Alice: Madness Returns review

By Andrew Yoon, Jul 30, 2011 8:00am PDT

I never expected to see a sequel to American McGee's Alice. It was a charming platformer that, in spite of its flaws, spoke to me. The imaginative reinterpretation of the classic tale of Alice in Wonderland pulled me in with its grim mood and macabre visuals. No wonder I was so enchanted by it--I was a teenager, and it spoke to my emo self.

Since Alice's release, a lot has changed. I've grown older--and so have games. Gone are the platformers that used to be so commonplace in that day. Its modern sequel, Alice: Madness Returns, doesn't stray far from its predecessor, though. It beckons me to return not only to the world of Wonderland, but to the era of 32-bit gaming as well.

My first few moments reunited with Alice were charming. It had felt like I had reconnected with a long-lost friend. Rendered by current-generation graphics, the twisted world of American McGee's imagination looks more surreal than before. Surrounded by pig snouts that fly and butterflies that help Alice glide through the environment, Madness Returns is a wondrous retreat from the war-torn worlds that most games inhabit.

The first level carefully introduced the various elements that comprise Alice's gameplay. Most notably, the combat has dramatically improved. I was able to rapidly switch between Alice's various weapons: a pepper grinder that functions as your long-range gun, the Vorpal Blade for melee attacks, and an umbrella that can deflect attacks back at enemies. It's no Devil May Cry, but the combat is fast--and thanks to some very clever camera work--feels in-your-face and intense.

But much like its predecessor, Alice is still a platformer at heart. She bounces on mushrooms and jumps from one curiously floating platform to the next. One clever twist on the gameplay involves a magic potion that makes Alice shrink, revealing secrets that are otherwise invisible. But, she cannot jump while in miniature form. Therefore, I had to help her jump from one invisible platform to the next.

My enchanted reminiscing didn't last for long. Much like the luster of Wonderland quickly fades for Alice, the game similarly loses its appeal. The rote alternation of platforming-fighting-platforming might have been sufficient a generation ago, but no longer. Madness Returns should be an "experience," but instead, is simply a "game."

It's disappointing to see such creativity go to waste. American McGee clearly has a vision for this world, but it's difficult to stay engaged or absorbed by it for long, especially as you collect meaningless collectible after collectable. Like classic N64 platformers, there are hundreds of items to find throughout the environment--and most are seemingly useless. Collection should be rewarding, not a chore.

The storytelling is equally shallow, a real disappointment given the genuinely intriguing premise of the game. Disjointed, poorly directed cutscenes make the journey less compelling, and more confusing. The journey set me chasing a train, inexplicably on course to destroy Wonderland. Instead of experiencing the story through the game, it simply jumps into pre-rendered cutscenes at seemingly arbitrary points. There is an interesting story here, but the game does little to engage you. Like its gameplay, the storytelling method feels like a relic of yesteryear's game design.

I'm sure the 15 year old me would've been perfectly content playing Madness Returns. Its slightly anarchist themes and grim attitude would've made me overlook the fact that it is, ultimately, a less-cute-and-friendly, less-polished Banjo-Kazooie. My tastes have matured since then, and games have grown as well. In light of platforming genius, like Super Mario Galaxy, and the cinematic workings of Uncharted, it's sad to see Alice couldn't grow up as well.

[Ed's note: It's easy to let games slip by over the summer so Shacknews is checking out a few recent releases to let you know if you might be missing something special]


Disclosure: The Alice: Madness Returns review is based on a retail version of the game for the Xbox 360, provided by Electronic Arts.

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