When I was growing up Disney was king. There was no Pixar, there was no Teamwork Animation Studio and there certainly was no Cartoon Network. Hell, I didn't have access to the Disney channel until the mid-nineties and by then I was on an airplane on my way to Germany. Growing up I watched Disney movies. Partly because I was a child and partly because my grandfather was a sound engineer who worked on Snow White and other classic Disney movies of that time. I watched Alice in Wonderland and loved it. I even watched it as a teenager in high school and of course discussed the possible drug references and innuendo that are commonly associated with it. Still, it was an innocent Alice story. Which is why Alice: Madness Begins intrigued me so much.
When the first Alice released I didn't own a computer that could support games. In fact I never have. Call it paranoia, but I believe Skynet will happen. I had heard about it and wanted to play it, however as I said before I was lacking the hardware. A dark and twisted adventure set in Wonderland was at the time a leap away from the norm of gaming. This was the time of bad ass, spikey haired, giant sword wielding warriors and stealthy clones named Snake. Could a little girl really be able to compare with that? So, it got lost to time and under a pile of games.
Fast forward a decade and the announcement for the sequel is made. Once again my interest was piqued, but I did have my reservations. The whole girl as a main character thing usually doesn't hold well for me (WET.....ugh) as well as the 11 years in between games that really concerned me. What really set me on the purchase were two things: one being that the original game could be downloaded and played for free with the purchase of the second game and two being LA Noire. I know, I know LA Noire? Well, every game I have eagerly anticipated so far this year has been a bust and the one I thought would be utter garbage had been my favorite so far. I decided let's try going 2 for 2.
And I will say I am pleasantly surprised yet again. Alice: Madness Returns is a dark, intriguing, well put together action/platformer and I don't even like platforming games! The combat is simple yet satisfying and the platforming sections are simple as well. The difficulty for the platforming does ramp up when it is off the main path and you are going for collectibles, but after a few times of trial and error you are awarded with your goal. The controls feel very natural and fluid and the targeting for long range weapons is well done. Rare is the occasion when I can't or don't initially target exactly what I want. There is even a level up system placed on the weapons. You acquire teeth like red orbs to purchase simple upgrades. Teeth can be found out in the open, by defeating enemies and in containers all around Wonderland.
They even work the mythos of Wonderland into the game very well. You can shrink yourself at anytime and go into shrink sense which gies you the ability to see things that are invisible to a large Alice. This also is a way to access secret areas to find hidden collectibles and teeth. The umbrella the walrus had is used as your primary defense to deflect projectiles back at enemies (sorry kiddies no blocking). Even the way Alice dodges and dies is uniquely Wonderland. She breaks down into blue butterflies. The story is about Alice Liddell, a survivor of a horrible house fire that took her family as she watched as a young child. To cope with this trauma, Alice escapes into her own fractured mind which is the setting of Wonderland. In the first game to make herself whole she must defeat the Red Queen (Queen of Hearts), but in the second game she returns to Wonderland when she tries to forget the past and faces a new foe in The Ruin.
The entire game is a mix of the Wonderland you have seen and probably often imagined with a steam punk kind of edge. This is clearly demonstrated in Hatter's Domain. It is definitely one of the most unique environments I have ever played in. It is the mish mash of these two concepts that truly creates a unique atmosphere where ever you set foot in the game. At points I had a very creepy feeling from just my surrounding areas, as if my childhood memories had been violated....in a good way.
And now for some of the drawbacks starting with the original Alice. I am sure in 2000 the game was amazing both graphically and design wise. It doesn't however hold up well against time. Alice's movements are very stiff and with no lock on function you have to swing wildly to hit enemies. Aiming is a joke. It is also very dimly lit. Sometimes it was hard to see around the indoor levels. Also, I had a problem with a save file getting corrupted and freezing my xbox every time I tried loading it up. On long range weapons aiming is a chore and until you get the croquet mallet don't bother with the playing cards as your long range weapon. Onto the sequel; I noticed every now and again that there was shoddy collision detection with your body and the environment. As in a small inch rise of rock from the ground would impede your movement. Not a big deal but an annoyance when much of the other parts of the game are so smooth. The graphics are a bit dated as well. I wasn't sure if this was done intentionally or not. At times it seems like it is done intentionally but in one example, Alice's hair, it seems the opposite.
Alice: Madness Returns is another gem of this year. Actually it is more the diamond in the rough. It doesn't have the graphics budget of a Rockstar game and unlike LA Noire, not everyone on the planet and their grandmother are going to play it. The ones who do though are in for a treat. Especially if they want to stroll on the twisted aide of a fond childhood memory.
Edit: I forgot to mention the most important things....achievements! The achievements are pretty standard for a third person action game. Beat chapters, beat game in different diffixulties, find collectibles, beat certain for with certain weapon, beat certain for without taking damage and so forth. They is though a definite degree of ease and difficulty throughout them though. Such as beating the game on Nightmare mode and only using Alice's Hysteria Mode once through an entire playthrough. There are also chapter based achievements and a beating the game achievement for the original Alice which are not independent they actually tie into the 1k of Madness Returns so if you rent it you will have to pay $10 to download it.