Alice: Madness Returns Xbox 360 review
Once more through the looking glass, Aaron revisits a twisted Wonderland in Alice: Madness Returns…
Most would agree that the tale of Alice In Wonderland, sugar-frosted Disney animated incarnation aside, is a pretty dark story. Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole isn’t your typical, straightforward kid’s fable, and is believed by many to contain all manner of references to dodgy substances and questionable mental states.It’s a tale that’s been told time and time again, in many different ways. My own personal favourites have to be the darker, downright weird versions, such as the amazing Jan Švankmajer live-action and animated film and, more fittingly here, the original American McGee’s Alice.
PC gamers from the early 2000s era will, no doubt, remember the surprise hit that was the original Alice. Not only was the subject matter rather left field, bringing the literary classic back in an unconventional style, but it was also a platform-heavy game on the PC, quite the rarity. And it was a damn fine platformer too, packed with excellent artistic design and enjoyable gameplay. It even ran well on my ageing 3DFX Voodoo 2, which was nice.
Several years on, and after a few flops, American McGee is back, with his novel take on Alice, and this time it’s even darker than before and follows Alice on another disturbed journey, back to a decidedly unhappy Wonderland, and also to her real world, which is almost as odd as her fractured psyche.
Deeper and deeper
Madness Returns shares some elements with the original Alice original outing, but don’t think this is a simple sequel. It’s far more than that. What we have here is a real upping of the ante, and a largely revamped and redesigned experience.
Once again, Alice is a third person action platformer, but whereas the original played very much like a third person Quake (it did use the sameengine, after all), rife with ranged combat and circle strafing enemies, Madness Returns plays much more like a real action adventure spliced with Zelda-style lock-on combat, refined platforming sections and sprinkled with some nifty little touches.
Much of the game revolves around platform-hopping and combat, but there’s a heavy dose of simple puzzling and object hunting too. It’s a linear, level-driven title, one that’s packed with great design and good combinations of cool weapons and abilities, and some great environments.
You start the game in a real world Victorian London that shares more than a passing familiarity with a certain Mr Burton’s animations. Here you can explore the world, examine various objects and delve into Alice’s dark and foreboding existence. It’s a nice way to kick things off, and when you leave the largely monochrome city behind and drop into the exquisitely colourful Wonderland, it’s a great effect, and one that highlights the bizarre nature of Alice’s alternate world (not that the weirdness needs any underlining, mind).
Once in Wonderland, the real game mechanics come into play, and the game starts to drip-feed you the basics, such as jumping, double and triple jumps, floating and combat. You’ll soon find Alice’s trusty Vorpal blade, and as you progress you’ll uncover more weapons and abilities, including the very cool and quite creepy Hysteria mode that sees Alice turn a whiter shade of pale, bleed from the eyes and become invulnerable for brief periods when her health is almost gone.
Platforming is one of those game designs that always walks a very fine line between challenging and enjoyable or cheap and frustrating. If the developers get the controls or level design wrong, the whole game can suffer, even becoming an unplayable mess. That’s not to mention the 3D platformer’s curse, a dodgy camera, which can sound the death knell of any jump-happy title trying to make it in three dimensions.
Luckily, Alice: Madness Returns handles such things very well, thanks to good, solid design, mostly dependable and smooth controls and a few forgiving touches.
Controlling Alice is simple, even when she’s upgraded with a myriad of attacks and abilities, and jumping from platform to platform isn’t a chore, but an enjoyable challenge. Thanks to her useful ability to perform multiple additional jumps in midair, and to float using her dress, there are few instances where you’ll feel the game is unfair or overly tricky. It’s simply challenging in all the right ways. Even the camera plays nice, only very rarely getting caught up in the world.
It’s a polished and refined control scheme, and makes for some enjoyable platforming, even when the game begins to hike up the challenge, and introduces all sorts of environmental hazards and pitfalls.
Combat is a major feature of Madness Returns, and this time focuses much more on melee, unlike the previous range-heavy title. Thankfully, the aforementioned Zelda-style lock-on combat system has been implemented very well. Pressing the left trigger locks on to an enemy, and face buttons perform attacks with various weapons, whilst the right trigger can be used for ranged attacks.
The right bumper uses Alice’s dodge, which sees her turn into a soaring flock of butterflies, and, once you acquire the ability, tapping A lets her block. At any time you can switch targets with a nudge of the right stick, and you can easily break away and fight freeform, without the lock-on. It’s a system that works very well, and makes for a solid combat system, especially when you learn more attacks and abilities, which further opens up the combat, and adds more tactics and possibilities.
The range of enemies, each with their own weaknesses and attack styles, are impressive too, and to beat many of them you’ll have to master Alice’s various skills. Some enemies require a mixture of ranged and melee attacks, whilst some need carefully timed dodges or blocks. You’re always kept on your toes, and when you’re attacked by a multitude or varied foes, it’s imperative that you master the solid controls.
Sadly, the camera here is far less reliable than elsewhere, often freaking out, getting stuck or zooming in too close, obstructing your view. But, for the most part, it’s decent enough, and isn’t a game breaker by any means.
Alice’s dodge manoeuvre can also be hit and miss, sometimes moving her in totally random directions, often into an enemy attack. But again, it’s a minor glitch and isn’t too much of a problem.
The environments in Madness Returns are great and one of the game’s real strong points, and the variety of locations and the level of creative design are very impressive. Every level packs in a ton of dark, but nonetheless beautiful landscapes, full of AliceIin Wonderland style with a very disturbed twist. Even in the opening level, one of the more cheerful locations, you’ll find statues of Alice crying rivers of blood and it’s not long before you visit a twisted factory and carcass-ridden ice world. Yes, this is no kids’ game, and even the stylish opening cinematic doesn’t hold back on the gruesome touches.
As good as the design is, though, there are some blemishes too. Chief amongst these is some of the worst Unreal engine texture pop-in I’ve seen so far. Not only do textures sometimes take ages to load in, but often they also pop back out again, with others blurring and distorting randomly. This glitching is far more noticeable in the London sections of the game, but is present throughout.
Usually, graphical glitches don’t worry me all that much, but with a game like Alice, that depends so much on the striking visuals to set the tone, it’s a problem, and one I hope is addressed in a patch. I also noticed more than a little slowdown at times, which also needs to be remedied.
Texture and occasional performance issues aside, though, Madness Returns is a great looking title that sports a very distinct and attractive style. This style, which may appear a little dated to some, works perfectly here, in my opinion. The character design suits the story and theme to a tea (party), and the overall presentation, from cool menus and brilliant cutscenes to eye-catching worlds and frantic battles just works.
Then there’s the myriad of game design touches that further enhance things, such as Alice’s ability to shrink at will to fit through small gaps and view normally hidden clues, and the hidden items to collect, such as Alice’s fractured memory clips or flying pig snouts. It’s all crazy and off the wall, and is all the better for it.
As I mentioned earlier, the game is also surprisingly forgiving for a platformer, and it never punishes you too much for making mistakes. Fall off a platform to your doom? No worries, the game will just plonk you back safely before your last jump, without even taking any life off you. Die in combat? Don’t fret, there’s usually a checkpoint not too far back to return to.
This approach makes the game far less irksome than some, more unforgiving platformers, and for most will make for a more enjoyable experience. However, it also tends to make the game far less challenging, even on the harder difficulties. You’re rarely worried too much about failure, as you’re never put too far back.
That’s not to say the game is a pushover. It does get more difficult later on, and some battles are very tricky, but overall, the pacing and challenge are fairly steady and experienced gamers won’t be pushed all that hard.
So, Madness Returns is a pretty good game ,then? Well, yes, but that’s not all. Buy the game and you’ll also get free access to the full original release, which can be downloaded via the Online Pass. If you don’t have the pass, you can buy the original for 800 points. This is a great chance for those who missed the first title to give it a go, and is a great freebie for those that purchase the game with the Online Pass (i.e. not secondhand).
Alice Madness Returns is a triumphant return to form for American McGee. It improves upon every aspect of the original title and adds a ton more content and a razor sharp design style packed with brilliant touches.
Above all, it’s a platformer that gets it right. It’s a little on the easy side, thanks to an arguably over forgiving nature, and can be a little repetitive at times, but changes in scenery and worlds help keep that from becoming a major problem, and it’s nonetheless an impressive and recommended release.
Alice: Madness Returns is out now and available from the Den Of Geek Store.