Developer: Spicy Horse Games
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Played on: PC
Release Date: June 14, 2011
Time Played (Steam): 17.4 hours
Played With: Steam Controller
Alice: Madness Returns is a game that attempts to convey the realities of a descent into madness to the player, and in that regard, it is an unequivocal success. Unfortunately, that’s because it is one of the most maddening games that I’ve played recently. It’s a game that feels like it had so much effort poured into certain aspects, while others were left to waste away in irrelevance. And unfortunately, most of the latter were the elements that would make it a compelling and enjoyable game.
Let’s get the good out of the way first: Alice is gorgeous. This is a game that stands as proof that you don’t need billions of polygons and 4K textures to make things look amazing; all you need is a consistent, interesting artistic vision. The locales are wonderfully realized, with the often bright colours of Wonderland being offset by the drab, muted palette of the real world. Intricate architecture, creepy doll’s heads, and black ooze accent the world, making it feel like a horrendous nightmare come to life.
Character designs are often quite interesting, taking the cast of the traditional Alice in Wonderland canon and twisting them, often in delightfully strange ways. The Cheshire Cat maintains his toothy grin and deranged eyes, despite looking like he hasn’t had a meal in weeks. The Mad Hatter must be literally reassembled when you first meet him. Even minor characters get some similar treatments; the Red Queen’s card guards are creepy abominations that basically look like a cross between Skeletor and a playing card.
Then there’s Alice herself, wielding intricately-designed weapons that change visually as you upgrade them, and clothed in outfits that vary between chapters and settings. These small visual details go a long way to making each chapter feel more unique, and do an excellent job of bringing this mutilated vision of Lewis Carroll’s classic world to life.
Also, Chapter 4. So. Much. Fleeeeesh…The pre-rendered cutscenes are also nice, using animated paper cutouts to tell key parts of the story in ways that can come across as even more disturbing and surreal than the in-engine cutscenes (see the opening cinematic).
The story follows Alice as she struggles to cope with the harsh realities of the real world, specifically the death of her family and the fact that she blames herself for it. However, most of the game takes place when she experiences various mental breaks from reality and falls into Wonderland. Rather than being a peaceful escape, though, the land is falling into ruin. A hellish train is rampaging through Wonderland, smashing it to pieces and sending them spiralling into oblivion. Many characters talk as though this is all Alice’s fault, either for neglecting Wonderland all this time, or for returning to save it. Consequently, Alice sets out to discover why all this destruction is raging through Wonderland, and ends up discovering more about her past in the process.
Now, don’t get me wrong; I get that the whole premise of the original Alice in Wonderland is that every character’s a bit mad and talks in riddles all the time. But I think this may be the type of thing that just works better in text than it does in a video game. In a novel, you’re free to go back and re-read the same line ad nauseam until you understand what’s going on. In a game, things just keep moving, whether or not you actually have a sense of the situation. Unfortunately, this detracts from the storytelling in Alice, often making some scenes lose all their gravity. It’s hard to become emotionally invested in a story and its characters when you keep thinking, “What the hell are they even talking about?” This is exacerbated by the fact that you start to meet characters throughout the story who basically act as translators, i.e. they repeat things that previous characters have told you, just in a way that makes a lot more sense. So for certain conversations, I started feeling like I could just tune out and wait for a character who didn’t speak in mindless metaphors and pointless philosophical musings to come around. I’m looking at you, Hatter.It doesn’t help that the voice acting is pretty average. I mean, it’s not awful, but there’s just nothing to make it stand out. Alice herself often comes across as completely detached from the situation at hand, making jovial remarks and admonishing various characters as her world is literally coming apart around her. The main issue I had, though, was that the default voice volume was far too low, with many characters getting drowned out by the music and sound effects until I decided to go into the options menu to make adjustments.
So while you’re running around, listening to the babbling of a bunch of maniacs, you have to have something to do, right? Technically, yes, though Alice could stand to have a lot less.
Early on, the platforming is pretty decent. While exploring the environment, you have the ability to jump up to twice in the air (in addition to your initial jump), temporarily slow your descent by floating, and shrink to a fraction of your usual size. The latter reveals hidden platforms and allows you to explore numerous hidden areas, uncovering collectibles, including bonus teeth, bottles, and memories. Unfortunately, outside of the teeth, which are used to upgrade your weaponry, none of the collectibles seem to do much. The memories provide brief snippets of backstory from the perspective of various players in Alice’s life, but each is basically, “Here’s a person saying some really messed up stuff.” As for the bottles…to the best of my knowledge, they do nothing. Also, there are pig snouts that you can shoot pepper into to open up secret paths to some of these items. It makes sense, okay? Overall, the lack of achievements (at least on PC) means there’s little incentive to seek out any of these collectibles outside of personal pride.Where the platforming starts to fall apart is in two areas: repetition and the camera. For starters, the game has an annoying tendency to introduce new puzzle mechanics and then repeat them endlessly. Get ready to find countless instances of pressure plates that need to be weighed down by a rabbit bomb (yes, that’s a thing) to open up a platforming challenge for you to race through as the timer ticks down. For this specific “puzzle”, the game tries to throw twists in by making some platforms invisible, adding switches you have to shoot, or making the rabbit a counterweight to raise up a platform. Yet all these variations just serve to frustrate. Using the rabbit as a counterweight can lead to the desired platform getting raised far too quickly for you to get to it. If you do get to it, standing on it for any length of time will cause it to drop, forcing you to awkwardly jump until the platform raises back up to meet you. Shooting the switches slows your movement, making you an easy target for invincible enemies to stun and kill in a couple of areas. The invisible platforms force you to shrink to see them, which on its own can be tiresome. It turns what should be smooth platforming sections into “jump to a platform, shrink for a second so you can see the next one, and repeat”. Add to this a short time limit in which you need to get to your destination, and you have a recipe for “puzzles” that rely more on memorizing the path so you don’t need to shrink, rather than actually figuring out what to do.
Then there’s the camera, which generally runs in one of two modes: “I have to do everything myself” mode, and “This angle looks super cinematic, so it doesn’t matter if it screws with your controls and makes it hard to tell what’s going on” mode. Particularly when combined with the aforementioned timed sections, I found myself having to make countless blind jumps just because I didn’t have time to stop and rotate the camera.Speaking of the camera, it takes what could be a pretty enjoyable combat system and makes it rage-inducing. Far too often, enemies come flying out of nowhere and deal damage to you, sometimes temporarily stunlocking you and allowing them (and their friends) to get in some free hits. This is only made worse by the lock-on mechanic, which narrows the focus of the scene and puts Alice closer to the edge of it, leaving you no time to react to anything that isn’t in front of you.
As for said lock-on system, it is awful for fights that consist of more than one enemy. Generally, it locks onto whichever creature is closest to you, and you have the ability to switch between targets. However, there’s no good way to actually select the target you want, so you end up frantically toggling between targets until you get to the right one. Plus, if the target’s out of range, you can’t lock on, even if you can see them. When the game has numerous flying enemies with limited vulnerability windows and ranged weapons with sluggish and imprecise aiming, actually being able to lock onto the proper target at a moment’s notice would be nice.
When it comes to weaponry, the game provides Alice with a pretty solid arsenal, but the problem is that about half of it is inconsistent. The Vorpal Blade allows you to attack with some close, quick slashes, and the Pepper Grinder unloads pepper bullets into your foes; these weapons are the ones that generally work. But then there’s the Hobby Horse, which uses slower, heavier attacks that can sometimes break enemy blocks, but not all of them. It can also damage some enemies, but others seem to just shrug off its blows. The Teapot Cannon acts in a similar manner. Finally, the Umbrella deflects projectiles, but is useless in close combat, and the rabbit bombs can be used as decoys, which was something that I honestly forgot about for most of the game and basically never used. At least Hysteria (temporary invincibility that you can activate when your health is low) and your dodge are cool.The game attempts to break up the combat and platforming by introducing short sequences that are unique to certain chapters in the game, plus some that overlap. These range from boring to completely immersion-breaking. The latter took the form of a simple side-scrolling shooter that used only a handful of assets and looked like something that belonged in the depths of Steam Greenlight. There are sliding tile puzzles, because they’re totally an exciting way to break up the action. There are side-scrolling platformers with floaty controls and slippery ledges. All these ended up just taking me out of the experience, rather than adding in some variety.
Unfortunately, that’s just something the game seriously lacks. While the areas all look distinct, they feel almost identical; there were times where I ended up backtracking without even realizing it. You’ll be doing the same platforming with the same puzzles and the same mechanics through most of the game; pretty much everything you unlock later on just gives you access to hidden pathways. Some people on the Steam Community page recommend playing the game in short bursts, but repetition still grows tiresome, whether it’s over the course of an hour or five.
Then there’s the technical side of things. The game had a tendency to crash the first time I tried to load my save file during any given play session. There were loading bugs, where I got stuck on a loading screen until I restarted the game. Audio cutouts and graphical glitches occurred in many places, the latter including some absolutely horrid (and hilarious) texture pop-in and some textures that just flat-out seemed to be missing. During certain in-game cutscenes, it’s possible for Alice to get killed by an enemy or fall off a ledge, even if she’s not in the camera’s field of vision. Cutscenes are often set to play right after the game saves, so respawning forces you to watch the same scene over and over, often making the mediocre voice acting that much more grating. Certain checkpoints seem to be either in ridiculous places, or broken. At one point I lost around fifteen minutes of progress due to having to restart the game. Enemy and obstacle hitboxes can be way too large, sometimes leading to cheap kills from instant death traps that are evidently bigger than they look. And to top it off, in the final chapter, I was forced to scour the Steam forums and the internet for help with getting by an enemy that had just decided to become invincible for no reason.
Oh, also there are creepy doll enemies whose clothes fall off as you damage them, forcing you to fight an eyeless naked baby. And there are two instances where you need to walk into or out of the…lower parts of dolls that are modelled to look like human children. I’m…I’m just not okay with that.Alice: Madness Returns is a perfect example of style over substance. As much as I want to praise it for its wonderfully twisted fairy tale aesthetic, there’s just so much more in it that pissed me off. I want to talk about the bonus room where I spent a couple of minutes just running in circles and dodging to avoid enemies until a timer completed. I want to rant about the lead-up to the final boss, which literally had me walk in a straight line until the game decided to show me some cutscenes, before repeating the process. Simply put, this is a game that I would much rather watch than play. Apparently, there’s a New Game Plus mode that unlocks after beating the main game, but I have no desire to check it out. At one point, the Cheshire Cat comments that, “Uncovering the truth is worth the suffering.” In this case, it definitely wasn’t.
In all honesty, I’d rather just go and read Alice in Wonderland. I bet it wouldn’t even take me seventeen freaking hours to finish.