I have a confession to make. Many years ago, I actually bought and played the original Alice game on PC… well, as far as I could. I was really skimping against the minimum requirements on my Pentium II back then, so after a certain point, the game ceased being playable. Still, I liked what I had seen, so to see another shot at this magnificent world, I was more then interested. Alas, this rabbit hole went nowhere good, but it’s time to show you exactly where it did go….
Story: The story for Alice: Madness Returns pretty much begins where the original Alice PC game ended. If you remember the original, you will not need this reminder, but if not, everything starts in fire. Alice’s home burned down and took everything, including her family.
Unable to handle this, Alice simply went mad and ultimately catatonic for a while. The original game took place while she was recovering. During this time, the Rabbit had come to her from Wonderland again. His world was in danger as the Red Queen threatened to turn Wonderland to enslavement and horror. Alice was needed to save it, and save it she did, and her reward was to wake to this world again, and shortly after, she was able to leave the insane asylum.
This sequel takes place a few years later. It turns out that while she can function for the most part in the normal world, Alice is still insane. A doctor is taking her case in his own private practice for children. At the moment, he seems to think the best thing for her is to let the past go and forget all about it. To this end, they are having sessions to help her forget. And yet it is that past that will not let go, for Wonderland has begun to creep into her ordinary life she is trying to lead. And for reasons she can not comprehend it is not just being enslaved, but rotting and falling apart before her very eyes… and the source of the corruption is a train that seems to be from Hell itself.
While stopping that train will save Wonderland, it will do a whole lot more in the process, including perhaps answer questions that no child should ever have to ask…
The general plot from here plods along in a rather unobtrusive way, leaving you to assemble the pieces and figure it out for yourself. What is the train? Just what is Wonderland really? And even just what might have happened to cause everything to start. But if you don’t get it, don’t worry. The game will explain everything it’s been hinting at towards the end… but be warned. This is probably one of the darkest stories I have seen in a video game since playing the White Chamber…
(spoiler alert: White Chamber is about the captain of a space ship who murdered everyone on board out of fear of them turning on an alien artifact and greed for the same machine, only to find one of her victim’s hate for her at death activated it and forced her to repeat a nightmare vision of her own actions until she either redeemed herself by genuine regret or damned herself to Hell for a lack of it… and their were endings for all three possibilities.)
Those who are feint of heart may not really want to go where this game goes by the end of it. To put it bluntly, this is not your father’s Alice in Wonderland story.
Graphics: I can say nothing bad about the graphics of this game. Simply put the artists lovingly rendered anything and everything within the game to fit the mood, style, and theme of the part you are playing. There is a theme for each chapter and one for the normal world of London, each of which is completely unique and shown with both absolute beauty and absolute depravity. The world’s look is just going to wow you.
For example, when Alice first enters Wonderland, it looks like a fantastical paradise a child might dream up, complete with giant toys and gorgeous lakes to play in and around… and then it' starts to change. That water in the lake becomes black and brackish goo while globs of the gunk with baby-doll faces begin to wander the world crying in distorted baby mewlings… and that’s before the really interesting changes.
In time to the story, you will watch Wonderland go from amazingly gorgeous to horrifying. As you get closer to the end, the insanity and nightmarish style get bad enough you would swear the artists had to have dug the things you will see out of their very worst nightmares after watching Hellraiser movies one too many times. And you will be awed by it all.
Sound: Like most games these days, the sound effect overall fit, but few stand out. Apart from the monsters that use doll parts, the normal grunting, groaning, and roaring you expect out of video game monsters are all present, accounted for, and filling their role admirably. But then when things meet you child/baby voices, they tend to stand out… at least until that trope of horror monsters gets overused and ineffective. But for now, they stand out and you will remember the detail.
And while the music stands out no more then most of the sound effects, the voice acting is solid and will leave you with a great view of each character. From the generally uncaring people of London right down to the Red Queen, everyone is pretty spot on. My one complaint is with the Cheshire cat. Having played the original Alice game, I would have liked to have seen the original voice return. The actor did an admirable job, but he just didn’t rival the original in any way at all.
Gameplay: Sadly, this is where the game begins to fall flat on itself. That isn’t to say it’s all bad. At it’s core, Alice: Madness Returns is a 3rd person platformer, and this it does very well. You will face challenges in how to move around the map that in themselves are tense and challenging, but far from impossible. Aside from a few of the later rooms, the game has nothing but good to offer in this area.
But sadly, that is about all it offers that is good. The combat that comes with it tends to be rather cumbersome due to relying on a lock-in mechanic that can easily get in the way of the crowd control you will have to do… and that is when it works.
Further complicating this issue is the dodge mechanic which seems to have a mind of it’s own from time to time. When this happens, it will seem like the direction you choose to go does not matter since the dodge is going just fling you either at or around the enemy you are targeted regardless of how much you might have wanted to run away before it eats you (in some cases literally). Needless to say this can make combat with large groups an exercise in patience and frustration when it really need not be.
And while variety is indeed a strength to this game, it is also a very real weakness, as the game will start throwing mini-games at you which get more and more annoying as the game goes on. From slides with masses of corrosive goo that have TERRIBLE hit boxes so you can touch them from a foot or two away to slider puzzles, to a pinball game of sorts featuring a doll-head as the ball you control directly, this game will try to throw everything at you it can to keep your experience from getting repetitive to the point that you will long for simple jumping rather then the next stupid puzzle with no real point.
But the absolute worst of the worst is in chapter three. Part of the chapter is “learning the history” of the Wonderlanders you are saving… and they do so by making you jump into pictures like this is Super Mario 64. Sadly, the other side of the pictures are not nearly as good as Nintendo’s title. Instead, they are side scrolling platforming levels in which you can not die and everything is static. It is stupid and it feels like the game is trying to bore you until you have the patience to finish each part and get back to the real game.
Bugs: Sadly, I found a number of these while playing the game:
The Amazing un-growing Alice: One of the key mechanics to finding your way around in this game is that Alice can shrink on command, and while she can’t jump shrunk, hints and hidden platforms/items glow to visibility, making this a vital power to finish the game. Occasionally, though, she wont return to normal when you release the button. I'm not sure why, but it has to be something about spots in the map because moving around usually fixes this.
Alice doesn’t want to turn around: Once after collecting a key item, Alice refused to face the map again… instead stuttering till I could shaker her free of this issue. It only happened once, but it made me wonder if I was going to have to reset the game.
Render issues: This game is a port from the console versions, and while they did a great job porting it and telling the player how to use the keyboard and mouse to do things a controller would do (even as I will recommend you play this game on a controller anyway), it still shows the same limits put on the engine you see in many modern console games…. including the Darkness II, actually. If you spin too fast, you will see white quickly be replaced by the graphics it should instead of already being there. I suspect this happens because the game was designed to take up as little RAM as possible to handle the bottleneck consoles are restrained to.
Glitchy Boss Encounters: While this game has almost no bosses, it has a few encounters which play the part… and many glitches with them. The two that immediately come to mind are in Chapter 4 and Chapter 6. In 4, you will eventually be in a room with a bunch of cards and one monstrous one with a scythe who is unkillable. But that’s ok, because killing everything else is supposed to bring a cutscene to end the encounter… only it didn’t for me. The first time I fought this room, I killed everything, then spent the next 15-20 minutes playing peek-a-boo due to his inability to jump a small ledge that I could and forcing him to run around the room to catch me. The pattern could have gone on indefinitely, with no hint that something had simply gone wrong. The other major glitch was with the last boss, in which for reasons I do not understand, I could not lock onto the boss when I needed to. It just wasn’t in the cycle of enemies to target.
Overall: I WISH I could recommend this game. You have no idea how much I wanted this game to be good. The story is deep and about as sinister as it gets while the environments really are something to behold on your screen, but between the poor combat and mini-games completely needless existence, I just can’t. If you have the game already and a 360 controller you are not afraid of breaking before you finish the game, then by all means play. Just don’t waste money on it you haven't wasted already.