By: George Weidman
American McGee’s name falls into that category of “game designers you don’t really need to know,” and his games fall into that category of “games you don’t really need to play.” They tend to be interesting and though the 2000 release of American McGee’s Alice scored a higher interesting-to-mediocre ratio than his other games, it was no exception to this rule. That its sequel is just as misguidedly interesting but mediocre underneath is a tragic, but satisfyingly appropriate turn of events.
“When is a croquet mallet like a billy club?”
When McGee reimagined Lewis Carrol’s Alice as a hallucinating goth chick, he instantly created a cult following. Despite its arguably derivative theme, the game itself wasn’t actually half bad. Trippy, non-Euclidean levels were slathered in disturbing and inspired visual design. Almost all dialogue was written in analogies and riddles. With a crooked grin, McGee wryly portrayed Caroll’s literary nonsense as the ramblings of a mad Alice, and did it with a keen sense of early-2000’s goth kitsch (even the soundtrack was produced by Jack off Jill and NIN drummer Chris Vrenna.)
“She’ll need more medicine. Strong medicine.”
With 11 years of fan nostalgia boiling over, and the recent release of Tim Burton’s arguably gothy Alice film, it’s somewhat unsurprising that American McGee dug up the dead franchise and revived it past its prime. Alice: Madness Returns, the first American McGee game to (thankfully) not have the man’s oh-so-clever name stamped all over the box, does a surprisingly good job at matching the same interesting-to-mediocre ratio of its predecessor.
Like Alice 1, it’s filled with oodles of interesting places to go and interesting things to look at and interesting creatures to battle. Also like Alice 1, it’s filled with boringly repetitive levels that wear out their welcome past the first couple of hours. The soundtrack and production rosters are filled with far less interesting names (and it shows. The memorable melodies of Alice 1’s music are nowhere to be found here,) though the same voice actors for Alice and her Cheshire Cat return. But over the past 11 years, the hard edges of Alice’s goth origins have eroded into a softer, more console-friendly sort of ordeal.
They Just Don’t Make ‘em Like They Used To
With this transition Alice is introduced into the current generation of gaming, the one where games just don’t work as well as they used to. Alice 2’s initial presentation isn’t pretty: unskippable promotional logos, loading screen tips, letterboxing, audio glitches, weird mouse acceleration, a low field-of-view, and a control scheme that only works correctly on a gamepad are all not welcome. The 2D cutscenes, which are composed of dancing cardboard cutouts, aren’t impressive either. There also isn’t a proper savegame manager. Your mistakes are permanent.
Our copy of Alice: Madness Returns was an Origin copy, and thus required me to agree to four EULA documents and a release-date check before launching. It was this reviewer’s first experience with Origin, and as such, I feel it’s appropriate to note that it succeeds in being entirely like Steam but worse. The Origin in-game interface can’t be turned off, you can’t make desktop shortcuts for your games, you can’t opt out of updates (which require a whole install wizard to process, as opposed to Steam’s more transparent updating,) and the terms of the EULA pretty much sign over your whole soul and computer to this program. Don’t let that scare you away from the surprisingly easy-to-use offline mode, though. That’s something Steam doesn’t do, at least.
Our copy of Alice was also the “Complete Collection,” which includes all the current DLCs on offer and the entire first Alice game. This is the same package as the pre-order bundle, and is no longer available to the public, so keep that in mind throughout the review. The costly downloadables might as well be paid-for cheat codes, offering overpowered game-changing benefits.
Striking in its Unoriginality
There’s a long list of complaints here, and we’ve only covered the small ones so far. What’s most offensive about Alice: Madness Returns is that nearly all of its gameplay elements are completely unoriginal. This stands in stark contrast to the original, which isn’t as readily comparable to any other games of its period.
Madness Returns, on the other hand, feels almost entirely like a Zelda game. You’re controlling this versatile blade-wielding character in the third person, navigating through thematic dungeons filled with spatial switch-activated puzzles. Alice’s health meter is made of faux heart containers, and new weapons double as puzzle-solving gadgets. Jewel-like teeth serve as Rupees, and spew out of defeated enemies and smashed pots. Combat consist of locking onto enemies and mashing the “attack” button.
However, combat is one area where Alice 2 incrementally improves on its predecessors: once you hit the midgame, most fights are delightfully complicated affairs that involve a truly challenging bit of fencing (neverminding the temporary invincibility offered when health is low.) Some huge, hulking monstrosities that require multiple stages of tactics to defeat are regular everyday enemies.
The primary difference between Zelda and Alice’s control schemes lies in a staple of the platforming genre: the jump button. It’s too bad that Alice is a mediocre platformer at best. We’ve got a genuine quadruple-jump here, the game gives you three extra jumps in case you screwed up the first time, plus a slowfall mechanic if you still need more help. Platforms are often placed close enough to not exploit these mechanics, so they just continue to exist uselessly, patronizing you as a player and your presumed inability to land on top of things.
A word of advice: play with a gamepad.
“Is it mad to pray for better hallucinations?”
Alice: Madness Returns isn’t hard at all, even on “hard” mode. It’s just tedious. Most obstacles are recycled from a decade of 3D Zelda games, and turn the levels into monotonous gauntlets of instantly-solvable puzzles and effortless platforming challenges. You can breeze through them, passing through every challenge effortlessly on your first try with almost speedrun-like efficiency. There’s usually only one direction to go: forwards. Occasionally, “forwards” will be blocked by a brittle wall that needs smashing, a switch that needs pulling, a series of platforms that need jumping, or a room of enemies that need beating. The solution is always obvious. But levels go on and on and on like this for hours at a time without a break. It’s numbing. The never-ending checklist of useless collectables doesn’t ease the monotony.
Despite all this complaining, there are gems of excellence shining through the mediocrity. For starters, the story is a way more nuanced and layered affair than Alice 1’s simple romp through hostile hallucinations. There are two plotlines going on at once: one following the state of Alice’s mental fortitude in Wonderland, the other following her sleuthy mystery solving in Victorian London.
Appreciatively, both storylines go in interesting places, but the plot doesn’t really pick up until the third act, where the edgy pessimism of the goth aesthetic returns in ways even harsher than what the first game threw at us. Stumbling straight-jacketed and drugged through a 19th-century psych ward was a truly disturbing scene. The proceeding Wonderland level, a mutilated toybox, has you fighting naked baby dolls that shiver in the cold. You navigate in and out of oversized porcelain genitals.
Though it takes so long to pick up, the story makes the game worth playing. Without spoiling anything, the big reveal at the ending was totally worth it, and unveiled layers of metaphor that led to a wholly satisfying conclusion.
The Stuff of Dreams
Speaking of levels made out of oversized porcelain dolls, the whole game looks like a really pretty fever dream. Like Alice 1, Madness Returns is slathered in visually creative sights that are found virtually around ever corner, some of them almost overwhelming in scale and design. “Cardbridge” is a beautiful level that deserves special recognition. It was the odd one out that was fun to play, too, consisting of a skyward castle of cards that re-builds itself over and over again as you progress through it.
Conclusion— Is it Worth Your Money?
Alice: Madness Returns is a tragedy on two fronts. While it looks like McGee spent the last 11 years thinking up of an intricate plotline that would take the story of the previous game in a new direction while being a respectful and appropriate sequel, it also looks like EA rushed him into packing it all into an unwieldy format. The whole thing is brimming with unfilled potential. We’ve got a great plot with some great artwork built on top of an ultimately flacid Zelda clone.
For the record, the review copy that we were given included Alice 1 and a pack of DLC trinkets. Alice 1 is about 20 hours long, and Alice 2 about 12. Together, that makes for a one $50 package that’s a pretty good value. A damn good value, in fact. And it’s also a damn shame that this bundle is no longer available on the PC. As a mid-length single-player game that doesn’t immediately solicit replay value, Alice: Madness Returns is not worth the $50 by itself. But it is worth checking out eventually. Either wait for a sale or buy the console bundle.
Alice: Madness Returns Summary
- Time Played – 36 hours (between both games)
- Widescreen Support – Yes, but letterboxed at some widescreen resolutions
- 5.1 Audio – Yes
- Bugs – Only a few subtle audio glitches
- DRM – One-time release date check.
- Control Scheme – Keyboard/mouse, wide range of gamepads supported
- Game Acquisition Method – Review Copy
- Availability – Origin, Steam and local retail outlets
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