Alice: Madness Returns (PS3)

Everyone’s favourite crazy girl is back – Alice in Wonderland is back in the sequel to the 2000 classic ‘American McGee’s Alice’. Now, I’m going to start by saying that I missed the first one, and didn’t have time to play it now. So this review is being written by someone who only knows what happened in the first one based off of what the second one gave in snippets and flashbacks. Now let’s get into this, shall we?

What type of game is it?

The name and description don’t give too much of a clarity into the game. So I’m going to try to help sort this out here, because it isn’t an easy one to classify. It is sort of a halfway point in between ‘platformer’ and ‘action rpg’. There is a lot of platforming to be done, but there is also a fair amount of combat, and some rpg elements in there. Which was actually probably my biggest problem with the game, in reality.

The platforming elements are rather simplistic, consisting of basically two elements: Shrinking yourself and Jumping. You can shrink down, and you can do a triple jump/glide. Unfortunately you can’t do them together. But those are really the only platforming elements you have, and you must use those to find secrets and make your way through the game. The jumping is fairly responsive most of the time, although at some points I found myself going in odd directions when I ran into invisible walls or objects with odd clipping. Shrinking gives you the ability to see hidden elements such as hints, invisible platforms, or objects that are just illusions. Unfortunately, you get the ability to do both the triple jumps and the shrinking right at the start of the game, and nothing else from a platforming perspective over the entire game.

The combat is fairly simplistic as well. You have two different melee weapons, two ranged weapons, and bombs you can plant on the ground. You get them all within about the first half of the game, but can upgrade them to make them faster and more powerful throughout the game. The combat controls are a little clunky, with some sluggishness for some commands and with directional commands not always working properly. Overall the combat wasn’t bad, it was both too repetitive, and too infrequent. Too repetitive because the enemies were quite limited in scope – there’re only so many times I can fight monsters made from sludge before I get tired of them, and mostly used the same set of a few combat mechanics. Too infrequent because with how simplistic the platforming was, it needed something more in-depth to break it up. Oh, and bosses. There is only one actual boss fight in the entire game, and it is right at the end.

To break up the platforming and combat are a few unique regions with special mechanics. These include ramps to slide on, a part where you control a marble going through little tubes, sidescroller platformers without any combat at all, segments where Alice grows very large and gets to stomp on things, among others. These segments are among the more fun parts of the game, as they really showcase the style of the game.

Really, the gameplay was probably the weakest part of this game, unfortunately. It needed either a more interesting scaling platforming mechanic – something where you got new abilities over time; or a more dynamic combat system with some really solid encounters. As it was, on it’s own the gameplay wouldn’t have held up the game. But the game was held up, so let’s explore by what, shall we?

Descent Into Madness

As the game progresses, she descends further into madness, but also closer to figuring everything out. It is really very interesting to watch her get less and less rational, but also closer and closer to the truth that will lead her back. The story is actually probably the biggest leg this game has to stand on. Between the unique tone of the memories you find, the gradually unraveling sanity of Alice, the duality of the real world segments and the Wonderland segments – and how the two are getting harder and harder for Alice to tell apart. If you immerse yourself in this story, and take the time to find a lot of the hidden memories – you will get a lot out of this story. But you really do have to immerse yourself in it to get a lot out, so if you’re not the type that is able to really let yourself put everything into the story, you may not enjoy it as much.

The basic premise of the story is that Alice has been let out of the Asylum into the care of a person who runs an orphanage who has agreed to care for her. He is trying to help her by making her forget everything, believing that the key to peace is to control which memories you remember and which you don’t and to eliminate the unpleasant ones. As Alice goes through this, an ‘Infernal Train’ shows up and starts polluting and destroying wonderland. She is trying to sort things out in the real world while at the same time trying to save Wonderland from the train. At least… that’s how it all starts…

The game’s storytelling is done through a combination of conversation segments in the game engine, optional collectible ‘memories’, and very stylized 2-d cut-scenes. The first two aren’t all that special, although the collectible memories are broken down into different categories depending upon who they are a memory of; which is a nice touch. It’s the cut-scenes I want to talk about here. Most of them are incredibly well done, telling a story that would be have probably been difficult to tell in any other way. I applaud them for recognizing the potential of such a medium for this subject matter and executing it so well. A few of the cut-scenes, such as unfortunately the opening one, don’t work quite as well as the majority of them – but overall, it’s a great method for storytelling for this game.

The ending is very uniquely done as well. You get a long segment aboard the infernal train, interspersed with conversations in the real world with the primary antagonist – who is one of the big story twists so I shan’t reveal that here; where you are talking with all of the major characters in Wonderland, being steered toward facing your demons, and things go from there leading to a rather satisfying conclusion. Not the best ending I’ve ever seen, but definitely a satisfying one.

A Dying Fantasy

Wonderland may have had better days, but that doesn’t change the fact that the game looks really cool. The graphics aren’t up to modern standards from a technical standpoint, but the artistic style and unique assets used more than make up for that. From the Gothic fantasy style of Queensland to the uniquely Asian inspired ‘Oriental Grove’, every level brings it’s own distinct flair to the graphics, and every one of them is beautiful to look at. Not only that, but there are tons of small details that are easy to overlook but really enhance the experience if you take the time to look at them. So if you play this, definitely make sure to spend a lot of time just looking at the environments, both in miniature and regular form – cause you’ll certainly get a lot of extra appreciation for the art if you take the time to enjoy it.

The character design, for all of the special characters in Wonderland at least, is damn near perfect. They’re all recognizable, but they all still have their own special flair that makes them feel distinct. Alice’s design, on the other hand, is absolutely perfect. The costumes change by chapter, and every one of them looks really cool and really suitable. The Queensland dress she wears for chapter 4 is by a large margin the best – and quite possibly the best outfit I’ve seen on a videogame character in a long time, if not ever. Props to the artist who designed that outfit, because it is amazing. Also they seemed to put a lot of effort into the little things on the character design. Things like the hair animation look fluid and dynamic – a nice change and something that really helps bring a sense of authenticity to it all. And, when a game is riddled with as much fantasy and delusion as Alice, it can quickly overcome your suspension of disbelief – so adding authenticity helps to prevent that and keep the game in focus. This is one of only a few cases where you’ll ever hear me say ‘realism is good’, folks – so relish it!

The regular enemies, on the other hand, are mostly forgettable. They’re all sludge and railroad parts, which is fitting, but a little dry material to last an entire game. The levels in act 3 and 4 are the only exceptions, with the card soldiers and the samurai-themed wasps being quite stylized and definitely memorable as enemies. Oh, and if there is anything creepier than a naked doll wielding scissors… I haven’t found it.

Like the graphics, the audio is also very stylized. Also like the graphics, this works very well. Each realm in Wonderland has it’s own distinct theme, and they are all very suitable and interesting enough that having them playing doesn’t get annoying. The sound effects are all well done, and the voice work is spectacular with Alice herself sounding every bit… well… Alice.

Final Thoughts

The game suffered from a number of pathing and terrain glitches that caused quite a bit of frustration. Certain aspects of the terrain caused Alice to become stuck until you either backed up and went around, or jumped over. These could be innocuous things like grass giving way to dirt, or things like train tracks or tiles in a building. Also, certain parts of the game could cause you to become ‘stuck’ in shrunken form. Which was awkward because it could happen in combat – if you accidentally pushed the shrink button in the middle of the open you could become stuck shrunk until you find an area that doesn’t have that bug and then unshrink yourself. Most painful of all was that certain spots if you were shrunk and released the shrink key, you wouldn’t unshrink so much as… well… die. None of these bugs were enough for me to damn the game, but they certainly made it a lot more annoying. Also, among the collectibles were these special rooms where you’d get challenges. If you completed 4 of them, you got an extra rose of life(much like Heart pieces in Zelda games). My concern with them was that they all seemed to follow the same pattern. There were 4 in each chapter save the first, and while my mind is blanking as to the order of the two in the middle, it was always trivia first, then kill and survival ones, then one that used a special mechanic unique to the chapter. And while the challenges were fun, it was too predictable and kind of felt out of place in the insanity of “Alice: Madness Returns”. But a minor gripe, to be sure.

Overall

Alice: Madness Returns is a mediocre action-platformer hybrid with stellar presentation and story. To follow my earlier thought, while the gameplay is not enough to hold the game up; the presentation and fantastic style combined with the unique story were more than enough to keep pulling me along and making me want to finish just to see what would happen and what the game would throw at me next. However, this game really is the perfect example of ‘you get out what you put in’ – if you don’t give yourself over to this game 100% you probably won’t enjoy it all that much. But if you do, you’ll be in for a solid story told through a very unique medium with truly inspired imagery, graphics, and sound design.

Pros:

  1. Story is good.
  2. Graphics are very unique and interesting.
  3. Audio design is very strong.
  4. Voice Acting is good.
  5. Character design for major characters is very well done.
  6. Alice’s Outfits are stellar, especially the Queensland dress.
  7. Really cool special mechanics used for small segments of the game.
  8. The game’s one boss fight was quite cool.
  9. The ability to shrink small to see secrets and hints and such was well executed and added to the feel of the game.
  10. Game is full of extras in many forms, and will truly reward a person who puts the effort in to find them.
  11. Jumping is fairly responsive.
  12. The 2-d cut-scenes are a very interesting mechanic for telling a story, and work quite well
  13. Solid ending wrapping up the story and giving a good feeling of completion.
  14. Distinct feel of each level really helps to add to the feeling of wonder.
  15. Incredible effort put into making the little details incredible, most notably the motion of Alice’s hair.

Cons

  1. Platforming was too simplistic, with no new mechanics unlocked throughout the game.
  2. Combat was too simplistic as well, and not frequent enough given the simplistic platforming elements.
  3. Regular enemies were, for the most part, way too bland.
  4. Challenges were too repetitive.
  5. Unable to jump while shrinking or shrink while jumping.
  6. Some pathing glitches caused annoying when trying to run from place to place.
  7. Shrinking glitches could result in being stuck in weird places or even in death.
  8. Only one boss fight in the entire game.
  9. Game could be very dry if you just play it and don’t spend the time to enjoy it.

 

Review written by: Sean

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