Poor Alice. Years pass and the pain of tragedy diminishes with time, but neither shame nor guilt nor madness ever leave us. And for Alice Liddell, once-bold Wonderland explorer, madness has returned with a vengeance.
American McGee’s Alice was under-appreciated; I appreciated it – at length, and reprise that appreciation with an expanded version of the same article for the upcoming Well Played 3.0 - but most people didn’t get it. Too many jumping puzzles, too difficult, too long, too packed with disturbing imagery deemed unsuitable for the world of Wonderland. The game sold okay but didn’t do well critically, and it took eleven years for EA to allow a sequel. Still led by American McGee, that Terry Gilliam of video games, Alice: Madness Returns is upon us.
McGee has not had a great career since Alice. The do-no-wrong wunderkind whose dark visions permeated DOOM and Quake, whose original Alice was meant to be a blockbuster to end all blockbusters, has since gone from mediocrity to disaster to mediocrity in the form of Scrapland, Bad Day L.A., and Grimm. The kindest thing anyone can say about any of those games is that they… they existed. His latest company, Shanghai-based Spicy Horse, held the developmental reins for Madness Returns.
The Alice games are platformers first and foremost, so I went with the PS3 version. I prefer that controller to the 360’s, and though I’ll normally go with the PC as my first choice, it didn’t appear on Steam until this morning, so console it was.
Eleven years have passed in the game world as well, meaning Alice is around twenty-five. She’s been out of the asylum for some time now, but has been unable to let go of her childhood, shattered by a raging fire that destroyed her family’s home and killed everyone in the Liddell clan except for her. That event left the young teen catatonic, trapped in her own mind, a Wonderland gone horribly wrong. In the original game, Alice fought to heal herself and reconcile the realities of adulthood, sexual maturation, loss of fairy-tale innocence, and the pun-intended burning sense of guilt she feels for having failed to rescue or even warn her family about the blaze. That she set. Maybe.
She’s gotten herself a job keeping house at an orphanage for mentally ill children. Along with room, board, and salary, this position allows her access to Dr. Bumby, a psychiatrist who employs hypnotism as a therapeutic device. Bumby’s approach to behavioral therapy and trauma reconciliation would horrify any modern practitioner: he believes that memory is, on the whole, bad; and bad memories, like ones in which your entire family die in a fire, should be repressed or eliminated from the psyche, by force if necessary.
That a creepy psychiatrist who forces his patients to forget unpleasant experiences has unfettered access to children – children he renders helpless through hypnotism, no less – doesn’t need to be explicitly discussed, and it isn’t. Alice too is in his clutches, and perhaps unremarkably, she’s suffered a relapse in the last few months and is once again losing her grip on reality. Before you can even chase a rabbit down a hole (actually her stuffed rabbit has been kidnapped by an evil nurse), Alice is back in Wonderland, where allies and enemies alike destroyed in her previous adventure through the id are back, and scary, and mean.
Almost-but-not-quite Patrick Stewart-sounding Roger Jackson reprises his Cheshire Cat (Susie Brann returns also in the title role), but this time he seems a little pissed at Alice. “Making friends, Alice?” he snarls. “You’re as randomly lethal and entirely confused as you ever were.” The girl herself seems more bemused than frightened as she wanders through her mind, collecting repressed memories of her childhood and battling disturbing reincarnations of Lewis Carroll’s fiction. I suspect her mood will change as she uncovers secrets long suggested but never confirmed – from what Bumby really does behind his office’s closed door to the truth behind the fire that killed her family.
Alice is an adult now, not a tweenager, so she thinks she’s in control. But she’s not, and if Madness Returns teaches us anything, it’s that she never will be, the poor thing. There are some illnesses that just don’t get better. This time, though, she’s not completely off her rocker, and her experiences in Wonderland are broken up by short jaunts back to reality, during which she explores 19th-Century London, a place that’s easily as unpleasant as what’s going on in her mind. Within minutes of starting the game a pimp suggests that she’d do better, money-wise, as a whore than as a housekeeper for crazy kids. Alice: Madness Returns is not a game for children and some of the things you see and hear won’t make adults very comfortable either.
Tighter platforming, a friendlier difficulty curve, delightful new weapons and more creepy visuals than you can shake a stick at have – so far – given me reason to believe that American McGee has done it again, despite a decade of shit work on his part. Maybe he’s just made to do Alice games. And while the whole thing could collapse around me, so far I like what I’m seeing.
I switched from Normal to Hard pretty early in, and I’ll say that it makes for a much more challenging game. Whether this is due to controls that are ever so slightly less responsive than I’d like, or actual increased challenge, I’m not sure. But if you have any skill at all with combat platformers, and you wish to actually have to try to succeed in the game, I’d recommend going with Hard. Fortunately you can switch difficulties any time, though the game makes quite a scene when you do, warning that it’ll mess up trophy advancement and then being quite obstreperous about actually letting you hit the “I know, let me change difficulties anyway” button.
Its outstanding Unreal 3-powered graphics do justice to McGee’s vision, though you’ll see a lot of the technical issues that have plagued Spicy Horse games in the past: tearing, collision, disappearing textures, that sort of thing. They also couldn’t be bothered to mocap or animate some moves that you do all the time, like 180-degree turns, so get used to detail shortcomings. But the Alice milieu has definitely returned, with classic American McGee horribleness on full display – the currency of Wonderland is teeth, the snicker-snack Vorpal Blade is a gore-spattered kitchen knife, the characters are… well, they’re all mad here.
Reviews have, so far, been pretty middle of the road, in the five to seven range. And don’t expect anything innovative here from a gameplay perspective: Madness Returns is part Alice (but not as original), part Psychonauts (but not as ingenious), and not much new or different. For a lot of gamers I think this is one they’ll prefer to grab at a Steam sale, and it’s another game I think the publisher would have done well to release as a budget title. Oh sure, it’s a full length game – 12-25 hours by all accounts – and it sports production values that are really good, if somewhat slapdash from time to time. From that perspective the $49.99 price tag is suitable. But bearing in mind that it’s a sequel to a game many bought but few understood, and one that doesn’t actually do anything that hasn’t already been done, and I’d posit the sales would have been better at $19.99 out of the gate.
I like it, though; enough to give it my guarded endorsement after four or five hours of play. There is plenty that smacks of carelessness but nothing which seems particularly irritating. Bad Day L.A. was simply broken; Scrapland and Grimm were just pointless; Alice: Madness Returns is an actual honest-to-god game, though admittedly not one that’ll resonate with all players.
It’s a little sexy, a lot creepy, a whole lot unsettling. It’s a nightmare made interactive, like its predecessor, and also like its predecessor it’s a story of secrets and loathing and a young woman who’s just simply beyond help. That it’s nothing mechanically special doesn’t detract from the feeling that Madness Returns is a visual and narrative
triumph solid outing. I hope it does well, because though reviews have pounced for its overall mediocrity, a lot of much more mediocre (and much less imaginative) games do a lot better and don’t endure the same critical lashing.
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