Jun 23, 2011

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Review: Alice: Madness Returns

Review: Alice: Madness Returns

Alice: Madness Returns is the sequel to the PC title American McGee’s Alice.  Released back in 2000, the game was a darker, more macabre version of Lewis Caroll’s original Wonderland titles.  The game garnered great praise, with an overall score of 85 on Metacritic, but sales were far from stellar (1.5 million as of last year.)  With talks of a movie based on the property being stuck in limbo, fans weren’t sure if they’d ever get another chance to visit McGee’s grim depiction of Alice Liddell’s Wonderland.  Thankfully, eleven years later we’re being given a sequel that looks to be just as gruesome and creepy as the original.  The question now is, is it enough?

Alice: Madness Returns takes place immediately following the events of the first game.  Alice is still attempting to cope with her parents and older sister’s horrific deaths from a tragic house fire, and has recently been released from the Rutledge Asylum.  She now resides in an orphanage under the watch of psychiatrist Dr. Angus Bumby, where she spends her days attempting to figure out the cause of the fire.  One day, upon exploring the neighborhood, she notices a white cat and proceeds to follow it until she magically finds herself back in Wonderland.  The Cheshire Cat greets her, stating that Wonderland has a new ruler and is being destroyed by the evil known as “The Ruin.”  The Cheshire Cat tells Alice to seek out the Hatter to get to the bottom of the problem, and it turns out that there is a terrible train threatening to destroy Wonderland.  In attempting to stop the train, Alice must also retrieve six keys that will help unlock doors uncovering secrets as to the cause of her family’s deaths, as well as helping to recover her fragile psyche.  As Alice travels among the real world, various incidents cause her to fall back into her dreamlike state, where she must continue on her adventure in the deteriorating Wonderland.  Upon returning, she continues searching for keys, bringing her closer and closer to halting the train and coming face-to-face with the evil new ruler of Wonderland.

Madness Returns is divided into six distinct chapters, as players battle and explore through often beautiful, yet usually typical locales.  There are the tired romps through the underwater level and ice level, but the game shows character in its opening forest-like level and card-inspired world.  In general, the game fluctuates between creative and whimsical, to drab and dull.  Through each chapter you explore, new enemies are introduced, usually reflecting the level they reside in.  Cannon Crabs attack under the sea, while Samurai Wasps swarm you in the very stylish Oriental Grove.  Enemies attack from the air, ambush you in groups, and even hide in storage crates, eager to attack upon discovery.  Regardless of the level, the enemies you’ll see most often are the white-masked black blobs known as the Ruin.  Initially easily dispatched, they quickly become irritating with each new incarnation introduced.  Overall, though, the enemies tend to fit their levels quite well, and help add to each world’s individuality.

The enemies can become tough, but thankfully, Alice is equipped with her own upgradeable arsenal.  Her Vorpal Blade (kitchen knife), the creative Pepper Grinder machine gun, Teapot Cannon, and Hobby Horse hammer provide enough tools to deal with anything encountered.  Unfortunately, targeting the enemies themselves can become an issue.  The targeting system is reminiscent of Zelda: OoT’s Z-Targeting, yet it doesn’t quite work perfectly.  Enemies can easily attack you from off-screen, and it is near impossible to cycle to them if they’re not visible onscreen.  This wouldn’t be an issue, except for the fact that combat pulls the camera in close at times, and it is easy to get blindsided from projectiles or a leaping Ruin.  To help remedy issues, the dodging mechanic works almost flawlessly, and there is a slight delay between attacks hitting you, so it definitely helps, but is no where near perfect.  Alternating between weapons is quick and fluid, providing fast and enjoyable ways to destroy enemies.  Tragically, combat quickly becomes stale, and midway through the second chapter you’ll most likely be dreading the next wave of Ruin to come.  Overall, though, the combat is tolerable, though repetitive.  Repetition is acceptable if it’s fun, but the combat hardly remains so.

Through the countless waves of enemies you fight, you’re also tasked with platforming similar to Mario 64. In general, I believe that the N64 title had a pretty big influence on the design in Alice, particularly the bevy of slides you encounter.  Regardless of the level though, the platforming remains largely the same, as does the entire formula of the game.  Travel here, fight a group of enemies, basic platform to the next base, timed switches, and the always “enjoyable” fetch quests.  After playing through each sequence enough times, you begin to realize that every level is nearly the same, aside from a fresh coat of paint, of course.  This wouldn’t be an issue, except that for a six-chapter game, each chapter feels incredibly long.  Be prepared to spend hours (depending on difficulty) per chapter, because the game drags each task out throughout the game.  If you factor in the amount of deaths you will experience, the game can easily last an upwards of 15 hours.  I’m all for long games if the journey is worth it, but I truly feel Alice could have been much more effective under the ten-hour mark (excluding deaths, of course).  Speaking of deaths, often times when you die to a group of enemies, you’d expect to spawn immediately before your encounter right?  Unfortunately, the game sometimes decides to spawn you two loading screens away for no apparent reason!  Even worse, sometimes the game spawns you much further behind, forcing you to redo long platforming sequences and retrieve items again.  It may not seem like much, but after a few times of dealing with unnecessary load screens over and over, it quickly becomes irritating.

In an attempt to mix up the formula, the game includes a few mini games, but they’re also hit-and-miss.  The Chess game is bland, the slide puzzles are boring, and don’t even get me started on the awful music mini game.  I’m happy to say, though, that I truly enjoyed the side-scrolling mini games like the “Off With Her Head” segments and underwater ship level.  The same can’t be said for the Radula rooms, bonus areas that grant players a quarter of a rose, that when fully formed, adds to their life bar.  The questions are entertaining, but most of the rooms consist of your either evading enemies for an allotted time, or attempting to defeat large waves.  I’ve already stated how stale and tired combat can become, so I never really wanted to face against an unnecessary wave.

Throughout the game you will learn tidbits through memories you can pick up or cutscenes (which were very well done imo.)  Try to pay attention though because I’m sure a majority of players will be scratching their heads trying to piece together the plot of the story.  It all comes together in the end and is very fitting, albeit short.  If you have further questions about Alice Liddell’s history, the game provides backstory in the menus as well as a free download (with every new copy) of the original American McGee’s Alice. It’s not required that you play the original title, but not only is it a great bonus, but it’s the first time the game is released on major consoles and is required to unlock all achievements and trophies (for all you completionists.)

Regardless of the gripes and issues, I have to say that I enjoyed the experience.  The game is not perfect, and could definitely have used a few more months to smooth out some issues (invisible walls, lack of animation for some speaking characters, etc.) yet I still found myself having fun.  I initially wanted to attempt to retrieve all the collectibles in a replay, but the idea of facing countless amounts of enemies turned me off the idea.  Still, the story and backdrops should be more then enough for one playthrough.  But, if you find yourself lacking interest in Alice, Mcgee, or even the images above, I would recommend you pass up this game, or at least wait until it goes on sale.  At a shorter length, the game would be recommended for all, but as is, the length and repetitiveness will irritate most.

Alice: Madness Returns
Platform: PC, PS3, Xbox 360 (reviewed)
Genre: Action Platformer
Release Date: 06/14/2011
Developer: Spicy Horse
Publisher: EA
ESRB Rating: M (Mature)
MSRP: $59.99


6.5