Review: Alice Madness Returns (PS3)

Title: Alice Madness Returns
Format: Blu-ray
Release Date: June 14, 2011
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Spicy Horse
Price: $59.99

I wasn’t sure what to expect when first starting Alice Madness Returns.  I never had the pleasure of playing the now cult-classic American McGee’s Alice (although it’s conveniently included on the disc).  I knew very little about what Madness Returns had to offer in terms of gameplay and originality.  I did, however, have an understanding that the story would be based, to some degree, on the incredible tale – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – by the prolific Lewis Carroll.  That was more than enough for me to climb on board.  The thought of interacting with the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit and that hookah-smoking caterpillar had its hooks in me from the minute go.

Madness Returns begins shortly after the conclusion of its predecessor.  Alice, having been released from the Asylum, is now residing within the confines of an orphanage while receiving regular hypnotic “treatments” from the orphanage’s proprietor – Doctor Angus Bumby.  All in an attempt to completely rid Alice of her said Madness.

After easing into the game with some initial plot points it doesn’t take Alice long to find herself tumbling down that long and winding “rabbit hole.”  Only this time, the wonderment that once was Wonderland has ceased to exist.  In its place is a world of chaos and destruction.  A world that appears to crumble around Alice and whither away.  The source of this change is at the heart of the story.  The burden of unraveling this mystery is solely on Alice’s shoulders.  That’s not to say she can’t have some fun along the way.

Primarily broken into 2 major categories, the gameplay in Madness Returns involves platforming and combat.  It’s not unlike so many action platformers that have come before it.  Both elements are fairly satisfying and deliver a certain amount of enjoyment.  But where Madness Returns fails is in its lack of gameplay variety.

Repetition is truly the name of this game and will have the most amount of clout when it comes to assessing a final grade.  At roughly the 50% completion mark it became almost predictable with what would occur around every corner.  Struggle your way from point A to point B and finish things off with a quick bout of hand-to-hand combat.  In between you’ll find yourself using the same platforms, flipping the same switches and battling the same enemies.  Over, and over again.

At the very least, Madness Returns attempts to make this repetition interesting.  Although diminutive in size Alice can pack quite a punch and her weapons of choice certainly help her along the way.  Choosing between the acquired Vorpal Blade (a nasty looking butcher knife), Hobby Horse (your heavy weapon), Pepper Grinder (think Gatling gun) and Clockwork Bomb – a cute, but deadly, timed explosive in the form a furry rabbit – Alice has the tools she needs to work over just about anything that gets in her way.  The ability to level-up each weapon is nice but, ultimately, doesn’t amount to much more than just that – level 1, level 2, level 3, etc….

I did find Spicy Horse’s use of Alice’s dodge and shrink abilities both creative and beautiful.  Much like the widely used roll mechanic, Alice changes things up by transforming into a flock of butterflies – capable of avoiding last-second fatal blows from just about any direction.  At the conclusion of each dodge Alice resumes her human form.  Although creative, the inconsistent and erratic camera can, more often than not, leave Alice in an even more desperate situation than when the dodge started.

Shrinking down to less than 1/4 her normal size (compliments of the infamous “drink me” bottle) allows Alice to enter areas previously unreachable as well as provide a dream-like sense of her surroundings.  Suddenly, hidden rooms are revealed, paths are laid out and additional platforms appear from out of nowhere.  Without question, this ability comes in handy for the completionist in all of us as we try to find every collectible available.  Unfortunately, in order to maintain this “shrink sense” the player is forced to hold down the L2 button and no other game mechanics can be used – no jumping, no combat.  While Alice traverses solid ground this isn’t much of an issue.  However, switching between this shrink sense (to locate previously invisible platforms) and back to normal size (to jump onto said platforms) and then back again so the platforms reappear for you to stand on can be infuriatingly tedious.  The controls are simply not as precise as the game often demands.

A final gameplay element worth noting is Alice’s Hysteria mode.  A last ditch effort before the game-over screen from too much abuse, Alice enters this mode when her health reaches near zero.  For a limited time she becomes impervious to additional damage while being able to dish out twice as much.  The best part – her appearance and the the appearance of her surroundings change to fit this final act of desperation.

Where the gameplay of Alice Madness Returns may have fallen short the visuals of this version of Wonderland are what prompted me to play this game in the first place – and they do not disappoint.  The developers at Spicy Horse must have had an incredible time planning and delivering these beautiful – and often disturbing – environments.  The colors were always an interesting mix of warm and vibrant with dark and moody.  It was like being in a 10-12 hour fever dream.  Somehow I think that was the target Spicy Horse was shooting for – and they absolutely nailed it!

While Wonderland was a blending of colors, Alice’s “real world” was consistently dreary and desperate.  Everything was bleak and sickly looking.  The scattering of characters populating the streets, pubs and fishing docks were appropriately rough and disheveled.  When they weren’t passed out drunk, begging for money or selling sex they were profanely remonstrating Alice for intruding upon their turf.  As these visits to the darker side of the city were injected as brief reprieves from Alice’s adventures in Wonderland they delivered a sense of hopelessness and a desire to return to normalcy.  Only, in this case, normalcy was found in the madness of Wonderland.

Following the unique visuals was a better than average assemblage of voice actors.  From the deceptiveness of the Cheshire Cat to the rotund Madame of the corner brothel, practically every character encountered was spot on with the acting.  It never ceases to amaze me how valuable proper acting can be in the quality of a videogame.  Think of how many games have shown promise only to fail because of a weak story and poor characters.  I was glad to see that Spicy Horse didn’t forget that they were trying to live up to the timeless classic that is Alice in Wonderland.  Those are some pretty big shoes to fill and they did an admirable job.

Aside from the variety in voice-overs there isn’t much else to brag about with the audio of Madness Returns.   On occasion the music would compliment the dreamlike visuals with an appropriate orchestral piece but, overall, it felt like they may have missed an incredible opportunity to really shine.  Unlike an epic first person shooter like the forthcoming Battlefield 3 – where high quality surround sound and heart pounding bass is a must – Alice could have gone onto the next level had they spent more time with the music selections.  Like a good movie, a quality soundtrack can only compliment an already interesting story.

If you’re looking for a change of pace and want to take a much needed break from the frantic shooters of the world Alice Madness Returns may be the game for you.  I enjoyed my time in Wonderland but can’t say that anything I experienced was ground-breakingly new.  Aside from the incredible environments it certainly felt as if I’d been here before.  Perhaps my last visit wasn’t as a young woman but as an angry Spartan.  That’s not to say I regret my buying the game.  On the contrary, I feel like I played it at a time when everything felt just right.  We all know there’s a storm of incredible AAA titles headed our way over the last few months of the year.  As you nail down your doors and windows in anticipation of this storm I recommend giving Alice Madness Returns a try.  Based on the repetitious nature of the game my only advice – play it in sections with breaks in between.


Written by Bill Braun

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