Alice: Madness Returns is the long awaited sequel to 2000’s American McGee’s Alice. The original game was widely hailed for its advanced graphics, its innovative take on the classic Lewis Carroll stories, and great gameplay. Sadly, it looks like 11 years haven't been kind to the Alice franchise.
Madness Returns takes place 11 years after the original game, mirroring the time span between the two games. Alice has been out of the insane asylum and under the care of a psychiatrist who has been trying to make her forget the horrible memories of the fire that claimed her family. However, she begins to hallucinate again, returning to a broken Wonderland and dredging up those repressed memories.
While Alice: Madness Returns sells itself as an action/adventure title, the primary gameplay mechanics are platforming. Alice has the ability to shrink herself, allowing passage into tiny paths and revealing invisible plaforms and hints. Alice can also float, jump, glide, dodge, and re-jump multiple times in mid-air. These abilities account for most of the gameplay in Madness Returns. Most areas involve traversing numerous visible, invisible, and moving platforms. There are also mushroom caps that propel Alice far into the air and steam vent upon which she can float indefinitely. Unfortunately, the platforming makes up the vast majority of the game. Getting through the five chapters feels more like an exercise in lather, rinse, repeat than a dynamic, challenging game experience.
There are some small (oh so small) sections that vary the gameplay. The Dollhouse chapter features a doll-head-rolling Marble Madness-type minigame that you get to play a few times. The East Asian chapter features a Paper Mario-esque 2D paper section. Between each chapter, there are also small sections in which you wander the streets of a highly stylized Victorian London. These sections and minigames are brilliant, but make up less than 5% of the total game.
This isn’t to say there isn’t combat in Alice: Madness Returns. Alice has four weapons at her disposal. The Vorpal Blade is a quick melee weapon while the Hobby Horse is the slow, heavy melee weapon. The Pepper Grinder is Alice’s ranged rapid-fire gun while the Teapot Cannon is the heavy ranged weapon. These weapons can be upgraded by spending teeth, which are collected throughout the game. She also gets the Clockwork Bomb, which can detonate weak walls, damage enemies, and (mostly) weigh down switch plates. It’s really a shame there isn’t more combat in Madness Returns, given how well the combat flows with the different weapons and a dodge mechanic that can go through enemy attacks.
The enemies shift some from chapter to chapter, staying fairly varied, particularly in different combinations. Ruins come in various forms across all chapters. They slither, walk and fly, and the Colossal Ruin just tries to mow you over. Individual chapters get their own enemies like the Card Guards in the Red Queen’s court and the evil creepy dolls in the Dollhouse chapter. However, the chapters don’t feature ending bosses, they just…end. This makes each chapter feel rather anti-climactic when it draws to a close. Fortunately, there is a final boss for the game, giving the much-needed sense of accomplishment in the 11th hour.
The visuals in Alice: Madness Returns are a conundrum. On the one hand, the art direction and style are phenomenal. The Tim Burton meets Lewis Carroll on LSD design is dramatically different from anything out there. The Victorian London scenes are stylized in such a way that they echo the madness in Alice’s mind and make you question reality at every turn. On the other hand, the graphics are sub par for an HD console. I can't say that Madness Returns on a HD console looks much better than Disney’s Epic Mickey on the Nintendo Wii.
The sound design for Alice: Madness Returns is quite good. The British voice cast doesn’t consist of any big-name actors, but they’re quite capable nonetheless. The music is dynamic, beautiful, and haunting. From the poignant piano score in the Victorian London sections to the thunderous battle score, the music powerfully drives the game forward at all times.
Alice: Madness Returns is a fairly long game for its genre. There are five chapters and each took me 2-3 hours, plus more time could be spent in exploration to gather all the bottles, memories, and pig snouts hidden in the game. Upon completion, there’s also a New Game+ feature that allows you to choose a costume (all of which grant different bonuses), and start the game with all your weapons and upgrades in place. Individual chapters can also be replayed to try and get any collectibles you may have missed. Finally, new copies of Madness Returns come with the Online Pass, but the only use for it is the free download of the console version of the original American McGee’s Alice. So, you actually get two games for the price of one.
Overall, Alice: Madness Returns is a letdown. I had high expectations after playing the original but was instead subjected to a game that inundated me with platforms, steam vents, and jumping until I just didn’t care how the game ended. Combine that with only five minutes of actual story every couple of hours, and you get the idea. I was hoping for a twisted, bewildering ride through Wonderland, but instead found myself bored for most of the 15 hours. Save your money and buy the original American McGee’s Alice for a lot less.