentuates the players immersive experience. Really putting themselves in Alice’s shoes to excellent effect. Something that has regularly been trifled with in computer games but often executed in a very predictable and tired way.

The voice acting is a little to be desired at first but once you settle into the tone and oddities this only adds to the overall feel. This is conveyed particularly well by some incredibly familiar characters such as the Mad Hatter, the Caterpillar and the infamous Queen of Hearts who are often at odds with Alice’s headstrong attempts at reason.

So in terms of actual game-play, Alice herself accumulates an odd yet vast array of weapons, her primary weapon is a vorpal blade or glorified kitchen knife as I like to refer to it. The pepper grinder is a crank operated gatling gun for maintaining distance from foes and firing at pig snouts, that lead to hidden areas of the game. Steadily moving along the conveyor belt of bizarre weaponry we have the hobbyhorse, which is certainly an unusual alternative to a sledgehammer but perfect for dispatching armoured enemies. Finally we have the Teapot Cannon, similar to the pepper grinder but used for dealing exploding boiling damage to several opponents at once. The Teapot Cannon is obtained much later in the game but can soon become the preferred weapon of choice for initial attacks. To add to this Alice also has a trusty umbrella, which can deflect oncoming projectiles and if that wasn’t enough wait until you see Alice’s Hysteria ability. Madness comes with perks.

All of these weapons can be upgraded by collecting and spending teeth, rather than finding the usual assortment of coins often associated with action adventure games. The wonderful thing about this arsenal is that you can quickly switch between them all. This is incredibly handy as not all enemies are vulnerable to one type of weapon; you often have to swap between several weapons just to defeat one enemy. I frequently find this is something that is taken for granted in modern games and was certainly a refreshing change as the combat system offered up a real challenge rather than the same old tried and tested routines we often see.

The challenge of combat is not the only thing that remains varied but the puzzle based plat-form elements are keenly developed too. After you drink the renowned potion, immortalized from the novel itself, you have the ability to quickly shrink at any time. In doing so you uncover tiny and invisible doorways that help you discover secret or alternate routes. An additional bonus to this power is that other secrets are revealed, such as invisible platforms leading to unattainable areas or markings on the wall that give you subtle clues to help you solve the puzzles. So if you see a gaping chasm with a small collectable on the other side, activate this ability and all will be revealed. In fact the amount of times you’ll hammer the trigger on your pad just to see if there is a secret hidden within the vicinity is unreal but encourages you to really explore wonderland to it’s fullest. Because essentially Alice is a linear plat-former but because of this one feature, discovery and replay value increase tenfold.

This replay factor is also helped by the fact that there is little narrative, indication or clues as to what to do. You are pretty much thrown into this game from the start. Should you cross the point of no return by following the main path, more often than not, you can’t just simply turn around to examine the pathway you just ignored, mainly due to doors slamming shut. You’ll constantly be left curious by what you missed. This can be frustrating to some less dedicated players but incredibly rewarding for others because most discoveries help you to further unlock the mysteries of Alice’s past by collecting her memories. Whilst following the central quest unveils the major plot it’s the finer details that are revealed in these hidden areas. Not something all gamers will enjoy but more for those fully engrossed within the game itself.

Many could argue Alice is a generic plat-former that masks its invention in its artistic style. Surely most games fall into this crude typecasting? If this is the case Bioshock Infinite is just a shooter pretending to be something more in depth than it pertains to be. This is possibly true but I find Alice to be an incredibly well made plat-former that utilizes its collection of game-play components and marries them to it’s story telling with great integrity.

In short Alice: Madness Returns is a wonderful game that has been overlooked by many. I found the whole affair an amazing experience from start to finish. Each stage increases in it’s own inventiveness and all of your skills and tricks are brought to the forefront. You’ll effortlessly find yourself switching between all of your abilities to overcome the enormous arrangement of puzzles thrown before you, which is what makes Alice such a fantastic game. For those in doubt as to EA’s ability to help bring inventive yet well-polished games to the forefront, look no further. In a world were games seem to be coming too stale, similar and generic we could all do with a little madness in our lives.

Alice: Madness Returns

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