Alice: Madness Returns Review
Have you ever had a truly epic dream, the kind in which crazy events transpire and you utter effortless witticisms that would make Noel Coward seethe with jealousy, only to wake up, attempt to explain it to someone else and find that ‘oh, right, it was just a bunch of silly crap that only made sense when I was asleep’? Sure, we all have. The solution is to keep it to yourself.
Then again, most of us don’t have our own video game studio, and the rights to a once-hot but long since abandoned IP just itching for further exploitation. That would be American McGee, designer of American McGee’s Alice and proprietor of EA imprint Spicy Horse. And his solution to the problem of getting you to understand how really, like, awesome that dream was, man? Put you to sleep too. With Alice: Madness Returns, he succeeded admirably. Is it fun? Kind of. I enjoyed it enough to keep playing until the end. But it fails as both a sequel and as a current gen game, and ultimately is a forgettable and tedious experience, despite some minor successes.
Alice: Madness Returns (XBox360 [Reviewed], PS3, PC)
Developer: Spicy Horse
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: June 14, 2011
What’s it about?
Alice: Madness Returns picks up from where American McGee’s Alice left off. Having defeated the enemies in her brain and in the mental hospital at the end of the first game, she’s been transferred to the care of a psychotherapist whose treatment seems to be an attempt to erase her memory and make her forget all about the traumatic events that led to her being institutionalized. Alice escapes from his care, runs into an acquaintance from the first game and takes a drug induced trip back to ‘Wonderland’ to gradually collect pieces of her memory and blah blah snore. There’s not really much of a story here, it’s just a bunch of cut scenes barely connecting lengthy platforming sections.
It’s Late, It’s Late, And Not Really Up To Date
It should be clear that I wasn’t expecting this game to be Uncharted. Alice: Madness Returns has been in development in one form or another for over a decade and like another recent disappointing relaunch, you almost feel like it should be given something of a pass. You know, the way you wouldn’t expect someone who just woke up from a 10-year coma to have any idea who the current president is. It’s also true that I’m perfectly willing to accept and enjoy similarly shallow story-excuses-for-platforming when they have the name ‘Mario’ attached to them.
That might be because a Mario game never aims to convince you it’s anything other than a fun thing to do. American Mcgee’s Alice, on the other hand, was part of a larger culture trend, thankfully long since dead aside from Tim Burton’s awful films, of clumsy, darker reimaginings of relatively light pop cultural artifacts. In Alice’s case, it was ‘what if Alice of Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass was a Lizzy Borden type psychopath?’ It was kind of fun and funny in its day, playing Alice as an insane, super stabby mass murderer through a Wonderland as the demented product of her fevered imagination. The thing is, the game was all concept, no substance. There wasn’t much of a story, so once you got bored with the Gothic Victorian theme and the stabbing, and the platforming that resembled so many other games from the era, there wasn’t anything left to do but put it back in the box and let the dust collect.
But it’s been 11 years. The processing power available to console and computer game developers is vast, and gaming has seriously evolved as both a pastime and storytelling medium. If any series could benefit from these innovations, it’s this one. Unfortunately, American McGee seems to have spent the last decade studiously ignoring the changes in his industry and the result is a game with problems ranging from petty to significant.
Save checkpoints, for instance. Save checkpoints were barely tolerable as long ago as 2006, but in 2011 they are absolutely indefensible. Their presence here leads me to conclude the game was either rushed out, or has simply been in a computer file since 2004 and either way is proof that they didn’t really intend it for modern systems. But that’s not as bad as the fake boundaries problem. Despite deceptively expansive environments, Wonderland’s biggest wonder appears to be the annoying proliferation of invisible walls blocking you from actually traveling to the things you can see. In a world with games like Grand Theft Auto or even platformers like Ratchet and Clank that contain environments you can actually explore, there’s simply no excuse for failing to create real boundaries.
It’s a weak, lazy cheat that could have been avoided, which when you think about it is kind of the game’s defining characteristic. But as I see it, the game’s biggest problem is the lack of a coherent story, particularly considering the vastly influential work of literature on which it is based. It’s just a bunch of set pieces and cut-scene dialogue excuses to jump on platforms. You just sort of progress from plot point to plot point without any clear relationship between them, collecting items and collecting new weapons. Occasionally, an actual enemy appears but just as often as not you’re solving puzzles Prince of Persia style and struggling to figure out what your actual objectives are.
All of this is made worse by the absolutely terrible voice acting that combines the professionalism of Mark Meer and the hammy, quasi-Shakespearean tones of a drunken William Shatner. The weird Patrick Stewart-meets-James Earl Jones Cheshire Cat is particularly bad. But the worst is the barely tolerable voice of Alice’s psychotherapist, intoning bits of misguided wisdom which, we are led to believe, he has been cramming into her head ever since she transferred to his care. If we could understand why she was transferred to him, the extent of their relationship or even what the deuce his interest in her actually is, this stuff might feel a bit more weighty but instead it just ends up distracting. Meanwhile, you wander aimlessly around Wonderland collecting items and new powers and trying to convince yourself that this is a cool game instead of a cool waste of your time.
Alice: Madness Returns isn’t the worst game ever made. Aesthetically, it contains flashes of beauty and near brilliance; the title sequence, for instance, reminds one of the cold open from the animated version of Watership Down (which all of you need to read and later, to watch, as soon as possible. Seriously.) It sets a tone that, for a moment, leads you to believe this game is going to be more than simply a lame, darker and edgier 90s retread from the mind of someone who hasn’t had a new idea since Bill Clinton’s presidency.
The individual aspects of the game, when you aren’t considering their lack of relation to one another, are also pretty good. The graphics, though somewhat blocky, are very pretty, particularly the colorful initial Wonderland sequence, and the enormous levels. The weapons are also kind of ingenious. Alice’s pepper gun, a Victorian pepper shaker that functions like Dr. Gatling’s first prototype is fun to use, and the Hobby Horse mallet delivers a satisfying wallop. Sadly, the Vorpal Blade is a wash. It’s sad there’s no ‘Snicker-Snack!’ noise to accompany slashing it, and there’s no indication it’s a fantastically powerful sword, so it just comes off as an affectionately named kitchen knife (appropriate given that Alice has been reimagined as Lizzy Borden.)
Finally, though derivative to the extreme, the game’s platforming is at least interesting, with vast arenas that inventively combine staples of the genre. The puzzles are also genuinely challenging, not requiring a large amount of one’s brain but enough that you don’t just feel like you’re playing through mindlessly. It’s telling that I kept playing it as a fun diversion long after I’d decided I was over it. If a game can at least be fun enough to keep playing over and over again, it’s probably at least a partial success.
But it’s every bit as shallow, ‘edgy’ and full of fake 90s angst its predecessor, and in a year that also saw the return of Duke Nukem, one can’t help but conclude that the lesson from all this is that some things shouldn’t be revived. Despite high hopes, Alice: Madness Returns, with its disjointed, barely-there narrative, blocky – but not too blocky – graphics and cartoonish simplicity is basically a PlayStation 2 game. A pretty good PS2 game, a lesser Beyond Good and Evil, or Psychonauts, but most definitely not worthy of current gen consoles. I was left with the feeling that this game was meant to come out in 2003.
It might be just the thing if you’re wondering what the 90s were like, games-wise, but for the rest of you, it’s probably for the best if you keep your memories of American McGee’s Alice, not to mention Lewis Carroll, untarnished.