Friday, June 17, 2011

REVIEW - Alice: Madness Returns.

If you want to understand everything that's arguably (and actually) wrong with Alice: Madness Returns, go read any other review. Most of what I've read on the subject of the game tacitly admits that it's competent and amazingly good-looking, but invariably fails to touch on the remarkable emotional depth displayed, here. No one else seems to be even marginally thrilled at how willfully different the game is, in terms of theme - and the main argument against it seems to be that it's too long.

Damn you, American McGee! You gave us too much value for our money!

No, Alice isn't triple-A by any stretch of the imagination. No, it's not technologically impressive and yes, its design is rather repetitive - each of its six chapters stretch on for hours. It's also an incredibly creative, beautiful, emotionally engaging, unique and fun game.

Given its clearly midline budget, it's not irresponsible to steer most gamers away from it. As a group, we demand video games that edge ever-closer to perfection - and Alice doesn't approach that line. What I can tell you is that I paid full price for Alice, and regret not a penny.

First off, there's Alice herself. Alice is a poor, angry young woman living in the shittiest part of 1880s London, attempting to erase the tortured memories of the inferno which consumed her family and psyche with the help of the therapist who runs the Houndsditch Home for Wayward Youth.

The children there hate her. In fact, everyone who knows her seems to loathe the girl save for her family's old nanny (who has, in the wake of the Liddel family tragedy, turned to prostitution).

The therapist's tampering with her already fragile mind allows a crack to appear in her ten-year hold on sanity, and she tumbles down the rabbit hole once again. Once back in Wonderland, Alice is no frightened youth in rags. She explodes into blood-spattered finery. This twisted, macabre world is her very own - and it is crumbling - but within Wonderland lies the key to what truly happened all those years ago. Alice will save this ruined kingdom, save herself, and mete out justice upon the wicked.

She is a wonderful composite - part Lewis Carroll's young lady concerned with good sense, part modern treatise on survivor's guilt, part savage warrior hero.

I find it rather impressive that, in-game, her hair is actually dynamic - bouncing and flowing as she moves.  I'm not talking canned animation, here. 

Rare is the action game - rare is the M-rated game - that concerns itself with not just such a hero, but such a heroine. I've played great games on the current gen with ladies front-and-center: Bayonetta, Mirror's Edge and Wet come to mind - and as with Faith, it's refreshing to play a violent femme in conservative dress. There's no whiff of sexual exploitation about Alice - no callous attempt to capitalize on her gender - save for the sledgehammer-crush of a late-story reveal that left me reeling.

Throughout the title, I was amazed and delighted by the art direction (an ice world where the aurora borealis is produced from a cigarette smoked by the moon! - Alice explodes into a hundred butterflies when she dodges!), but as the game wore on the best word to describe it is "disturbing." If I could use two words, they would be "deeply disturbing."

Not gross and gory and blood-splattered. The most affecting visual in the game is neither the beauty of its worlds or the survival-horror atmosphere the game occasionally turns to. It's a pair of entrances on your path.

I stood there, not willing to walk through a doorway because of its framing. Not just shocked or disgusted - but wondering what using the door would say about me. The candy-striped visual horror of that late chapter was merely laying a symbolic foundation that paid off like a shotgun blast to the chest. By the end of Madness Returns, I couldn't help but compare the emotional impact of the game with - I'm not kidding - Silent Hill 2.

I know, you think I'm kidding.

I'm not.

Have you ever had a nightmarish fever-dream in which you explore the game you've been playing lately? Everything is drifting, unreal and frightening, but you're strangely at ease as you navigate. That's precisely the effect Madness Returns had on me.

The game flows from one hours-long chapter to the next as it either riffs horror on classic Wonderland locales or produces brand new environments inspired by the new story Alice is telling. The gameplay, I must admit, is a pleasant surprise.

From what I remember of American McGee's Alice back in the day, I was expecting Madness Returns to be a bit of a mess, in the gameplay department. I had anticipated unwieldy, intensely frustrating platforming and combat that never quite does what you tell it to - what I got was the opposite.

Alice is incredibly mobile - springing Wonderland's thirty-foot gaps with ease (she can quadruple jump, and between jumps two, three and four she can glide). With little practice I found myself able to fling her off ridiculous cliffs and land her precisely on tiny, moving platforms. She is fleet of feet and perfectly natural to control - and being a wholesome, satisfying platformer is worth a great deal of credit with me.

It's no inFamous or even Prince of Persia (Alice refuses, for example, to grab ledges), but it's a nicely simple, easygoing facet of the gameplay - which you'll be utilizing for eighty percent of the game.

Elsewhere, Alice is even better at combat than she is at flying across worlds. The best defense against the ridiculous is the mundane, it seems, and she puts teapots and hobby horses to brutal use, lopping heads off goblins and blasting the limbs from gigantic, demented dolls.

Again, I wasn't expecting it to be so capable, but this is the combat styling of a 3D Zelda on nitrous oxide. She blitzes around the battlefield in bursts of butterfly dodges, her Vorpal Blade going snicker-snack in viper-fast combos, followed by an overhead whomp from the mighty Hobby Horse or an area-of-effect blast from the Teapot Cannon.

What's more delightful is that - aside from the very first enemy you meet - every foe in the game requires some variety of strategy, or the judicious combination of your arsenal. Every weapon is always at your command, so you can switch your attacks on the fly. Dodging, parrying and blocking are all natural and responsive - it's a spectacular improvement over the last Alice.

Given how positive I've been about Alice thus far, you no doubt wonder if I too have gone off my rocker and am writing this from my own personal and fantastical Wonderplace. What is everyone else complaining about, if the game is actually rather grand?

They're complaining about the game's overall design, and its pacing.

Alice: Madness Returns will take you between twenty and thirty hours to complete. For any linear action-platformer, that is an epic length of time, and modern design tropes dictate the gamer must be given either new tools or a new style of challenge every ten minutes to keep them interested.

Alice doesn't do that. At all. Aside from, in later levels, making the platforming a bit more timing-sensitive and throwing enemies at you who are significantly dangerous and require a well-honed strategy to defeat, Madness Returns doesn't concern itself with constantly pushing at the boundaries of your skill.

Bookending the levels, Alice (passively) wanders about the seedier side of London, and the story revealed there directly ties in to the world you will jump, twirl and cut your way through next. Those worlds take a long, long time to travel through - your gamer sense of when a level "should" end will do you no good here. Developer Spicy Horse has simply crammed a ton of gameplay into Alice. The game expects the pleasure of its comfortable, satisfying systems to be pleasure enough and - for me, at least - they were. It's a nice game to just play.

It's also incredibly good-looking and in so many ways inspired.

There are countless sights that will force you to pause and just stare for a moment. The game is a constant barrage of visual and thematic creativity - often surprising, delighting and shocking in turn. When it's not just being beautiful, it delivers Carroll-esque twists on classic survival horror imagery to profound effect.

A great deal in Alice is not what we expect - and demand - of our modern video games. Its mechanics are as simple and satisfying as those on the previous generation of consoles, but not up to current-gen standards, in terms of detail. Its technology is merely adequate, its pacing as leisurely as a mock turtle without a train to carry him. It occasionally veers into gameplay switch-ups that are either an acceptable diversion (in the case of a half-decent 2D platformer) or tedious and downright weird - but even in that case, rare is the game which sees you navigating a severed, hairless doll's head through an obstacle course to earn the equivalent of a piece of heart.

Clearly, I'm quite fond of Alice: Madness Returns - because while unique games are great, they're not really great unless they're also great fun. Alice is fun. It's a nice game to slip into for the purpose of running, jumping and going snicker-snack with a two-foot butcher's knife of myth - but thanks to its incredible art direction, unique protagonist and exceptional emotional intelligence, it's not just a nice game.

It's a rare one.

-incredible art direction: even the menus have amazing style
-it's cool to play as a lady
-unbridled creativity
-a patient, involving narrative that goes places I've never seen a game go before
-some deeply affecting moments
-comfy, pleasurable platforming
-responsive, simple and satisfying combat
-an epic length
-Alice is a unique, compelling hero (and her dynamic hair isn't faked!)
-I love how her dress changes
-I love games with level selects
-you unlock hidden paths by seasoning flying pig snouts with pepper
-after standing under a magical purple potion fountain you can shrink yourself at will, and your altered perspective allows you to see secrets and hidden platforms - and Alice can step inside glowing flowers which will close themselves around her and refill her health and sometimes when she's small she'll hiccup purple bubbles.

-technologically sub-par
-last-gen combat and platforming mechanics
-encourages you to explore to find hidden currency (teeth) and collectibles, but you'll often find the path you took is the correct one to advance the level, and the rout back to the collectibles will be sealed off. Bleugh.
-the game's remarkable length is due to significant padding, which fails to introduce new mechanics or strategies at an acceptable clip
-some of the gameplay switch-ups are pretty tedious, but the worst offenders can be skipped with no penalty

Wonderland is wonderful - but not for the impatient.


  1. You have just convinced me to buy this this weekend :)

  2. Gahhhh I must've been editing it while you were reading. It's better now, I swear. And I think I'm gonna' cut like, the first two paragraphs now.

    I hope you like it!

  3. Great review, sir. You've convinced me to check this out. I'm a sucker for good art direction.

  4. Finished it last night. Enjoyed it thoroughly. I quite easily got around the relative tedium because I'm used to doing heavy grinding in RPGs, and if there's anything more tedious than that, I have yet to find it.

    Now I'm off to beat it on Nightmare whilst wearing the Royal Flush. I'm gonna hate myself in a week.