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Alice: Madness Returns Review: Madness over method

Crazy is not as easy as it looks. If you want to create a world of nightmarish whimsy like that in Alice: Madness Returns, it takes more than just throwing random bloody bits into a blender and spewing it all over the walls. You need careful planning; a formula of producing unease that will affect the player.

When Madness Returns is at the top of its formula, it is a fascinatingly dark and grotesque psychological tale. Unfortunately, the game's greatest strength tends to be impeded by gameplay that doesn't feel so much mad as obsessive-compulsive.

Gallery: Alice: Madness Returns (March 2011) | 5 Photos

A sequel to American McGee's Alice, Madness Returns finds the troubled title character struggling against a dark force that is tearing apart her psyche and, in turn, Wonderland. As she journeys through her own head, she reclaims lost memories and works toward the truth behind the fire that killed her family and set her up with a cushy suite in the Rutledge Insane Asylum.

The deteriorating Wonderland has a number of stunning destinations, with a creative palette that ranges from innocently beautiful to downright disturbing. The most impressive-looking levels are stacked in the second half of the game, which features attractions like a sadistic dollhouse chop shop and a Far East landscape made of fine china, scrolls and origami ants. The unsettling incorporation of feminine and childish objects among the darkness of these worlds is especially striking. Each of these worlds are tied together with brief, explorable scenes in "real world" period London; a bustling, unscrupulous city.

Strip away the wildly varying aesthetics, however, and the structures of each of the six chapters are actually fairly similar. Madness Returns is a pretty straightforward mix of platforming and action which is not afraid to repeat its elements ad nauseum. Floating on columns of air is pretty satisfying when you start out, but grows tiresome as the mechanic resurfaces in each world. The ability to shrink to discover secret signs, platforms and keyhole caverns is interesting when you gain it in the first chapter, but all of these things are thrown at you so frequently that you'll be eternally tapping the shrink button, sending Alice down and up like a yo-yo in search of the secret you know hides just around (and under) the corner.

Moving through the worlds is thankfully not much of a problem, as the camera and lock-on system tend to behave well. There are rare occasions, however, where Alice seems to get hung up on a corner or even a floor texture, and you'll have to let go of the stick to get her moving again. The pervasive use of invisible platforms and mid-air navigation almost ensures Alice's frequent plummeting, but there is no penalty for doing so.

Alice has only four weapons at her disposal, but each has its own devious charm thanks to some creative designs and sound effects. If you don't want to rain hot death on enemies with a Gatling gun-like Pepper Grinder, you can beat them to death with an unprecentedly evil toy horse that neighs as you bash your foes. The weapons can be upgraded by collecting the game's currency of teeth, but do not gain anything in the way of extra combos or moves.

Still, solid controls don't help the feeling that some worlds go on too long, and are just being stretched out with more platforms and levers for content's sake. The story that propels the game is weak during the first half, making Alice fight through to one Wonderland character who tells her to find another, who tells her to find yet another and so on. There are no boss fights; just tasks and fetch quests whose ultimate rewards are, "I dunno. Go ask so-and-so." Once Alice starts receiving some real answers, though, things become much more interesting.
The game tries to break up the platforming with a number of mini-games with varying levels of success. Some, like stomping around a castle as a giant or navigating a two-dimensional Alice through Japanese scroll art, are refreshing and fun. Others, like sliding puzzles, chess puzzles, and awful button-pressing rhythm games, scrape the bottom of the time-killer barrel. These too are repeated several times throughout the game for no rhyme or reason.

The memories Alice finds hidden throughout the game come in short sound bites from her family and other characters. Some are mere window dressing, but others provide clues into Alice's past while complementing the game's beautiful, paper cutout cutscenes. However, these moments just aren't a filling enough substitute for traditional storytelling. Something as simple as having Alice comment more on what she sees around here could have added a greater sense of purpose and kept parts of the game from feeling like the same old motions with a new, creepy skin.

There is plenty in Alice: Madness Returns that is worth experiencing, especially when the game's slowly unfurling story and mesmerizingly macabre style are able to shine through. It's just a pity that a title inspired by some of the most outlandish and inspired works of literature has to live with some of the driest tropes that the game design textbook has to offer.

This review is based on a final retail copy of Alice: Madness Returns for Xbox 360 provided by Electronic Arts.

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