Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland is one of those stories that has been interpreted in several different ways over the years. From the Disney cartoon to the classic Jefferson Airplane song to the Johnny Depp Disney "sequel" (and with several made-for-TV movies in the middle), we've been fascinated by the tale of the young girl who follows the white rabbit down his hole into Wonderland.
And, much like Keanu Reeves follows the White Rabbit in The Matrix, this journey down the rabbit hole isn't anything that we might expect.
In 2000, American McGee's Alice took us into the mind of our heroine, shattered after a fire destroyed her house and her family and left her institutionalized for ten years in an asylum, with only her stuffed rabbit for company. It was from this state that she wandered back into Wonderland in order to rebuild the shattered fragments of her sanity. A critical success both for its plot and graphics (for its time), that game spawned a cult following, and many of us waited for years for a sequel.
It's finally arrived.
Alice: Madness Returns takes place shortly after its predecessor, with Alice still trying to regain her sanity while slipping back into Wonderland. This time she's also trying to put the pieces of her life together, in order to determine what exactly happened to her family.
The game takes us on an adventure through many of the familiar parts of the story: squaring off with the March Hare and the Dormouse ("Feed your head," as Grace Slick once crooned), the all-too-calm underwater depths of the Walrus and the Carpenter, the Eastern backdrop of the Caterpillar's mountain and, of course, the realm of the Queen of Hearts.
The gameplay itself is solid, if a tad frustrating at times. The game itself plays as a cross between a hack 'n slash and a platformer. Alice has several weapons at her disposal: her Vorpal Blade, her Pepper Grinder (the Victorian equivalent of a Tommy Gun), her Teapot Cannon, and her Hobby Horse for close melee attacks. Between combats, Alice must traverse large spans of the pieces of Wonderland by jumping and twirling her way in and out of danger.
The production design is gorgeous to look at. The worlds are each unique and have their own peculiar flavor. Parts of the world are rich and vibrant, while others are dull and drab, each reflecting the particular mood of the realm. Alice herself is a sight. Her dress flutters and her hair flies around as she floats from platform to platform to thin air. When she dies, she disintegrates into butterflies in an effect that would seem magical if we didn't have to rewind and replay that segment.
On the other hand, the levels themselves can be a bit repetitive... the same level design with new skins. What keeps the game fresh is the plot. As you travel through the game, you'll find memories that Alice has had tucked away within the recesses of her psyche, and these memories help shine a light and give her clarity. Each time she survives a level, she regains a bit more sanity, and therefore has more health with which to fight her foes.
EA has released the original game as a downloadable extra, but as a trick to we achievement hunters, the earlier game is worth 100 of the total 1000 gamerscore. Download codes (Online Passes) come with each new copy of Alice: Madness Returns. If you buy it used, you'll have to fork over an additional 800 MSP. While the game itself is worth playing, it is disappointing that EA has released essentially a straight port from the original PC version. No polish has been applied, and what looked fresh and vibrant 11 years ago now appears rather aged. Furthermore, the game is not playable on its own; you cannot download it and play it without having the sequel.
Personally, I think this is a 5-star game, but I'm biased. The low replayability hurts it a bit, as does EA's decision to include the original game in the full 1000 gamerscore, while requiring a download code to obtain the game. Therefore, I'll knock it down a half-star, even though I would still highly recommend taking this trip back into madness.
Back down the rabbit hole we go...