Alice: Madness Returns Hands-On Impressions -- The Brutal, Curious Delights of Chapter OneBy Jake Gaskill - Posted May 13, 2011
Alice: Madness Returns marks American McGee and Spicy Horse’s return to the twisted, gothic reimagining of Lewis Carroll’s beloved Alice in Wonderland that served as the backdrop for the team’s cult classic, American McGee’s Alice. We’ve seen the game a number of times at previous events, but none of those viewings let us truly sink our hands-on teeth into the game in any substantial way. Thankfully, that all changed recently when a preview build of the entire first chapter of the game landed on our psychiatrist's couch (i.e. desk).
Naturally, Alice quickly crosses paths with a white cat who she, as always, chases through a series of alleyways before finding herself in a dead end where she encounters a horrifying creature with what looks to have the head of a giant, baby rat and the body of a human, albeit one with massive claws. Alice is soon surrounded by dozens of these beasts who are slowly closing in on her. Just as they are about to devour her, Alice is brought back to reality by an elderly woman, whom she knows. The scene then shifts to the roof of the old woman’s flat where Alice’s insanity is triggered yet again (this time the woman transforms into a demon rat), and she tumbles down her mentally and emotionally ravaged rabbit hole and finds herself once again in Wonderland.
The first chapter of the game is devoted to reuniting Alice with the Mad Hatter, but Alice will travel many a harsh road and encounter plenty of deadly enemies and challenges along the way. When Alice arrives in Wonderland, she finds herself at the edge of waterfall surrounded by a lush, picturesque forest. The contrast to those dank London streets couldn’t be clearer, so much so that’s it’s like your eyes have been splashed with Listerine. The world just pops. Leaves dance in the crisp daylight, the raging stream glistens, and butterflies flit around your head. Needless to say, the world is a visual delight from top to bottom. There’s even a towering rock statue of Alice weeping, with the tears provided by a separate stream rushing along a higher ridge for “crying” out loud!
This first section of chapter one is designed to introduce the basic gameplay mechanics. Not only can Alice triple jump, but at any time you can hold A to make her float. This becomes crucial later on when you have to clear large gaps to reach far away platforms. It takes a little bit to get the feel for the triple jump, but once you get it, you’re golden. The original Alice caught some flak for its slippery platforming, and while Madness Returns still “feels” very similar, the controls are much tighter this time around. There are also great touches like hitting the left bumper to shrink Alice so she can access hidden passageways and find hidden memories and items, or doding by turning into a swarm of blue butterflies.
Combat has also been greatly improved, but don’t think you’ll just be strolling through Wonderland, slicing and dicing fools with ease. Even on Normal (there are four difficulties, and Normal is the second hardest) there were points where I was surrounded by enemies who promptly handed me my bum on a platter. There were three weapons available in the build I played, Alice’s signature vorpal blade, the pepper grinder, and the Clockwork Rabbit bomb. The pepper grinder is your machine gun. You can lock onto enemies to deal death from a distance, shoot floating pig snouts to reveal hidden platforms and pathways, or shoot switches to access new areas. The bomb lets you blast holes in weak walls or distract pursuing enemies. Alice also has an umbrella that lets her deflect incoming projectiles back at their owners, like the fireballs from the multi-headed Menacing Ruin.
Each of Alice’s four core weapons can be upgraded four times after she has collected enough teeth (currency) to do so. Each new level brings with it additional damage, and all of those upgrades are carried over if you should go back and replay any earlier chapter at any point, which is much appreciated. Although, it’s a bit strange since you’ll still be introduced to those weapons via characters you encounter in the story.
Once you clear the forest area, you transition to a mountainous area strewn with teapots of all shapes and sizes. Far away, a massive teapot sits perilously on the end of a mountain top and pours tea into the horizon. Each new area you enter brings with it countless “Whoa!” moments as you take in the stunning art direction on display. Moving into the Hatter’s domain, the world turns into a steampunkish wet dream filled with floating islands made out of massive clock parts, gears floating effortlessly through the yellow sky, and expansive factories.
When you finally meet up with the Hatter, you discover that he is nothing more than a head, and it’s up to you to recover his arms and legs, which have been stolen by the Dormouse and the March Hare, both of whom have taken control of Hatter’s realm following something akin to a union revolt (might have had something to do with all of those experiments the Hatter put them through in the first game). The Doormouse’s factory (“Smelting and Regurgitation”) consists of cavernous facilities filled with vats of molten steel while the March Hare’s (“Cranking up and Pressing Down”) requires traversal of giant gears and metal-pounding machines. Again, each setting oozes with details and gives you a real sense of place.
After fighting your way through the countless enemies and solving some environmental puzzles, you reassemble Hatter and join him in fleeing to a nearby train station. Just as the train (which is actually a long castle that appears to belong to the Red Queen), Alice and the Hatter encounter a towering mech being driven by the Doormouse and March Hare that has a drill for one hand and a massive anvil for the other. With fear rising in our guts, the strangest thing happens: the mech starts falling apart, and the Doormouse and March Hare are tossed onto our platform, as the Hatter falls from the sky and lands between them.
Apparently, the Hatter felt compelled to save us from engaging in an unfair boss battle and decided to stop it before it could even start. This sense of surprise and misdirection obviously looks to be a motif for Madness Returns, and we couldn’t be happier to see it, because that’s precisely the spirit of Carroll's original story, and it's something that can elevate a game from good to spectacular.
Luckily for us, we won't have to wait too much longer to see if the impressive momentum created in the first chapter can carry through to the fifth (chapter one lasted around three hours, just FYI) as Madness Returns releases on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC on June 14.