Releasing 11 years after its predecessor, Alice: Madness Returns is a fascinating specimen—it’s not often that games get follow-ups after so many years of absolute silence. While I may not have been a fan of American McGee’s Alice, it received a great deal of praise when it was released and fans have been quietly waiting to see if and how the story of Alice could continue. What we’re given, after an over decade long hiatus, is a compelling piece of interactive art that weaves an interesting tale spanning two distinctly different realities and is melded together with solid, fast-paced action/platformer gameplay.
The plot of Madness Returns picks up some time after the conclusion of Alice and, while it seemed that Alice ended on a positive note, the years have not been kind to the troubled character. From the onset, the game is immeasurably more intriguing than its predecessor with a curious voiceover encouraging Alice to “go back to Wonderland” accompanied by animated 2D illustrations that give it a more “storybook” feel.
American McGee’s Alice found the titular character in a broken and twisted version of her Wonderland as she tried to find reason in the madness and regain her sanity. The sequel takes the traumatic events that drove Alice to her madness and centers around them. Unlike the first game (which took place entirely in Wonderland), in Madness Returns you will control Alice through the grimy streets of London and witness her struggle to regain some form of control over her life—it helps keep the story somewhat grounded and makes the character more relatable. You have some empathy for Alice as now the entire game isn’t centered wholly on a deranged girl prancing through broken fantasies, but now it’s a woman trying to make sense of her delusions while struggling to maintain her life outside her fantasies. The story is definitely intriguing and pulls you in with a constant trickle of reveals regarding the events surrounding the traumatic events in Alice’s past; as you delve deeper into the mysteries of the tragedy that befell her family, you find that the truth behind her madness is as twisted as the broken Wonderland in which she seeks refuge.
The gameplay in Madness Returns is also markedly improved upon from the original’s. It’s still an action platformer that has you jumping around this twisted version of Wonderland and raining death upon the enemies that hinder your progression, but it all works. Combat is fast-paced and brutal; from the first moments you get access to a weapon, you feel like a predator instead of a helpless being who just so happens to have a knife. The Vorpal Blade is the first weapon you encounter and is the only one that returns from the first game—but it doesn’t just make a straight transfer over… it’s actually useful in Madness Returns. For your up-close-and-personal attacks, you’ll find yourself using the Vorpal Blade liberally as it unleashes high-speed damage. You’ll gain access to other weapons throughout the game as well including a “heavy” melee weapon for strong attacks that can break through defenses, a bomb that also aids you in puzzle solving, and ranged weapons.
Rather than having an equipped weapon and giving you a multitude of button combinations to use for each one, you have quick access to all of your weapons on the fly and can string attacks from each weapon together to form a devastating combo. The X button (for the XBOX 360 version of the game) is for your Vorpal Blade attacks, Y unleashes your heavy weapon attacks, B drops your bomb, and the right trigger is to fire your ranged weapon (with the D-pad used to quickly cycle between which ranged weapon you have out). The left trigger allows you to lock-on to enemies and a quick flick of the right analogue stick will cycle through which enemy you have targeted—you also have the option to freeform combat, but the lock-on feature does come in handy and its ease of use and lack of “sticky” targets is a welcome mechanic. As good as the lock-on in this game is, it suffers from poor camera control as once you lock-on to an enemy, the camera is fixed in place and doesn’t rotate to face the enemy you have targeted; so, the enemy you’re trying to focus on could actually leave your viewing area. It’s frustrating, certainly, but not game-breaking.
Platforming and puzzle solving is where Madness Returns really shines. Taking place mostly in the imagination of a crazy woman, the level design in Madness Returns is wonderfully unique as it can break away from the standard conventions of gaming and get away with it because Wonderland doesn’t have to make sense. While so many other games out there have to design levels around the idea of how to make something creative, but still exist within the confines of that universe’s rules, Madness Returns doesn’t have such restrictions because there are no rules in Wonderland. There is a clear definition of where to go, but how to get there takes some figuring out. Many levels feature small platforms heavily distanced from each other which require the use of Alice’s triple jump and float abilities in order to clear the gaps between them. It’s simple enough, but the use of invisible platforms (which are revealed with Alice’s “shrink sense”) makes things a little more challenging and intense. Levels are also peppered with multiple environmental puzzles that can be simple timing exercise that have you jumping to avoid a hazard or flipping switches and pressing buttons to more complex combinations of those which increase in difficulty (but never become overbearingly difficult) throughout the game. Aside from a few minor issues with collision detection (with Alice getting caught on absolutely nothing in certain passageways accessible only when shrunk), it’s a very solid experience that “feels right” with tight controls and responsive feedback.
Madness Returns also benefits from being an absolutely gorgeous game to look at. Utilizing the Unreal Engine 3 graphics engine, it does suffer from some of the ill effects that plague other games running on the same engine (namely texture pop-in), but the colorful worlds of Wonderland are so mesmerizing that you soon forgive the game its graphical shortcomings. To offset the high volume of colors found in Wonderland, the streets of London are dark and filled with muted tones—it’s a wonderful contrast that draws your attention to how truly different Alice’s two worlds are. Accompanying the 3D graphics of the game, you are treated to many storyline cutscenes done in the vein of storybook illustrations; it’s a pleasant nod to the works that inspired American McGee’s new visions of Wonderland.
The soundtrack of Madness Returns is expertly crafted and sets the tone of each of the game’s environments, encounters, and story segments flawlessly. Composed of mainly subdued, haunting tunes, it’s a fitting accompaniment to the rest of the elements that make the whole of Madness Returns. The voice acting is competent with only a few secondary characters standing out as disappointing in their ability to break the game’s tone with a poor reading. It’s nothing to write home about, but the majority of the characters are voiced with a conviction that makes them believable in their setting.
They really didn’t hold back with Madness Returns as it’s a game that’s packed full of content; the campaign itself can easily take 15 hours to complete in a single playthrough and features tons of hidden collectibles. On top of that the entire first game is included as a download with every new purchase of the console versions of Alice: Madness Returns. While I may not have been too kind to American McGee’s Alice in my review of it (which can be found here: http://poweruponline.com/Article.aspx?ArticleID=30
), it’s hard to argue against a free game.
Madness Returns is a game overflowing with imagination in every aspect from the story to the art to the gameplay; it’s a game that doesn’t restrain from being different at every opportunity it can (and I mean that in a good way). Despite a few shortcomings (like minor camera issues when locking on to an enemy, getting caught on a doorway, or texture pop-in), Madness Returns is an incredibly enjoyable experience that is as rewarding as it is ceaselessly intriguing.