Madness isn’t the only thing that has returned in this sequel to 2000’s “American McGee’s Alice.” The first game was praised for its twisted and surreal visuals, but offered bland gameplay that failed to live up to the fantastic art design. The sequel is no different. Expect to dive into a world of floating poker cards, giant slugs, flying pig snouts, and one of the most lovingly crafted game worlds ever created. Be prepared to have more fun looking at Wonderland than playing a game in it.
“Alice: Madness Returns” features a macabre take on Lewis Carroll’s classic character. Wonderland is a reoccurring delusion caused by the childhood trauma of witnessing her family die in a fire. Alice is fresh out of an asylum and seeking treatment from a psychoanalyst who hopes to help her repair her shattered mind. The game switches between the gray and grimy real world and the fantastical Wonderland, reflecting Alice’s inability to distinguish fantasy from reality. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t push this theme very successfully, so don’t expect to get involved in the story. Alice comes off as an emotionless doll who doesn’t seem at all alarmed when the delusions she’s been trying to rid herself of return. It’s hard to believe that such a vibrant fantasy world can come from the mind of a character who has even less personality than sanity.
The gameplay borrows heavily from the “Zelda” series, with a similar combat system that allows you to switch between a variety of appropriately bizarre weapons mid-combat.
Surrounded by creepy oil-baby-nail-monster-things? Switch from your kitchen knife to a pepper grinder that can blast enemies from afar.
Can’t shake a swarm of flying screws? Use Alice’s handy teleport to get some distance between you and your enemies.
The combat is swift and the controls are responsive. Add in the ability to upgrade your weapons and health bar by collecting items and you have a solid yet derivative combat system.
Alice can shrink herself at will to fit into tiny keyholes and see new passageways she would have missed while at full size. It’s a fun mechanic, but never grows into the original and engrossing gameplay element this title sorely lacks. Allowing players to use shrinking in combat would have been welcome. A major flaw that shrinking highlights is the overabundance of invisible walls in Wonderland. You will constantly find yourself unable to jump on platforms or maneuver around crevices. It destroys the sense of immersion, which is doubly grievous because feeling like you’re inside Wonderland is the game’s selling point.
Non-combat gameplay is a hodgepodge of boring minigames that include standard platformer item-collecting, side-scrolling shooter segments, and unforgivably out-of-place sliding puzzles. It’s like the developers realized that they couldn’t bring any new ideas to the table, so they simply used every idea on the table. These breaks from the main gameplay would have been welcome if they weren’t so time-worn.
The game’s art design is fantastic. Every now and then you will turn a corner and see something so strange, disturbing, ominous, or beautiful that you can’t help but stop and stare. The environments are an inspired mix of surreal gardens, gothic homes, wastelands, and clockwork cities. The game’s engine pulls off these visuals well except for some unfortunate animation glitches, which appear all too frequently.
The voice acting is competent with many of the minor characters coming off as more lifelike and believable than Alice, whose actor delivered her lines with all the fluidity and emotion of a mannequin. The music sets the mood very well, whether that mood is spooky, lighthearted or simply off-kilter.
Though the visuals are dynamite, it’s impossible to ignore that “Alice: Madness Returns” is merely a mediocre game with a lot of eye candy. Still, if you’re willing to ignore the odd glitch and occasionally uninspired gameplay, it’s definitely worth a trip down the rabbit hole.