Insanity is such an odd subject for any form of media, especially a video game. It’s so rarely explored because of how difficult it can be to explain madness to someone who’s never experienced it. To the person who is insane, they may see themselves as normal whilst in reality they need to be strapped to the wall to avoid slaughtering everyone in sight. Madness Returns explores these themes to take the player on a strange and eerie ride.
Madness Returns is the sequel to the critically acclaimed America McGee’s Alice. American McGee, who must be the cockiest fuck alive, also helmed this sequel. How much confidence do you have in your product to put your name as part of the damn title? Watch out for Bill Gates’ Windows 8 and Bobby Kotick’s Call of Duty: Who Gives a Shit coming to suck up store space near you. Regardless, the title picks up where the last one left of albeit 11 years later. In a clever case of iseewhatudidthar, EA and Spicy Horse thought it would be fucking awesome if they had the 11 year gap between games correspond to in-game time.
The title has Alice slowly becoming more and more insane. Her classic Wonderland retreat has been all but destroyed inside her mind, and the only way to save herself from complete insanity is to stop the evil that is slowly ravaging her brain. This involves alternating between reality and Wonderland, but after awhile you’ll be unsure which is which.
The landscape and characters will be remotely familiar to anyone who has ever been exposed to Alice in Wonderland. The classic characters return although in darker and more macabre forms. These characters have been corrupted by Alice’s insanity, and have become equally insane. The classic version of the Mad Hatter is normal compared to the twisted version presented here.
A true platformer if their has ever been one, Alice features large twisting corridors with plenty of jumping and maneuvering to get around. The tight controls make it hard to blame missing a jump on the game. The levels are usually designed in such a way that negotiating your way from room to room will take a little bit of thought and planning. It’s a welcome change from the traditional “jump here, jump there” gameplay that we’ve become so accustomed to. A smattering of puzzles and mini-games help to sweeten the deal and stave off boredom from repetition.
While the game is primarily a platformer, it also has its fair share of combat. Alice has multiple weapons at her disposal such as a badass butcher knife known as the Vorpal Blade and a teapot that can shoot hot tea onto opponents. The controls for this are tight, if mildly cumbersome due to the six available weapons. With a little bit of practice you won’t have too much trouble becoming proficient with the combat system.
The game’s environments are really a mixed bag. Certain worlds like the Card Bridge are pure beauty and others like the Mad Hatter’s Domain have noticeably ugly textures. There’s also the occasional pixelation when certain enemies are destroyed. It’s nothing game-breaking but it certainly is noticeable. Sometimes the game will pause to load the next section in the middle of gameplay, and that will pull you out of the experience faster than anything. I’d rather the game have a smooth transition to a loading screen than an awkward freeze frame while the game tries to figure out what the hell to do.
Small glitches also seem to plague the game, at least in the Xbox 360 version. The controls will sometimes freak the hell out as the camera angle changes, making you walk right off a cliff. The auto-aim doesn’t always position the camera correctly and you end up shooting your cannon right into the wall. Sometimes you don’t get all your jumps and graphical textures will pop in and out. The game is fun, but it has it’s share of problems.
The game is as intelligent as I’ve seen. The writing and voice acting are extraordinarily good, from the Cheshire Cat who speaks in disturbing riddles to the Mad Hatter who spouts little more than poetic gibberish, the cast is A-grade, well, besides Alice. It isn’t that the voice acting for Alice is bad, just unemotional. It’s difficult to tell if this is intentional to highlight her ignorance to her own deepening madness or if it simply an oversight. Either way, it’s disheartening to see a main character with a general “meh” attitude to the gruesome and destructive world around her.
In case you haven’t guessed by now, this game is very mature, and I’m talking about more than just some blood and few curse words. The themes explored are enough to make anyone uncomfortable, especially nearing the game’s climax. It’s rare to see a game that explores such mature themes and refuses to hold the player’s hand. The majority of the time, you’re left to decide what’s real and what’s a figment of Alice’s imagination.
Alice Madness Returns certainly delivers on giving a classic title an updated sequel that extends the storyline appropriately. It won’t appeal to everyone, and the graphical glitches and bland textures may turn some people away. If you weren’t a fan of the original title, then the straightforward action-platforming most likely not bring you around and the few puzzles and mini-games won’t offer much of a reprieve. The few control and loading issues hold it back from being a truly memorable experience and some players won’t appreciate the rather dark subject matter.
The game really could have benefited for a couple more tweaks to stop the graphical tears and awkward loading times. The glitches were only minor nuisances but pulled me right out the game world, and in an adventure like this that’s the last thing you would want. Alice is a disjointed romp through a fractured mind that is constantly struggling for truth and absolution and it shows in the delivery. If you enjoy brilliant storytelling and can handle a few glitches you can’t go wrong with Alice: Madness Returns.
Here’s The Rundown:
+ Brilliant Storytelling
+ Tight Controls
+ Superb Voice Acting
– Graphical Tears and Glitches
– Loading Intrudes into Gameplay
– Occasional Control Issues
Alice: Madness Returns was developed by Spicy Horse and published by EA. This review copy was provided to me by Chad, who got it from EA. The game was played to completion on the Xbox 360 taking a total of about 15 hours over the course of 2 days. The game released June 14th for the PC, Xbox 360, and PS3. I’m still very much unimpressed with American McGee. I mean who names their kid American? Seriously.