Alice: Madness Returns is oh-so-pretty, and very, very strange, and while these two qualities alone can make for an interesting game, this platformer from American McGee made me think of the Longfellow poem that goes:
There was a little girl
Who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good,
She was very, very good,
But when she was bad she was horrid.
Yes: Alice: Madness Returns is very, very good, but to be fair, there’s a touch of the horrid here as well.
Madness Returns takes place after the events of American McGee’s Alice, which I tried to play on my junky computer back in 2000. I didn’t get far - but that was the computer’s fault, not the game’s. In both titles Alice is a great deal less mentally stable than the wise-child who could always see through the ridiculous in every scene of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books; here her dalliances with Wonderland have left her in an insane asylum, with little ability to comprehend what’s real and what’s imagined, in the world(s) around her.
We rejoin Alice in a scummy Victorian London, replete with mad children, creepy adults, and old ladies who can turn into insects. Alice is still staying at an asylum, the Houndsditch Home for Wayward Youth, where a certain Dr. Bumby is trying to convince her to take some dubious little pills. Needless to say, Alice prefers to try and figure things out her own way, and so her journey begins as she moves between worlds, gathering fragments of memory about her life before her family were all killed in a mysterious fire.
While interludes between the game chapters are set in the grimy grey of the London streets, the bulk of the game is set in Wonderland, where we follow Alice as she journeys back to the place she once knew and loved. As she moves from realm to realm, Alice - and the player - will find it a very different, damaged place. Familiar characters feature from Carroll’s books, such as the Mad Hatter, the Mock Turtle, the Walrus and the Carpenter, and the Caterpillar, not to mention the Cheshire Cat and White Rabbit. Like Wonderland, and Alice herself, the characters are also damaged and changed. Many players will have no problems with this, but as an ardent fan of the books I found it difficult to reconcile my memories of the characters with American McGee’s quite twisted treatment of the Wonderland folk.
Still, exploring these bizarre areas can be a lot of fun - especially once Alice starts to amass her weaponry. The Vorpal Blade, a Pepper Grinder that can fire pepper at ranged targets, a Hobby Horse that can do serious damage, and a Teapot that lobs grenade-like splashes are all at Alice’s command. And it’s just as well, because enemies are everywhere - everything from creepy imps wielding forks and spoons, to horrible baby-dolls-gone-wrong. Fighting is straightforward button mashing, but it feels smooth and natural, and there are some great sound effects as things smash and are bashed about by Alice.
And when she isn’t fighting, there is a lot for Alice to collect. Memories, for starters, which are hidden here and there and look like shining shards of glass. Finding one will let Alice play back a memory of a past event, or remember someone who was important to her. Teeth let you upgrade weapons, and roses supplement Alice’s health (represented by a bouquet of flowers). But the most fun is probably tracking down pig snouts. (Yes, I said pig snouts.) These pig snouts hover, with wings, in odd places, only giving away their location with the odd snort as you pass nearby. Once you hear a snort you have to look in all sorts of nooks and crannies to spot one, which you then fire at with pepper from the Pepper Grinder - causing them sneeze and run off, giving Alice a glimpse of other hidden areas to explore.
On the exploration front, thanks to a dunking in a big bottle of Drink Me, Alice gains the ability to shrink at will, allowing her to explore hidden keyhole tunnels that are also dotted around the place. Jumping on steam vents allows her to soar up in the air, while giant mushrooms catapult her to hard-to-reach places.
Yes, you’re saying. So why not a 10/10? Well, as lovely as Alice: Madness Returns is (and if you’ve not seen any screenshots, Madness Returns is a very good looking game), it can also be horridly repetitive, and there’s a same-ness about subsequent levels, in that they, and the baddies that people them, don’t feel as if they get any more challenging as you go along. The exploratory methods are all lovely and in theme, but Alice isn’t able to stray from her path at all (which is ironic, given the beginning of the original story is all about how she wanders off when she’s not meant to). Furthermore, controlling Alice can be a joy, but the camera positioning isn’t always as kind, and having to restart the game several times because Alice has become stuck inside a mushroom isn’t my idea of a great night in.
But - if you are patient enough, or able to turn a blind eye to this beautiful child’s occasional temper tantrum, you will find there is a great deal of charm to be experienced in Alice: Madness Returns.