American McGeeâ€™s Alice (2000) was about as far removed from the beloved childrenâ€™s tales as you could get. Only an all night bender or a particularly dubious curry might have prompted Lewis Carroll to create such a disturbing version of Wonderland, but luckily for us, American McGee needed no such assistance, and we got to view young Alice Liddell in a whole new light.
11 years have elapsed since her last foray into a corrupted Wonderland - the same amount of time since the original title was released. This time around, Alice is older, but no less troubled. They didnâ€™t have anti-psychotic drugs in Victorian England, but there were plenty of psychiatrists. The game begins with Alice in therapy session with her shrink, whose care she has been in for a number of years since her release from the asylum. Throughout the intro, it quickly becomes apparent that the young lass is still seriously disturbed. After her session, Alice follows an elusive white cat through the back alleys of London, has a frightening rooftop encounter and finds herself back in Wonderland.
Like the original Alice, the genre here is platform-slash-action-slash-adventure. Thereâ€™s lots of graceful floating, twirling and butterflies instead of the standard double jumps you may be used to. Rest assured, though: this is no girly game.
In stark contrast to the grim, grey streets of London, the Wonderland environments are often a kaleidoscope of lurid colours. Each setting feels surreal, being populated with a fantastical mishmash of flora, fauna and objects. The landscapes possess a hazy, dreamlike quality - although some are more the stuff of nightmares. In some places the scale and detail is breathtaking, and youâ€™re free to cast an appreciative eye on the surroundings.
In keeping with the ever shifting environments, Alice undergoes several wardrobe changes, with each ensemble a statement in Gothic chic. Sometimes sheâ€™ll be wearing her classic blue dress (accentuated with tasteful bloodstains); while at others she might sport a tightly laced â€˜donâ€™t mess with meâ€™ number. Characters from the previous game return, albeit with a more menacing demeanour than their kiddie-friendly Lewis Carroll counterparts. Expect to see a lot of the Cheshire cat, with his cryptic clues, the March Hare, the Dormouse (who is not at all sleepy), the Mad Hatter, and the Duchess. They toss about plenty of nonsensical dialogue, and some characters will have quests for Alice as she navigates strange and dangerous lands, tainted by her madness.
Luckily, our girl is no shrinking violetâ€¦ and sheâ€™s not defenceless, either. Her arsenal includes a perpetually bloodstained vorpal blade, a â€˜pepper grinderâ€™ Gatling gun, exploding clockwork bunnies and a hobby horse, which deals out some serious blunt-force trauma. Combat is fast paced and quite challenging, with an eclectic and interesting mix of enemies to dispatch. For a game that doesnâ€™t hold back on the macabre, Aliceâ€™s death animation seems at odds with some of the more gruesome sights: she simply dissolves into a cloud of blue butterfliesâ€¦ but then, this is a game that likes to mess with your mind, and the faltering line between reality and fantasy is very blurred indeed.
Okay, so I lied about the â€˜shrinking violetâ€™ thing; Alice does in fact do quite a bit of shrinking. She is able to reduce her size at will (much to the envy of women everywhere!), and reach areas too small for her full sized self. Another benefit of shrink mode is the ability to see things not normally visible to the naked eye. Things such as hints, secrets, and invisible platforms requiring the â€˜leap of faithâ€™ technique (remember Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade?). Mini Alice sees allâ€¦ which is just as well, since there are many repressed memories and other collectibles to discover on each level.
Are there any drawbacks so far? Well, I did find the controls quite challenging to master - even with the timely onscreen prompts. An hour down the track and I was still confusing attacks with evasive maneuvers. Certainly, the more you play, the more proficient you become, but when youâ€™re thrown into a situation requiring lightning judgment and reflexes to match, the last thing you want to be thinking about is which button to push.
Alice: Madness Returns is scheduled for release here on 17th June, and judging by what Iâ€™ve seen so far, is definitely going to be one to watch out for. In the meantime, be sure to check out our interview with American McGee for more insight into the warped imagination and remarkable genius behind the game.