June 24, 2011
The story behind Alice in Wonderland is quite widely known – or is it? This macabre twist on the classic tale sees an altogether more sinister version of events unfold. Anyone familiar with the original title will probably know what to expect, though this version actually pulls even fewer punches. This is a journey not only into Wonderland but also into the fractured mind of Alice herself, though perhaps those two things are indeed one and the same.
For those expecting a children’s fable, you might be better looking elsewhere, as straight away it is clear that things are not as they should be. The second you meet a battered-looking Cheshire Cat and begin your quest to track down a strait-jacket laden Mad Hatter then it is clear that things are never quite what they seem. In fact the way the game plays on events in Alice’s real world London and those of her shattered Wonderland is beautifully done, with characters in her fantasy land clearly inspired by shady characters from her life of terror and therapy. It’s also nice to see that some people’s obsession with tea and cake is not that different to our own. The events that take place in London are especially poignant and inspired, especially as you draw towards the closing stages, and help to frame the mysteries of Wonderland perfectly.
It is fair to say that the artistic direction is top notch, with each of the vast levels having its own unique style and denizens. The cast on offer are convoluted versions of the characters people may know and love, though they certainly have plenty of banter as well, as a dribble of misleading advice to pass onto Alice. Random forays through Hatter’s steam powered realm, an underwater town catered to by the Carpenter and Walruses theatre and a mountain populated by origami ants are just the tip of the iceberg, and no matter how bizarre events become they always have a link back to the reality Alice knew. The more she struggles to find out what happened during the mysterious fire that killed her family then the more the world of Wonderland seems to suffer at the hands of the Infernal Train and its sinister master.
Of course a top notch story and intriguing backdrop would be nothing without a solid game to back it up and Alice pretty much succeeds in that respect too, though with a few caveats. The majority of the gameplay is a mix of platforming, combat and puzzle solving and the balance is pretty much spot on as you never feel like you are doing too much of any one thing. Each level also has few unique puzzles to keep you entertained, from a Pitfall style platform section, to a bit of doll head rolling (seriously) and even a bit of a side-scrolling shooter. Everything perfectly fits with the tone of the game as well, so it never feels shoe-horned in just for a bit of variety.
Combat is a potential weak point, as even though Alice has an arsenal of handy weapons at her disposal including a deadly teapot, defensive umbrella and vorpal blade (or carving knife as it is more commonly known) things generally devolve into a hack and slash affair. Sure you can save up teeth to upgrade your equipment and change into alternative outfits to bestow new abilities, but they never seem to make things too interesting. Thankfully certain enemies require a specific combination of equipment, making things feel a bit more interesting and tactical, and new foes pop up just often enough so that things don’t get too dull. The lock on system is a tad obtrusive though and can make the camera pitch a few fits, plus you can be knocked off target with surprising ease. On the plus side you are never forced into constant confrontations and watching Alice throw a hysteria fit is worth the price of admission alone.
The general platforming is well worked, and mixed in with various puzzles as well as plenty of secret nooks and crannies to seek out. Alice can use her arsenal of weapons to help her explore, and also has the handy ability to shrink in order to access certain hidden tunnels and enable her to see invisible platforms, though these are handily signposted by nearby flowers just to be on the safe side. Her ability to dash, hover and jump in mid air multiple times also makes navigating platforms fairly painless. If you drop to your death it never feels totally unfair, merely that you mistimed your leap, plus the checkpoints are handily placed so the amount of backtracking you have to do is minimal.
For a game of this type it is also fairly lengthy and assuming you try to seek out as many collectibles as you can, which we would highly recommend as some of the memory fragments really help to progress the story and give you an insight into the villainy at hand, then you could be looking at close to twenty hours to finish the story. Obviously if you just blindly follow the main path then things would be sped up immeasurably but that would be missing the point. At times, in the early chapters especially, the game feels almost too big though, with sections seeming to overstay their welcome rather than providing you with a smooth sense of progression. It is a minor complaint truth be told, but the game may well have been better served from having been a touch leaner.
An extra boon, especially for people that missed the original, is the ability to play it in its entirety assuming you bought the game new. The first Alice game certainly does not hold up as well next to its predecessor, but for a free 7-8 hour game it can certainly help to fill in the blanks between the two stories and is a welcome addition.
The achievements on offer are tied into story progression as well as an inordinate amount of collectibles that need to be found. Thankfully hunting down pig snouts does serve a purpose, as they often lead to additional teeth for upgrades or new pathways to memory fragments which also serve a very good purpose in terms of story. Still with a bunch of weapon kills and only a few fun level specific achievements it is a bit too humdrum to be honest. There are also a hundred points tied into the original game, which could set second hand buyers back an additional 800 MS points in order to snag that deserved completion.
This is a superbly atmospheric game that is only let down by a few sections that seem to drag on too long and combat that feels a bit too repetitive to ever be that much fun. Thankfully the story carries things along to a truly shocking and satisfying conclusion, plus the platforming and puzzles on offer are nice and varied while never feeling too difficult or unfair. Alice: Madness Returns is a welcome addition to the 360 game library and should be a more than welcome addition to your collection. Down the rabbit hole friends……..
Good voice work, if a tad clichéd in places, and a genuinely eerie score that sets the tone perfectly.
A superb and macabre landscape, populated by intriguing characters and a variety of bizarre imaginings. The cutscenes and London interludes are truly special as well, especially as the game rolls towards its conclusion.
A solid mix of platforming and puzzling is only let down slightly by the repetitive combat and lengthy opening areas.
A brilliant foray into the world of Alice, told from an off-kilter perspective and full of clever references between the real world and the psyche of a damaged girl.
A decent list but only a few achievements really make you go out of your way to do anything different. At least you difficulty tasks are stackable, thank goodness.
A wonderfully realised fantasy world that is equal parts entrancing and disturbing. The story is well realised and will keep you enamoured until the credits roll. There are a few niggles here but nothing to stop Alice: Madness Returns from being a wonderfully different slice of entertainment. Now who's for tea?