American McGee’s Alice was probably the first sleeper-hit of the 2000s. It used the popular Quake III engine to deliver something that was much more of an adventure than the slew of straightforward shooters we got at the time. It also had a compelling, psychological tale to tell, which was also unusual for the time. I know a lot of people who have the fondest memories of this game and the disturbing, gothic take on the Alice in Wonderland story.
I also knew a contingent who hated it for this very reason, because they knew what kind of people it would attract. Fair enough, someone as prejudiced as me can’t call anyone out on that. Goths make me vomit in my mouth too – but to avoid these two games for that reason is to do yourself a tremendous disservice. Oh, and if you haven’t played the original, don’t worry. With every first-hand purchase of Alice: Madness Returns, you get a voucher to download an upscaled, HD, widescreen version of American McGee’s Alice for free. That’s frickin’ awesome, because I played the original, but never quite got around to finishing it. Now I can.
Alice: Madness Returns picks up some years after the original. Having worked through the twisted landscape of Wonderland that represented her damaged mind and emerging triumphant, Alice is more or less a functional young lady and no longer catatonic. She lives at an orphanage for troubled youngsters, where she still undergoes therapy to rid her of what remains of her psychosis (she witnessed her family burned alive in a house fire that she narrowly escaped, for anyone who doesn’t know – it kind of messed her up). Anyway, just when everything seems to be going well, the hallucinations and “trips to Wonderland” return in full force. It turns out that a nightmarish, demonic train is tearing up the place, which seems to be a Wonderland manifestation of a troubling suspicion Alice has that she could have been responsible for the fire that killed her family – maybe even on purpose.
The game is divided into six chapters. Each chapter is preceded by a story-providing run-around in reality, through various seedy districts of London, as Alice seeks out clues to the nature of her new hallucinations. Somehow she always ends up passing out or getting clobbered hard enough to send her deep into her own twisted mind, into Wonderland, where she continues her investigation and attempts to fend off the bad memories and thoughts that have manifested themselves as monsters.
These Wonderland sections are played as action platform games with plenty of combat, hazard traversal, some light puzzle solving and the occasional mini-game, like a rhythm game or side-scrolling shooter, thrown in to spice things up. They’re also pretty damn long compared to the first game. You can expect to spend up to two hours on each chapter if you’re diligent about searching for secret areas and collecting all those hard to reach teeth. Yes, teeth. As Alice kills enemies and smashes breakable items, she’ll find thousands and thousands of teeth. These can be spent to upgrade the various weapons she can find.
Speaking of weapons, Alice has a limited but interesting selection she will amass as she goes. The first is her trademark kitchen knife, the Vorpal Blade – a nod to Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky poem – which allows her to deliver short-ranged but quick combos of damaging slashes. She will also acquire a pepper grinder that functions as a machine gun, an umbrella that can block and deflect projectiles, a hobby horse that works like a club, and a teapot that fires a grenade-like glob of delicious looking, golden tea. As you upgrade these tools, they start to look cooler and more menacing.
The enemies are quite creative. The stock enemies, blobs of goo with porcelain doll faces that come in several varieties, can be found all over Wonderland, but each area has it’s own unique monsters too, like gnomes wielding oversized crockery, dragonflies made of bolts, menacing teapots on spider legs and ghostly pirates to name but a few. Each enemy has several attacks and their own weak spots that can only be damaged with certain weapons, or with certain combinations of weapons, making the combat quite deep. And when several different kinds of enemies show up at once, it’s quite a test of your action game skills as you dance around, avoiding the attacks of one while waiting for the opportune time to attack another.
Aside from the combat, there’s plenty of good platforming and secrets to find. Hidden all over the world are memories, which give us insight into Alice’s past, collectible bottles, and entrances to challenge rooms where Alice can fight progressively harder waves of enemies to earn a chance to paint a rose red, which will extend Alice’s life bar. To find these secret areas, Alice can shrink at will, which enables her to get into small spaces and to see purple crayon markings and platforms that are normally invisible. She can also quadruple jump and float with her skirt, a vital trick for reaching some of the more enticing bonuses.
The game is simply stunning to look at. The dreary greys and blacks of real world London are a huge contrast with the saturated colours and mind-bogglingly insane designs of Wonderland. Seriously, the artists must have been made to study the work of Salvador Dali to come up with some of this stuff. Alice also wears several ravishing outfits this time, in addition to her trademark blue dress, pinny, striped stocking and 16 hole Doc Martens. The music scores are variously dreamy and ominous and change radically depending on the situation. The only real complaint is the dialogue. While it is witty, artistic and carefully-written, it seems to have been acted by a budget crew.
If you liked the original game, you’re almost guaranteed to like this, but if you’re just looking for a good, artistic, story-driven game with oodles of atmosphere and intense action, then I highly recommend giving it a go.