I’d like to start this review with two notes.
1) I will be slipping several references to the prequel to this game, American McGee’s Alice. If you have any plans to play the original Alice, I suggest you do so before you read this review. I believe an HD rerelease is packaged with Madness Returns just to make sure new players get the full experience. It’ll not only help you understand the plot of the second game better and the references better, it’ll keep my review from spoiling the suspense of the first game.
2)Because I think Madness Returns is a great game that will inevitably be underappreciated by the mainstream, I’m going to address everything that’s wrong with it first before moving onto why you should buy it. This way, the last taste in your mouth is one of praise instead of criticism.
Alright? Let’s go.
In the first game, Alice Liddell’s entire family was killed off in a horrific fire. While doctors could fix her burns, they couldn’t fix her shattered mind and she is placed in an asylum. Soon, her stuffed rabbit takes on the role of the White Rabbit from the original tale and leads her back into a horribly warped Wonderland in order to save it.
Essentially, Alice 2 is more of the same.
One of the biggest gripes I have about Alice 2 is that it doesn’t make full use of the spectacular array of characters available to it. The first Alice made use of every character imaginable and made them a vital part of the story. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, the Mad Hatter, the Duchess, Jabberwock and Red Queen, the Chesire Cat, Gryphon, White King and Caterpillar were always fighting/assisting Alice and she was rarely seen without the company of any of the aforementioned characters.
With the exception of the Chesire Cat, most of these characters seem to take a backlog in the story in Alice 2. Some characters simply don’t appear in the game, others have very brief appearances and others only serve as rudimentary guides through a level before going off on their way. This is a game which basically apes on our nostalgia about Wonderland and adds an adult, sinister twist. Removing so many characters just feels like . . . betrayal.
Another gripe I have is that there are basically no boss fights. There’s a few of those battles where you fight a new, tough enemy but once you figure out how to beat them they just become routine. In fact the only thing I considered a true boss fight was the final boss, which is a true pity.
Alice 1 had a hoard of bosses. There was the Mad Hatter who had become an experimental psychopath obsessed with time and rebuilt the Jabberwock with metal parts. There was the Duchess who had become a cannibalistic serial killer who used her pepper grinder like a machine gun. The antagonists of Alice 1 always had grand battles to match their villainous persona. In Alice 2, their demise is either depicted with a cut scene OR it turns out they’re not antagonists to begin with!
The final criticism is that Wonderland seems . . . disjointed. While the first game still presented a variety of levels, they still felt like they were different parts of the same world: Wonderland. In Alice 2, the levels seem like different worlds altogether; levels emphasize enormous chasms and jumps and by the time you finish and head to the next “level”, the change is so jarring that you forget that it’s all part of Wonderland. Don’t get me wrong, this criticism is more a matter of taste than anything; some people will appreciate the vast, desolate feel of new Wonderland. But anyone who was a fan of the original will be somewhat put off by the enormous Mario style worlds.
I’ve spent several paragraphs bashing this game, so let me make this clear: I love Madness Returns.
While Alice 2 may not have created a world you liked in the previous game or the movie, it’s still a damn beautiful site. The enormous sprawl before Alice still has minute traces of Wonderland, corrupted by blood and decay. Even the card maze before the Red Queen’s castle seems sinister, and many creatures such as the card guards take on a stomach turning twist.
Combat is another improved aspect. While platform heavy games such as the Super Mario series have never been combat centric but the Alice series has changed that. Alice 1 suffered from too many weapon as well as wonky controls that made combat feel like attempting to swat a fly while drunk on a merry-go-round. Alice 2 makes vast improvements in this area. The auto targeting system is clean, allowing you to seamlessly switch between targets with your ranged weapons while prioritizing with your melee weapons.
MANY people complained about the camera, but I played Ninja Gaiden Black; a game recognized as one of the hardest games of all time and which also had a horrid camera angle. So my personal opinion is if you’ve played any game with a bad camera, Alice 2′s camera is manageable.
Speaking of weapons, Alice 2 has cut down the titular character’s arsenal to 4 weapons: the Vorpal Blade, the Hobby Horse, the Pepper Grinder and the Teapot Cannon. The Vorpal Blade and Pepper Grinder are your fast weapons while the Hobby Horse and Teapot Cannon are your heavy defense breaking weapons. It’s very easy to switch between weapons on the fly, so you can put an enemy down with a Vorpal Blade combo before using the Hobby Horse to deliver the finishing blow. It’s certainly nothing that would put Zelda to shame but it’s competent enough to be enjoyable.
And the story. Good god, the story.
You see, the twist in Alice 1 was that the evil Red Queen was a manifestation of Alice’s own anger, hatred and guilt and therefore she’d have to save Wonderland to save herself. Of course since it’s widely agreed that Wonderland is just a figment of Alice’s imagination, this plot twist was really easy to see coming. Alice 2, on the other hand, has some genuine mystery to it.
It seems that Wonderland is corrupted again, but this time by an outside force. The characters in Wonderland , while still creepy and macabre in their own right, are just as much victims of it as Alice herself. It becomes clear that once again Alice and Wonderland’s fate are intertwined, but you’re left wondering who is the cause. Obviously Alice’s mind affects the state of Wonderland, but all the creatures heavily imply that she is being manipulated by outside forces in the real world. The Wonderland sequences are spliced in with sections in which Alice roams the streets of real-world London and her orphanage in which she tries to find the culprit behind the madness.
So I guess we’ve come to the end of the review, to the part where I recommend or don’t recommend purchase. I’m in quite a dilemma here.
I personally LOVED Alice: Madness Returns and I don’t regret dropping full price for this game. But I also know that people like me are in the minority; I played the original Alice almost 7 years ago and I was willing to put up with the sequel’s shortcomings to indulge in my nostalgia. How many new gamers would actually enjoy playing an outdated game with slightly better graphics? How many people would be willing to pay full price for a game whose primary function is for art and story and not gameplay?
I recommend renting it; the story and atmosphere will never be replicated but I can’t ask anyone to spend so much money on a game they’ll never pick up again.