Game: Alice: Madness Returns
Developer: Spicy Horse
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Year: June 2011
Reviewed: April 2013
Game Type: Action-adventure/Platform/Horror
Most people should at least know of the ‘Alice's Adventures in Wonderland’ story created by Lewis Carroll back in the 19th century, so I won’t go into detail here. Suffice to say that it involves a girl dreaming up an imaginary place called Wonderland, and, you guessed it, she’s called Alice.
History lesson part two, back in the depths of PC Gaming time, also known as the turn of the century, a rather different approach to the story was produced that took a much more dark and twisted passage. That game was American McGee’s Alice, and was a platform/puzzle-solving game based in a 3D landscape, much like the game I am reviewing today is.
Alice: Madness Returns is indeed a return to that same darker version of events, and is, in effect, a sequel. Here, Alice is grown up, and has been in a mental asylum for many years, after being blamed for killing her family in a fire. Throughout the game, the story you uncover, which is partly told through progression cut-scenes, and partly through items in the game-world that unlock bits of her memory, shows Alice trying to understand her past and the events leading up to the fire that killed her family. It would be wrong to mention any more of the story, as that would be a spoiler, but it is those events, as well as the subsequent imprisonment in the mental asylum, that are responsible for messing up Alice’s mind in a big way, and shattering her Wonderland.
The game is spread into six chapters, and at the beginning of each, you take control of Alice in the real world, which to her is 19th century Victorian London, and inhabited by people who have been made to look grotesque and hideous compared to the fresh-faced complexion of Alice herself. After each ‘real-world’ section, you end up visiting a different part of Wonderland, which is tearing itself apart, and thus is reflecting Alice’s own turmoil in her mind. In Wonderland, you’ll come across a number of memorable characters from the book, such as the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, the Duchess and the Queen of Hearts. As the game progresses, the ‘real land’ and the Wonderland gradually merge, leading up to a grand finale.
The environments in Alice: Madness Returns are a mixture of beautiful, weird, surreal, scary, and nightmarish in equal quantities. You get to explore themed areas in each of the chapters, and each is different enough to keep the game fresh throughout the time you spend in Wonderland. Being a decent length game that should take you around fifteen plus hours to complete, that is a necessity, as trudging through the same areas would get old quick. While the paths you take are pretty much the same type of thing throughout, such as moving platforms, hidden paths, slides and jumping pads, the visuals vary enough to disguise what is basically the same kind of movement you’ll need to progress throughout the whole game. In short, that means a lot of jumping about. When jumping, you can double-jump in the air to extend distances, and add a little bit of height, as well as gliding, also to travel that bit further.
The game manages to keep the game-play itself varied too, and even allows customisation of the weapons you’ll use against the enemies you’ll encounter in Wonderland, that are part of the corruption of her mind. Throughout the game you’ll be able to collect teeth, mainly white, and some gold, that can be used to upgrade one of four main weapons, each of which is gradually unlocked as you progress through each chapter. Teeth appear around the level, when you destroy objects and after you kill enemies, along with roses that restore health. When your health gets too low, you can go into a sort of rage mode called ‘Hysteria’ where you are briefly invincible, and your appearance becomes demonic.
Regarding weapons, you start off with the Vorpal Blade, moving on to a Pepper Grinder, a Hobby Horse, and finally a Teapot Cannon. By the end, you’ll probably find yourself switching between most of these weapons, although I found little reason to use the Vorpal Blade late on, as a fully upgraded Hobby Horse packs a punch for the melee combat you’ll encounter, while the Pepper Grinder and Teapot cannon are handy for longer range combat, as well as for the many boss battles you’ll have to complete.
The enemies themselves are generally the same throughout most of the game, although there are variations and additions made throughout each chapter, with some being themed based upon what part of Wonderland you are in. Most involve simple combat, whereas others will involve you breaking down defences first before you can go in for the kill. You’ll often have to dodge out of the way of attacks, and this is done rather gracefully in a cloud of butterflies. The game allows you to switch between locking onto a particular enemy, or keeping it free, but in general if you want to hit anything quickly, you’ll need it to auto-lock on. At times it can be a pain trying to get the right enemy to lock on to, so the system isn’t without flaws, but is generally a good aid.
You’ll have plenty of tougher boss battles to complete, and unfortunately, relatively early on in the game is where I found an almost game-breaking bug, in which a key to activate an Umbrella for defence against a boss didn’t work. Usually this Umbrella is used to deflect the enemies attacks back at itself, so I had to scour the Internet for a solution. I encountered a huge number of people with the same issue, with the vast majority due to using custom controls rather than the default keys, but even a few players using default keys had the issue too, so I decided it wasn’t worth hampering the game-play when it might not work properly anyway, as I prefer to use the arrow keys for movement rather than WASD. In the end, I found a Youtube video where someone explained that you could use a clockwork bomb to distract the enemy and break its shields, allowing you to fight it with your other weapons. It was a slow and difficult battle, but in the end, I made it.
Once you get the Hobby Horse and Teapot Cannon later in the game, you’ll not have as much trouble, but it still made the battles probably a lot tougher than they should have been had that defence key actually worked. Another case of poor console porting. Later in the game there was a more minor issue with the game showing the Xbox game-pad (X) button to press, instead of my chosen key, and it is hidden from the user than you have to press the space bar to move the puzzles pieces, requiring another Internet search.
To keep things fresh, at various points you’ll come across a selection of mini-games, and these really help to break away from any repetitiveness yet still keeping within the style and scope of the main game. You’ll have a chance to try a 2D side-scrolling game at various points, as well as jigsaw puzzles where you first have to collect the pieces then solve the puzzle in a limited number of moves, with these puzzles getting progressively harder each time you encounter them. A couple of times I came across a question and answer session, based upon Wonderland events, and sometimes you’ll have to play a tune by using your movement keys in what feels like a musical version of a Quick Time Event. Late on in the game you’ll even have a chess board to navigate, but with limited routes for your pieces.
The game has many intricacies, as you can see, and going back towards the basic exploration part of the game, you’ll be able to find hidden paths and items by shrinking down, just like in the books, and the world is given a violet hue. In this mode you’ll be able to see moving and static platforms that are otherwise invisible, as well as the odd flying pig snout (more of that in a moment). You’ll also have to shrink to fit through smaller keyhole shaped entrances to reach other areas.
It can be a tricky matter at times to try and memorise and predict a hidden platforms path while swapping between each mode and then hopping about between the platforms, although if you look carefully there is usually a faint outline even in the normal vision mode, and the transition is usually gradual too.
Going back to those pig snouts, that are usually visible in normal vision in general, these can be sprayed with Pepper from the Pepper Grinder, and once the snout sneezes, a new path is unlocked. Sometimes it’ll just uncover a route to more teeth to collect, and other times things like memories can be unlocked.
Looking at the save system, being a console port, we have the old predictable checkpoint saves limiting things. I have to say, for the most part the system works well, making a regular progress save, but you’ll need to reach a hard-save point where a pocket-watch icon appears if you want to exit the game. In rare occasions, the save system falls apart, particularly when there was a series of, what I found to be, difficult jumps from a 2D perspective.
It took me multiple attempts, and just when I was glad I had done it, the next stage I messed up, and I found I had to redo the whole thing. It didn’t help that there was a large collection of enemies at the end of it all, with a hard-save only after you’ve dealt with them all.
On occasion, I did have difficulties reaching certain platforms that were further away, as it wasn’t entirely obvious how to extend jumps at first, but once I had got used to it, it wasn’t too much trouble. It was still annoying, however, in sequences where you are forced to rush within a timed event, and so I, someone who isn’t the best at controlling characters in platform games, had to redo some sections over and over, just because the allowance of time to reach the next stage was minimal. I do, however, get a sense of achievement in completing the challenging sections, and a lot of times I could put any issues I had in movement down to my own incompetence! Others may find those sections only mildly challenging.
I have a minor confession to make; I’m not normally a fan of platform style games, as I have an in-built deficiency in my ability to time jumps and any other movements, so I tend to avoid them altogether. Reaching the completion of this style of game is pretty much a fifty-fifty chance, as some games I have found so hard that I’ve given up well before the end. A lot of times those games have had pretty terrible spacing on the checkpoint saves, and also involved a lot of button mashing when it came to combat.
I feel, then, that by completing this game, it is also a good sign of how polished the game-play is. For someone like me, who is usually hopeless at platform games, to complete it, it means they’ve done enough to cater for all abilities. Throughout the game, I found plenty of challenge, and it took me a lot of attempts on some sections, frustrating me quite a bit. Others may laugh, and find it easy and thus unchallenging to them, but regardless of how difficult the game is, I think I should look more to the aspects of the game that aren’t affected by my input, and which define how good the game generally is.
Firstly, as I have mentioned, the environments vary a lot, bringing both plenty of colour and interesting areas to explore. The combat, too, is also something that can involve tactics, and isn’t just a case of button mashing, though this could in part be down to me not having that Umbrella key for defence, so perhaps even a game bug has made the combat a bit more interesting! The story is nicely paced, and while the little snippets you’ll find hidden throughout the game are not overly strong, they do help to flesh out both the events leading up to the fire, and those of Alice’s incarceration afterwards. However, it isn’t five star material.
Almost everything about the game is solid, and seems to be well thought-out, and so the game deserves plenty of credit for that, but at the same time, there just feels, in my own personal opinion, that there was something missing to make it great. Sure, the game has many positives, and is also a decent length, but I was also expecting it to be a lot darker than it was after reading so many great things about the original. I wish I could have played that game to properly compare them.
My only major gripe was with that almost game breaking bug which occurred quite early on in the game, and involved the Umbrella key not working. The fact that there was no real fix for it was the real disappointment, with the only solution coming from community help rather than any official response. It may sound kind of trivial, but it was an essential part of that particular boss battle, and an extreme amount of effort, time, and luck, was needed to make up for its absence.
Summary of Pros and Cons
+ Decent story, but nothing spectacular
+ Good length of game
+ Nice art design for the environment, making up for so-so texturing
+ Fun characters
+ Manages to add variation in game-play, or at least the illusion of it.
+/- Checkpoint saves not always in the best of places, but generally ok
- Some of the ending level seems a bit stop-start as it swaps between a cut-scene and walking a few steps, followed by a loading screen, too much.
- Occasionally the difficulty curve increases too much when you have to do things before a timer runs out
- Umbrella key bug!!
Arbitrary Final Score:
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Do you need to be mad to play this game? Let us know in the forum!