American McGee's Alice introduced players to a vibrant yet grotesquely twisted version of Wonderland just over a decade ago. The game claimed a base of hardcore fans and also went down as one of the best re-imaginings of Lewis Carroll's famous adventure.
Now American McGee is back alongside EA and his own Spicy Horse studios with the recent release of Alice: Madness Returns. In the sequel players are once again confronted with the bizarre and insane characters and creations of this macabre dreamland, as Alice attempts to regain her sanity and save a crumbling Wonderland.
At the start of Madness Returns, Alice has been released from the Rutledge Insane Asylum and now resides in a dreary orphanage located in a depressing 19th century London suburb. Under the care of her psychiatrist, Dr. Angus Bumby, she attempts to take control of her memories, but it's clear that Alice is still tormented by the fiery deaths of her family.
Stumbling through the mangy streets after one particular session we spot that classic incarnation of mischief, a cat, and decide to follow it down an alleyway, resulting in a renewed tumble into Alice's disturbed psyche, and by association, Wonderland.
Re-entering the magical realm it's not long before the realisation sets in that something is horribly wrong. The always snide Cheshire Cat informs Alice that a new era has dawned in Wonderland, with a horrifying black ooze strangling the land and giving birth to strange creatures.
As we set out to figure out what was going on and what needed to be done to cleanse Wonderland (and Alice's mind) once and for all, players are introduced to a world filled with jaw dropping beauty. One of the things that stands out most in the game is its amazing levels and vistas, with cheery and colourful forests making way for realms filled with the hissing and clanging of mechanical monsters.
Everything in the world is recreated in a terrifying way, with traditionally friendly characters being transformed into odd apparitions of their previous forms. This style lends much personality to the game, as you're never quite sure if the denizens of Wonderland are working with or against you.
Exploring and moving through the beautiful world was a seamless affair, with slick controls allowing Alice to execute the many jumps with platformer precision. The jumping mechanic is also more forgiving than in other titles, with Alice capable of chaining multiple mid-air jumps together to reach lofty locations, or glide gracefully toward the ground for a soft landing.
Early on players are also treated to a sip of that magical Wonderland broth which allows Alice to shrink to minuscule sizes at command. Shrinking down lets Alice enter tiny doorways and holes, and also enables her to notice hidden passages and writings on walls, only visible in shrink vision.
Enormous attention to detail has gone into the final level designs, with each of the five main realms in the game exuding a unique theme and feeling. Alice's outfit also changes as you move throughout the different areas of Wonderland, with her classic blue dress and white apron replaced by a rivet studded outfit or patch-sewn dolls dress to name but two.
The levels literally dripped in aesthetic eye candy, with crazy contraptions, sun-bathed tree slides and what seemed to be entire cities made of teapots really adding mystique and wonder to the fantasy world. While the levels definitely looked impressive, the design itself weren't always as good, with many levels consisting of seemingly identical sets of levers and swinging platforms.
The game adds a number of puzzles into the mix at times, with some being as simple as placing a weighted bomb on a pressure pad, and others requiring giant chessboard playing or two-dimensional Wonderland navigation. These side puzzles did a nice job of creating breaks in the action, but at the end of the day the bulk of your Wonderland experience will involve two things, jumping and slicing.
As we mentioned previously, the game features slick controls with jumping made very easy. This is extended to combat, with Alice moving in quick and vicious strikes to take out her enemies. The animations of these various attacks looked superb, with little Alice darting in and out of combat with swift strikes and an excellent dodge manoeuvre, which sees her burst into a flurry of butterflies seconds before a giant walking teapot can impale her with its spidery legs.
We played the game on PC and one thing which slightly bothered us at the start was the over-sensitive mouse look. This can be especially annoying in a combat situation and takes some getting used to, but is remedied by some setting adjustment. If you do own a PC console controller it might be a good idea to plug it in though.
To deal with the plethora of foes Wonderland will throw at you Alice has a remarkable set of weapons.
The Vorpal blade returns as the main combat weapon, specialising in quick stabs and cuts, with Alice wielding the blade better than any knife fighter. In addition to this stinging blade players can literally pepper enemies from afar with her enchanted minigun-styled pepper grinder, capable of blasting enemies into bits.
Later on players will gain access to the hobbyhorse, a nasty weapon used to dole out some heavy damage by slamming down on unsuspecting creeps. Players can also shoot boiling water by brandishing a teapot in the same manner as you would a grenade launcher, and last but not least Alice's frilly parasol can be opened to deflect crushing blows at the last second.
The twisted Wonderland allows for these unique weapons to be utilised in combat, and trust us when we say that Alice herself is one of the deadliest elements in this fairy realm. This is especially true when she's about to be overrun, as Alice will go into a kind of insane berserker mode when her health reaches too low, morphing into a terrifying being that will leave Alma or Samara quivering in terror.
Just because Alice is capable of some surprisingly murderous combat doesn't mean Wonderland's monsters will be a walk in the park though. The game features a number of different enemy types, with each needing to be taken on in a unique way. Large ruin-infested monsters may dictate a more cautious, ranged-based strategy, while menacing teapots will require you to keep a finger on the 'dodge' button, and shield bearing goblins will need expert timing to disarm without being struck in the process.
Fights in the game can become especially hectic when large numbers of enemies needs to be taken on at once, requiring Alice to utilise her entire arsenal in a single engagement. The targeting system in the game works well, although slight camera issues can be experienced when focusing on one enemy when there's a ton of cutlery wielding goblins dancing around you.
Madness Returns is definitely one of the prettiest games we've played this year, simply because the world is so colourful and weird that you can't help but marvel at it.
And thanks to modern graphics technology Wonderland takes on a glimmering posture, with great battle animations, blurring effects and physics, helping to shape the game into a deadly ballet of blood-splattered action. Alice's character model is especially well rendered, with her hair and clothes realistically moving and bobbing around as she navigates the increasingly mad levels.
While the graphics in the game looked superb (especially on the PC), the game nevertheless suffered from a couple of glitches here and there. Sometimes textures failed to load in certain levels, with occasional lag occurring here and there. We also experienced control issues on one occasion, with Alice continually moving forward even though we weren't pressing the 'W' key. A simple switch to the options screen and back fixed this though.
Audio in the game also impressed, although at times background music would drown out or cut across a character's voice. The musical score itself perfectly evoked the fantasy atmosphere, and fast-paced battle music helps to keep you in the heart of the action.
Alice: Madness Returns is a deliciously twisted fantasy platformer which can serve as a welcome return or an introduction to the madness of American McGee's Alice. The game looks and plays wonderfully, with only slight level repetition issues popping up. Definitely an experience to savour if you're a fan of Alice in Wonderland, platformers and insane in-game locales.