Alice: Madness Returns Hands-On Preview – From Hazy to Crazy
Written Tuesday, May 17, 2011 By Dan WebbView author's profile
Having had console gaming in my blood now for a good ten years, I was one of those unfortunate individuals that didn’t get the chance to sample the delights of American McGee’s Alice title. A lot has changed since then though and the advancements in consoles not only means that the sequel is now possible in today’s market, but it also means that it’s got much sterner competition to go up against. You know what they say, what was once fresh may not be now. We ventured into the looking glass recently to take a look at whether Alice: Madness Returns had what it takes to build successfully upon the sturdy foundations of the original and whether it could really resonate with 21st century video gamers.
Alice: Madness Returns picks up 10 years after Alice's release from Rutledge Asylum and the events told in the original. Alice, still as traumatised and as warped as ever, finds herself an orphan at the Homesditch Home, thrashing things out with the orphanage’s Doctor Mumby. From there players are invited to look around the grey and depressing halls of the orphanage. “This could pass for room at the Asylum,” remarks Alice about her bedroom which is littered with Wonderland inspired drawings. The scribblings of a crazy person, no less.
“Mad as a hatter without the charm,” utters a small child as we cross through the lobby, towards the cobbled streets of London town. Our aim is to head across town to the market to pick up Alice’s medication, but it’s not long before Alice is sidetracked by a small stray cat which she follows through a labyrinth of alleyways. “Seems following furry creatures into dark holes has become a habit. I hope it’s not a vice,” she muses, demonstrating that despite the tragedy, she still has a sense of humour.
It’s right about here when things take a sudden turn for the worse for Alice, as she not only hallucinates as the visions of Wonderland seep into the real world, but she bumps into an elderly woman from the home, Nurse Witless, who has a thing for bribery. That sets into motion a series of events that sees Alice slip away into the fictional world of Wonderland; and it’s here that Alice: Madness Returns sprouts its wings and starts to excel from a creative standpoint.
The Wonderland that Alice drops into is a beautifully picturesque paradise that could quite easily have been conceived by Lewis Carroll himself and is a stark contrast from the drab environments of London. With its powerful greens, reds and blues, Wonderland starts off as a safe haven for Alice as butterflies flutter around, the flow of a nearby stream soothes the soul and more dice and dominoes than an old person’s retirement home inhabit its plains. Emphasis on 'starts off' as a safe haven, because as Alice learns the ropes and acquires her goodies, from her Vorpal Blade to the chain-gun-like Pepper Grinder, things start to get a little grim. What starts off as a jaunt in the park, soon turns into a sprint through Clapham Common, with colour slowly seeping from the world and blood and nasty black goo starting to protrude from every facet. Even the music is a perfect compliment, ranging from morbid violins and haunting pianos to playful toy box style music. It’s an Alice in Wonderland treat!
The best of Alice’s gameplay comes from solving little puzzles and getting involved in some traditional platforming. Expect plenty of lever-pulling, timed runs, carefully timed jumps and other joys, making the platforming a bit of a pleasure to breeze through – yes, it’s fairly easy though, but we did only play chapter 1. With the game’s double jump and the ability to glide as well, the it's quite user friendly and forgiving... especially considering if you fall, it doesn’t set you too far back and doesn’t taunt you with the 'game over' screen.
Using the ‘Shrink’ ability – that Alice gets as the Cheshire Cat announces his arrival in the sequel as Alice’s spiritual guide of sorts – not only allows Alice to spot clues on where to go next and uncover usually hidden platforms, but she can also walk through miniature keyholes to advance further into the looking glass or discover secrets along the way. That said, there are tons of collectibles to gather throughout Wonderland, whether you’re bashing enemies and objects for teeth – that you can use to upgrade Alice’s weapons – stumbling across shiny 3D icons that represent Alice’s memories, collecting hidden bottles or keeping an eye out for Pig Snouts which open up paths to valuable items, there’s plenty of little extras to keep you checking every nook and cranny.
The combat is... how do I put this? Simple and repetitive, with little in the way of variety – you have one attack button for your melee, one for your gun, one dodge button and when you pick up the umbrella, you have a shield of sorts as well. Oh, and you also pick up Clockwork Bombs – disguised as rabbits – which are more often used for puzzle sections, rather than combat. Admittedly, there is a good range of enemies though and just when you get bored of fighting one type, the game introduces more. All are both twisted and vivid, whether you’re talking about the triple-doll-headed goo-fests known as Menacing Ruins, the small troll people called the Madcap or the teapot shaped mechanical Eyepots, they all have a unique look and combat style. In truth, they likely won’t cause too much of a problem for the average gamer, especially as Alice can enable a temporary ‘Hysteria’ mode which acts like a berserker state as the world turns to monochrome with nothing but vivid reds representing any sort of colour.
Throughout chapter 1, we took Alice all the way through the ever-changing Wonderland forests all the way to the Hatter’s Domain – a floating clockwork castle. While there we’re persuaded to rebuild the dismantled Mad Hatter, and to do so, we have to face-off against the crazy Mouse who’s in a wheelchair and an even crazier March Hare in a series of labyrinths. Each of the dangerous duo has a chamber consisting of various puzzles to traverse, with each feeling slightly different from the other. The fieldmouse – who had the Hatter’s arms – is surrounded by cogs and lava galore, whilst the March Hare – who has the Hatter’s legs – resides in a sort of foundry of sorts with more prison cells than Alcatraz. Rather than spoil how the sequence and our demo ends... that’s for you to find out.
Admittedly, I was quite sceptical that Alice: Madness Returns would be able to hold its own in today’s market, with its simple combat and relatively shallow gameplay, but it’s actually quite refreshing to have another platformer on our consoles. Throw in American McGee’s wonderful and hauntingly eerie reimagining of Alice’s Wonderland with plenty of diverse locations and well crafted cutscenes, fused together and brought to life by an engaging story, and Alice could surprise a few punters when it ships next month. It’s probably not going to win any accolades or such, but it’s shaping up to be an enjoyable and frankly unique romp.
American McGee’s Alice: Madness Returns is scheduled for a June 14th and June 17th release in North America and Europe respectively.