Alice: Madness Returns preview

By Jeff Mattas, May 13, 2011 12:00pm PDT

Alice: Madness Returns comes out next month, and I recently had a chance to play through the first chapter of the artistically disturbing action-platformer and sample what developer Spicy Horse has in store.

It's been more than a decade since series creator American McGee fist introduced his twisted take on the story of Alice in Wonderland. Taking the angle that Wonderland is an alternate reality manifested from Alice's fractured mind, McGee's vision of Lewis Carrol's classic novel is a bloody, beautiful, and psychologically disturbing tableau.

Madness Returns takes place ten years after the events of the first game. Alice has been released from Rutledge Asylum, and is working at the Houndstitch Home for Wayward Youth in Victorian London. She's still dealing with repressed memories and survivor's guilt surrounding the mysterious fire that killed her entire family years ago.

London's inhabitants have grotesquely exaggerated appearances -- a stark contrast to Alice's comparatively normal character model. The "real world" of London is also very drab and depressing, like much of the color and life has been sucked right out of it. Aesthetically, it immediately creates a strong separation between Alice and her surroundings, and it gave me the sense that Alice doesn't really belong there - like a fish out of water.

After a bit of exploration and talking to London's creepy citizenry, Alice chases a mysterious white cat through the streets and back-alleys. At the end of the chase, Alice's hallucinations of Wonderland return, whisking her away into the alternate reality of her subconscious.

Once Alice enter's Wonderland, the game changes drastically from a visual perspective: bright colors, dreamlike vistas, vibrant plant-life that blooms when approached, and blue skies. But since Wonderland is meant to reflect Alice's trouble psyche, it's not long before the gentle brooks begin to run red with blood, and the world's hostile inhabitants begin to give Alice some grief. And, of course, the Cheshire Cat returns to periodically offer Alice riddle-like advice.

A little while later, Alice stumbles upon her friend the Mad Hatter, who is literally in pieces when she arrives. The bulk of the first chapter involves retrieving his clockwork arms and legs which are being held prisoner by the Dormouse and the White Rabbit, respectively.

At its heart, Alice: Madness Returns is a combat-driven platformer, and while it probably won't win any awards for entirely innovative mechanics, the weapons and abilities that Alice has on tap are solidly implemented and fun to use. Very early on, Alice gains the ability to shrink herself at will, which comes in handy for accessing certain areas. While diminutive, "shrink vision" is also active, and it provides clues and directional advice in the form of arrows and drawings that are only visible when Alice is small. Jumping from platform to platform is also a lot of fun, bolstered by Alice's glide ability that allows her to float for long distances. Tight controls also help keep misjudged jumps to a minimum.

The combat in Madness Returns is fast and responsive, and reasonably challenging. In the first chapter alone, several different enemies are introduced, each requiring slightly different approaches to defeat. While not particularly tough on their own, the challenge amps up a bit when facing a few different enemy-types at once. For example, the "Eye-pot" a mechanical teapot with spider-like legs and a glowing red eye must first be stunned with ranged fire and then attacked at close range.

The "Vorpal Blade" returns as Alice's primary weapon, but it's not the only tool in her arsenal. Early on, she also acquires a giant pepper-mill - her primary ranged weapon. In addition to attacking from afar, the pepper-mill can be used to shoot disembodied pig snouts hidden in the environment. Filling a snout with pepper will reveal a hidden area, items, or 'Memories.' Memories are collectibles Alice can find throughout Wonderland that each provide a short audio clue about Alice's past. Other collectibles include different colored bottles, rose buds (which restore health), and teeth which are used to purchase weapon upgrades.

Based on my experience with the first chapter of Alice's second adventure, it appears to be a mechanically-solid platformer with fast-paced and interesting combat. That said, its presentational aspects are its strongest suit, from the malformed and exaggerated characters, to the darkly poetic dialog, to Wonderland's beautifully twisted vistas. It's not a scary game, per se, but it's certainly unsettling and visually engaging. I'm already interested to see what the rest of Alice's second journey has in store.

Alice: Madness Returns gets crazy on PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 this June 14.

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