Alice: Madness Returns Review
Dear American McGee,
The original Alice was my favorite game of 2000 and I've spent the last eleven years imagining what the sequel to that excellent dark fantasy might be. This month, with Alice: Madness Returns, I finally found out and between you and me, I've got mixed feelings about it. While it's certainly true that no real game could ever live up to the one in my mind, Madness Returns combines incredibly fascinating grotesquery with what appears to be an utter lack of polish, and this leaves me feeling my decade-long patience has been both rewarded and abused.
As you know, the game picks up where the previous game left off, with Alice still lugging around a load of grief and guilt related to the death of her family. Having supposedly been cured, she's left Rutledge Asylum and lives in London under the conscientious care of her new psychiatrist, who like all good quacks, urges her to “forget the past”. Despite the good doctor's best efforts, the neurotic Alice finds herself haunted by recurring memories and as these memories grow more intense, she's once again swept back to Wonderland. There, she discovers that her erstwhile refuge has again been horribly warped, this time by an unknown evil.
Madness Returns departs from the first Alice game by continually alternating between Wonderland and the real world -- good move there. It’s cool that Alice starts in a gray, dreary 19th century London where the grunge-filled streets are populated by drunks, criminals, filthy urchins and prostitutes. The contrast between this and the candy-colored Wonderland is welcome and could have been used to incredible effect. I say “could have” because the London sequences are a big disappointment being small, linear and almost completely non-interactive. What were you thinking? All that cool Dickensian grime and all Alice can do is jog down the few streets open to her to the next cinematic trigger point. The streets are full of interesting characters but she can't talk to any of them and for the most part, they don't even talk to each other; they just stand there like the sleazy window dressing they are.
Then again, maybe you weren’t inspired by the real world. Maybe Wonderland with its bizarre, technicolor creepiness was your real muse. If that’s so, then why is it also so narrowly interactive? Environments there might be broader and offer little hidden areas to explore, but few objects can be looked at, used or destroyed. This gives both London and Wonderland a limited retro feel, and not necessarily in a good way. Related to this, while you’ve devoted a few sections to weird little mini-games, there’s an uninspired lack of gameplay variety that gives things a feel of unmitigated sameness. Hours are spent just jumping from platform to platform, riding blasts of steam and occasionally fighting with no real boss battles (well, maybe one) to break things up. Granted, your team obviously put a lot of effort in creating different themed worlds and kudos to them for some great artistic details. Chapter after chapter though, it feels like we’re playing through the same level, albeit with different graphics.
One question I really been wanting to ask you was, what is Alice doing in Madness Returns? Unlike the previous Alice game where we knew we were trying to defeat the Red Queen, in Madness Returns, both the main objective and the sub-objectives are oddly vague. There’s mention of a train gone bad, but it takes more than half the game before we have a clue what that has to do with anything. The result? Every action feels motivation-less as we run mindlessly from place to place, talking to familiar characters who don't do anything but send us on to other familiar characters. Connected to this general lack of purpose is a complete lack of logic, even of the bizarre, Lewis Carroll kind. Perhaps you were thinking, “It’s a psychic landscape--we can do anything!” but the danger of working within this type of surreal fantasy is that it's all too easy to lose cohesion as every kind of unrelated idea gets tossed into the mix.
More puzzling than the game’s issues with logic, purpose, repetition and lack of interactivity, are the many easily-detectable technical problems. These—which include lighting artifacts, horribly low res textures, weird flickering on Alice's hair, hitching, texture popping, clunky transitions, missing audio, missing lighting and plain old bad lighting—make me think you were perhaps forced to rush the game’s release? If not, then I’m appalled.
That Madness Returns is bogged down by so many problems is really a shame because otherwise, it has some great things to offer. Top of the list are the incredible 2D cinematics which look like a mix between crazy Terry Gilliam animations and the classic John Tenniel illustrations come to life. Next best are the creative, fun-to-use upgradeable weapons: the Vorpal Blade, the Hobby Horse, the Teapot Cannon and the Pepper Grinder (the last of which lets you “season” your enemies from a distance - heh). You’ve created a game that’s excellent at keeping us from getting lost with its arrow-revealing “shrink” mode and a game that’s full of cool artwork that are unique and memorable (well, it would be if the textures weren't so grainy). Best of all, you’ve brought back the original Alice and Cheshire Cat voice actors, Susie Brann and Roger Jackson, who offer great performances that bring us right back to Wonderland.
American McGee, I really wanted to love Alice: Madness Returns, truly I did. And while I can say that in it there were instances of fun and moments of wonder, these were eclipsed by an excess of repetition, a surfeit of crummy-looking textures and a general lack of polish. And so I admit to you with a heart full of regret, that Madness Returns has failed to live up to either my dreams or its own potential.
Sincerely yours and with hope for a better Alice game in the future,
PS: Thanks for including a download code for the original Alice inside my copy of Madness Returns. It’s high time I played it again.