Nostalgia is an odd thing. It tells us that things were better “back in the day.” But when you actually go back to these nostalgic bits, more often than not you realize just how sorry they really were. So what about video games such as Alice: Madness Returns, which seem to appeal to nostalgia? Inevitably you’re going to have people saying it wasn’t as good as the original. But are they evaluating the game on its own merits or based on the previous game? I mentioned in my First Impressions of this game that I never played the original Alice myself. Because of that, I’m attempting to review the game based on what it is, rather than what it used to be.
Madness Returns takes place about a year after the original. Released from the asylum but having no where else to go, Alice lives in an orphanage run by a psychiatrist named Dr. Bumby, who tries to help Alice forget her past. It isn’t long before Alice finds herself swept back into Wonderland, which swiftly begins to fall apart. As Alice meets some familiar faces, she learns that an Infernal Train has been traveling across Wonderland, destroying it & Alice’s memories. What’s happening to Wonderland is a manifestation of what’s happening to her. To regain control of her mind, Alice must find the source of the corruption & stop the train. (Just a side note, I want to go on record by saying I called the villain not even five minutes into the game.)
Like the previous game, Madness Returns is an action-platformer, with more emphasis on the platforming. Wonderland is a perilous place, but thankfully Alice has the skills the navigate it. In addition to simple jumping, she can twirl & float, which extends her distance. She also gains the ability to shrink early in the game. This “Shrink Sense” allows Alice to see invisible messages & platforms as well as enter small spaces. Occasionally combat interrupts the jumping, & Alice has several tools to deal with that as well. Over the course of the game you’ll collect four weapons: the Vorpal Blade & Hobby Horse for melee, & the Pepper Grinder & Teapot Cannon for shooting. You’ll also acquire the Clockwork Bomb (or Bunny Bomb, as it should’ve been called), but you’ll mostly use that to weigh down pressure plates, & an Umbrella to deflect attacks. Alice collects teeth, of all things, to upgrade the four main weapons, with each weapon having four upgrades. Alice’s health is measured by roses, & she can regain lost health from killing enemies or smashing crates. If her health gets low enough, you can trigger “Hysteria,” where Alice gets covered in blood, does extra damage & takes no damage herself for a short time. There are also mini-games scattered throughout the levels, which include sliding block puzzles, side-scrolling shooters & platformers, simple rhythm games, chess & a pinball-esque game. Most of the mini-games can be skipped if you don’t feel like doing it.
Story: Most of the story you’ll learn through the numerous memory fragments you find in each level. The relationship between Wonderland & Alice’s psyche is an interesting idea, & I think the game handles the symbolism well… most of the time. My only minor complaint in that department is in Chapter 5, where the symbolism is so blatant. I supposed you could argue that at that point in the game you should basically know what’s going on, so they don’t need to be subtle anymore. But it’s still a minor complaint, because even at it’s most obvious, what it represents is still so disturbing that it works. In fact, I think that’s a strength of the game. You’re gradually introduced to the disturbingness rather than having it shoved in your face all at once. As Alice’s mind continues to fall apart, the levels get more & more creepy. In fact, the very first area in Wonderland is actually very pleasant & beautiful… before it all goes to hell. Also, I like that there is some character growth for Alice. At the start of the game, she’s pretty selfish & sarcastic. But towards the end she starts to care more about others. In her confrontation with the villain, she’s just as angry about the other victims’ treatment as she is about what happened to her. And being that this is Wonderland, all of the characters are suitably quirky. I particularly like the exchange between Alice & the Cheshire Cat. But for all that praise, I did feel that there were some loose ends to the story. Most of the characters you meet just kind of… drop off. It would’ve made more sense to me to have Alice confront Wonderland versions of the other people who abused her. Actually, there’s only one boss fight at the very end, so there should’ve been plenty of room for more symbolic bosses. But overall, the story is compelling. Score: 4
Gameplay: Certain aspects of gameplay work better than others. The platforming & combat, which make up most of the game, work well. Platforming in 3D can be dicey, but Alice’s abilities make things much easier. The hardest parts were the scale platforms, where you have to use the Clockwork Bombs to weigh down one scale while racing to the raised scale to make it to the next platform. There was one section in Chapter 5 that nearly made me give up, it was so annoying. Combat also works fairly well. Except for the ranged weapons, every weapon uses just one button to attack. With the Pepper Grinder & Teapot Cannon, you can either lock-on or aim manually. They use the same attack button, but switching between the two is easy. The Clockwork Bomb is pretty useless in combat, but I wish you could upgrade it like the others so you have more time. My only complaint about combat is the lock-on system. In short, it’s terrible. There’s no rhyme or reason what it chooses to lock-on to! It’s not always the closest enemy, or the most dangerous, or even the one Alice is facing. All I know is it’s never the one I wanted to target. My usually reaction was, “Hey lock-on, how about ignoring the little slugs & focus on the giant monstrosity with faces protruding everywhere that’s trying to eat me?” There’s also no easy way to switch targets, so you have to lock on & off a lot until it decides to target the one you want. But even the targeting complaint is nothing when compared to my gripes about the mini-games. Each has their own problem:
- Sliding Block Puzzles: despite being mind-numbingly easy, the worst part is they make you hunt down some of the pieces. I wouldn’t have hated it so much if they just said, “Here’s a puzzle, solve it.”
- Rhythm Game: the least annoying of the mini-games, except that if you mess up you have to redo the whole thing over again.
- Side-scrolling Shooter: goes on too long & is rather bland. The story only requires you to do it once, but you can’t skip it.
- 2D Side-scrolling Platformer: despite the nice visuals, the controls feel greasy (for lack of a better word). And all three are unskippable.
- Chess: the only mini-game I skipped after the first one because it’s just tedious.
- Pinball: the worst of the games, especially in the fact that you can’t skip it. It controls terrible, is slow, changes camera angles at random & goes on for way too long. This actually made me long for the block puzzles again.
Aside from those specific gripes, the mini-games just slow everything down & seem like padding. Having each mini-game once would’ve been okay, but you do all of them at least twice. The only mini-game that’s fun (& I’m not even sure it qualifies as a mini-game) is when you play as giant Alice. Stomping guards, breaking towers, destroying the annoying chess pieces, ripping out naughty tentacles & smooshing hearts is a lot of fun. I smiled through both short sections. The main sections of the game work well, but the mini-games & bad targeting really bring the gameplay down. Score: 3
Visuals & Audio: Probably the best part of the game, & I don’t mean just the graphics. Yes, while everything looks pretty, it’s the uniqueness of the levels that impressed me. Each is distinct. I can honestly say I saw things in Madness Returns I’ll never see anywhere else. Some of the sights include an Industrial Revolution nightmare run by mechanical dodos who’re screwed into wheels by their heads, samurai wasps beating up paper ant monks, the three blind mice in specimen jars & Can-Can dancing oysters. Even the scenes in real London have a unique, if dreary, style to them. Some of the cutscenes are done in a strange 2D cut-out style that suits the whole storybook theme. I also have to admit I like that real & Wonderland Alice look a bit different. Wonderland Alice looks a lot like from the first game, while real world Alice looks a bit sickly. Again with the symbolism, it shows how Alice sees herself differently than others do. I have a bit less to say about the audio. The voiceacting is nicely done. Again, I have to give credit to the Cheshire Cat. Voiced by the same actor as the original, Roger L. Jackson, he comes across as very smooth in a twisted sort of way. The game’s soundtrack is okay. I couldn’t point out anything specific about it, other than the combat music is always the same. Score: 5
Replayability: Low to moderate. Nothing changes if you play the game again, but you do unlock New Game + mode after your first playthrough. This allows you to continue upgrading you weapons. There are lots of secrets of find in each level, which you probably won’t find on your first run. But given all the symbolism in the game, it’s interesting to play through the earlier stages knowing what’s really going on & understanding the hints. Score: 3
Overall Score: 4
Final Words: I can’t compare this game to the previous, but taken on its own it’s a fairly good game. There are some issues, but most of it can be skipped over, & none of them are likely to prevent people from finishing the game. It just drags the experience down some.
Title: Alice: Madness Returns
Console: 360, PC & PS3
Developer: Spicy Horse
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Release Date: June 14, 2011