Alice: Madness Returns Review

By Adam Sessler - Posted Jun 14, 2011

While it starts out strong, Alice: Madness Returns quickly deteriorates into a rote experience, trapped by cliche mechanics and a story that, unfortunately, fizzles out at the end.

The Pros
  • Improved Platforming and Combat
  • Integration of HD-Era Game Design Concepts
  • Beautiful Art Direction
The Cons
  • Fails To Keep Experience Fresh For More Than A Few Hours
  • Disappointing Storyline
  • Overall Experience Very Lacking

Alice: Madness Returns Review:

Alice: Madness Returns is the follow-up to 2000’s American McGee’s: Alice, a game that drew much of its interest from the compelling visuals of a darker Wonderland, which resulted from Alice’s mental decay after the death of her parents in a fire.

America McGee’s: Alice was an action platformer, which was only released on the PC (a PS2 version was cancelled). It left players with only a keyboard and mouse to navigate platforming levels that would have benefited greatly from a controller.

Down The Rabbit Hole

The sequel, Madness Returns, is being released on the PS3 and Xbox 360, and benefits from the visual fidelity afforded by modern consoles and their controllers; however, the game itself is stuck in a wonderland of game design that, while initially nostalgic, becomes something of an anachronism, holding onto a past time as desperately as Alice herself holds onto a fantasy world that hides her from the nightmares of her reality.

The game takes place years after the events of the original Alice game. With her mind suffused with guilt over her potential role in the fire that killed her parents, Alice sees a psychiatrist whose method of care is not to confront her memories, but to eradicate them altogether.

This has an effect on her fantastical retreat of Wonderland that is for more damaging than anything from the first game: creatures called “Ruin” (a black tarry substance) are taking over, and the “Wonderland Express” train careens through the world--destroying it--as she tries to rescue and repair what has become of her only escape from the cruelty of her real life in Victorian London.

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The Pool of Tears

The game plays in ways that are very reminiscent of the first game, but have taken some cues from contemporary design. At its heart, Madness Returns is an action platformer in the most traditional sense: platforms abound and jumps require increasing skill and precision to accomplish. In addition, there is much to collect in this decaying Wonderland and clever devices--such as hidden keyholes and invisible platforms that can only be seen by Alice in her diminutive form--abound to add a sense of mystery and exploration to the affair.

I found myself quite taken with the game in the beginning. As a huge fan of traditional platformers, it was a pleasure to find myself gauging jumps. I enjoyed the timed movement and environmental puzzles with reliable controls, and even in sections later on, there is a fleeting sense of awe in the layout of the design, especially the preamble to the Queen of Hearts lair.

Unfortunately, those moments are only punctuations in an overly pedantic design that never generates much surprise and so-closely adheres to similar structures and tropes from chapter to chapter that no one moment stands out from the next. When compared to a game like Super Mario Galaxy, which found a way to make every level distinct using a simple control set, the limitation of the core action of Madness Returns shows its extreme limitation.

Advice From A Caterpillar

The same issues can be found with the game’s combat, which -- like the platforming -- has seen marked improvements, but eventually falls flat. In Madness Returns, combat is its own gameplay element, with lock-on targeting and upgradeable weapons. The combat -- in the beginning -- shows great promise and challenge out of the gate, with a mixture of enemies who require thought as you quickly move from one weapon to the next; however, as with the jumping puzzles, the promise gives way to predictable and leaden combat scenarios.

Challenge is added through an abundance of enemies and ranged attacks that exploit the narrow camera view when locked on and are exacerbated even more with increasingly smaller combat arenas. The upgradeable weapons, which fueled my exploration to collect the teeth to improve their performance, was also a disappointment as the performance of the upgraded weapons against enemies seemed nominal, because those very same enemies typically required the same effort to defeat as the game trudged onwards.

Pig And Pepper

Perhaps many of these shortcomings would have been mitigated if the presentation of the game itself wasn’t so lacking. While the game is beautiful to look at, and the energy in the background art and environmental themes still remains a major and deserving draw for the franchise, the overall experience as an organic package feels oddly empty and limited: load screens jarringly interrupt the flow of cutscenes, vibrant voicework of the wonderland denizens are matched with wooden and staid animations. The decision to use fewer known characters and environments from the Lewis Carroll books also distances the game from one of its primary allures, the fascination of his anarchic and feverish world that has maintained a grip on the popular imagination and helped Tim Burton make more money.

All of these curious flaws prevent the game from feeling like a whole, and Madness Returns becomes merely a series of components clumsily attached to one another. The story, which had the potential to be an affecting visit into the mid of a troubled girl whose years of abuse have left her desperate, are lost in a muddle and become incomprehensible by the game’s finale.

A Mad Tea-Party...And Reviewer

This disappointment in the game did take a while to coalesce, as its tried and true adherence in a style of classic platformer design felt refreshingly simple and straightforward at first. The basic satisfaction in completing a properly timed jump, discovering a secret room and taking out an enemy are undeniable and held my attention for a while in a game whose length is surprisingly extensive (12-15 hours).

It may be that there is so much content that its pacing undermines the essential need for such a game to continually surprise and motivate the player to want to see what’s around every corner. In this it seems to herald from a different era, the one from which the original Alice game was developed, where sophistication in level design was minimal due to the novelty of videogames as a whole, their graphics and sense of world.

In this I was nostalgic and its appeal to those feeling is undeniable. Curious that a game whose primary appeal is for those able to remember a previous generation of game design would release the same day as Duke Nukem Forever, except that game is from the past. Alice: Madness Returns deserved to be so much more…maddening.