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Alice: Madness Returns

Score: 78%
ESRB: Mature
Publisher: EA Games
Developer: Spicy Horse
Media: DVD/1
Players: 1
Genre: Action/ Adventure/ Platformer

Graphics & Sound:

The twisted version of Wonderland presented in Alice: Madness Returns is easily the game's greatest asset. Environments are simultaneously whimsical and grotesque, and American McGee's Spicy Horse studio is to be commended for achieving such a feat.

Also worthy of note is Alice herself, who is one of the most stunning character models I've seen in a long time. Her outfit changes to fit whatever Wonderland domain she is currently occupying, and each looks great. Her hair physics are easily the best I've seen in a game, and I'll leave it at that. The developers clearly went out of their way to portray Alice as a figure of overwhelming grace; the combat looks like a macabre ballet recital. When Alice dodges, she momentarily dissipates into a swarm of bright blue butterflies, and when she leaps into the air, her dress swirls and leaves a trail of flowers in its wake.

Enemies are disturbing caricatures of classic Wonderland standbys; from the amorphous blobs with porcelain faces to the undead card guards to the eyeless dagger-wielding baby dolls, Alice: Madness Returns is hardly short on creative enemy design.

Finally, the pop-up book style cutscenes fit the game's tone perfectly, as we are indeed dealing with subject matter that lends itself well to such a style. Once you look past the brilliant art design, the game's technical shortcomings come into view. Alice: Madness Returns is working with the Unreal Engine 3, and it usually looks just fine, but there are some texture pop-in issues, as well as some jarring loading sequences that literally come out of nowhere.

Alice: Madness Returns doesn't sound quite as good as it looks, but that's not saying much; after all, nothing else in the game is as good as its art style. The voice acting is great, though it is often smothered by the music. This is most noticeable when Alice talks to the Cheshire Cat, whose low monotone struggles to rise above all the rest of Wonderland's aural eccentricities. The soundtrack is fantastic in some parts, merely okay in others; this becomes a problem later in the game, when most of the problems start to crop up. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Combat sounds fantastic; landing hits with the vorpal blade and hobby horse creates a joyfully weird and unabashedly grim cacophony.


It's the dreamers who suffer the most, especially when it comes to poor Alice Liddell. The wide-eyed youngster always did seem a little bit "touched" in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, but then her parents and sister were killed in a fire. This sent the girl over the edge and landed her in Rutledge Asylum, where American McGee's Alice took place. She retreated into Wonderland to find it falling apart, but through an exercise of extraordinary will power (and with the help of several toys of mass destruction), she ostensibly reclaimed Wonderland, and by extension, her sanity. Indeed, Alice ended on a high note, with a cheerful-looking Alice picking up her briefcase and supposedly making a fresh start.

Alas, it was not meant to be; turns out, all she did was placate the demons in her head for a time. Alice: Madness Returns deals with the violent resurfacing of those demons and what our young heroine must do to vanquish them once and for all. And so, she finds herself back in Wonderland, complete with several franchise mainstays (yes, even the ones who didn't survive the original game). The storytelling is fragmented and in truth, kind of a trippy experience. However, the developers were clearly going for this; the incredible disconnect between the colorful paradise-in-ruins and the dingy streets of an increasingly colorless London helps to sell the experience.

Alice: Madness Returns belongs to a genre that has become shockingly underpopulated: the action/platformer. It's a lengthy experience that takes Alice through five different domains, each with its own unique thematic vision. Along the way, you'll hunt for collectibles and engage a wide variety of corrupted monstrosities in armed combat. The first half of the game really pours on the rewards and features great level design that encourages you to use all the tools at your disposal, but the second half features almost no surprises. As a result, Alice: Madness Returns runs completely out of steam before crossing the finish line. Still, the art style and intriguing story are more than enough incentive to press on through the boring parts.


Alice: Madness Returns is not a difficult game, as long as you don't consider yourself a completionist. If you do, you might be in for a bit of trouble. As mentioned earlier, the level design is quite good. However, there's one major problem with it; when you are offered multiple paths, it is often difficult to tell whether you're heading for story progression or a secret area with a bottle or memory to collect. However, Alice: Madness Returns features an abstract kind of level design; it essentially puts you in a world with a mind of its own. As a result, lots of doors close behind you, leaving you no hope of snagging that elusive collectible -- at least, not in a single playthrough. At least they included a New Game + feature, which allows you to max out your character and clean up, so to speak.

The rest of Alice: Madness Returns comes close to offering a challenging experience, but in the end, it doesn't quite get there. It's usually very obvious where you need to be going and how you need to get there, and the controls are so responsive, you won't have any problem with the execution. The same goes for combat; spend twenty seconds with any enemy in Wonderland, and you'll probably have their attack patterns and weaknesses down pat.

Game Mechanics:

Alice: Madness Returns milks its source material for inspiration, and unsurprisingly, Lewis Carroll's timeless works are rife with ideas fit for gameplay. Let's start with the obvious, provided you've read the books or seen any of the adaptations. One of the most iconic scenes from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland -- the one that involves the words "Eat Me" and "Drink Me." Alice is granted the power to shrink at will very early on, and an endgame sequence features the exact opposite. However, shrinking is integral to the platforming and exploration in Madness Returns. For starters, there are several keyholes and small spaces that Alice cannot fit through in her normal state. Shrinking also gives her a rather strange ability: "Shrink Sense." When tiny, Alice can better perceive her surroundings; hidden platforms pop into view and spectral graffiti helps to pinpoint the location of collectibles. She can't jump when tiny, though, so sometimes you'll have to make a leap of faith.

Unsurprisingly, everything else in Madness Returns is executed with the goal of feeling perfectly at home in this messed up world. The four primary weapons follow suit. The vorpal blade (which goes snicker-snack!) is the standard light attack. The Pepper Grinder acts as a machine gun, but can also be used to reveal hidden collectibles. Pig Snouts are everywhere, and peppering them up always yields some sort of benefit (unlike in the books). The Hobby Horse is the heavy weapon used to break down defenses; if you build up a three-hit combo, you're rewarded with an extra powerful attack (complete with ferocious whinny). And then, finally, we have the Mad Hatter's choice, the Teapot Cannon. You can build however much pressure you'd like (listen for the whistle) and lob a devastating glob of piping hot tea. These weapons can be upgraded four times by spending the teeth you find.

Outside of the platforming and combat, Madness Returns features a number of underdeveloped diversions. These sequences are intended as watercooler moments, but they aren't implemented very well and end up dragging the experience down. The ideas are there: an underwater arcade shoot-em-up stage, a series of bizarre chess and sliding tile puzzles, some beautifully-crafted two-dimensional stages, funhouse slides, babydoll head croquet (complete with flamingo clubs), and more. These sections aren't much fun, however.

If you plan to buy Alice: Madness Returns, make sure you don't settle for a used copy. That is, if you don't want to miss out on a free downloadable copy of American McGee's Alice. It doesn't play nearly as well as the sequel does, but it's still worth a look -- even eleven years after its release.

Alice: Madness Returns is a must-play, but it's not a must-buy. If you have a soft spot for the classics and don't mind seeing a bit of respectful artistic license, you'll want to see what this game has to offer. This rabbit hole might go down a bit too far, but it's still worth taking the plunge.

-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

Related Links:

Microsoft Xbox 360 Duke Nukem Forever Sony PlayStation 3 Alice: Madness Returns

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