It’s been ten years since players stepped in to American McGee’s twisted, gothic take on Lewis Carrol’s (or rather, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson’s) imaginative, absurd world of Wonderland.
Like many of you, I was captivated by the macabre, gnarled and wretched – yet entirely enchanting twist on a well-worn tale. Ten years on, and we finally have a sequel in Alice: Madness returns. Is it worth going crazy for?
Set roughly a decade after the original, Alice is still haunted by guilt that she’s responsible for the fire that consumed her family, slipping further and further in to dementia. To discover the truth, she must once again visit the decaying and damaged Wonderland, once her mental sanctuary, to collect the pieces of her fragmented memory and regain her fragile sanity.
As is to be expected, American McGee’s vision of Wonderland is hauntingly beautiful, and the landscape you’ll traverse in Madness Returns features some of the grandest scenery and imaginative enemy and weapon design.
The Vorpal Blade, the very one responsible for the Jabberwocky’s demise is your default weapon, and lets you snicker-snack your way through enemies with ease. You’ll find yourself battling giant, red-eyed mechanical teapots with a crimson, bloodied Hobby horse that neighs as you exact destruction. A clockwork rabbit acts as both weighted distraction and explosive device. With your teapot cannon, you’ll fire globs of steaming hot tea at blobs of pure ruinous evil with porcelain doll visages. The pepper-grinder, a wind up savoury chain-gun lets you season enemies from afar – and also allows you to cause the worlds’ hidden, flying or wall-mounted pig-snouts to sneeze, opening up secrets areas.
The beautiful nightmarish worlds you’ll traverse to do all this destruction are impressive, creative and surprisingly colourful. You’ll jump your way through mushroomed forests, the Mad Hatter’s steampunk domain, an underwater theatre district, a Far Eastern world of origami ants, scrolls and fine china, a bloodied doll workshop. All rather exquisite in creativity.
Like the original game, Madness Returns is, at its core, a platformer – and a competent one at that. It takes all the best platforming bits from a variety of games and bundles them all together. Early on in the game, you’re introduced to the shrinking potion, which allows Alice – at will – to become diminutive enough to enter small areas that would otherwise prove inaccessible. It also gives you a sort of ethereal vision that allows you to see hidden blacklight platforms and messages. You’ll jump (and double jump, and triple jump) about from platform to platform, float on columns of billowed air, pull levers, solve simple puzzles, set your clockwork rabbits on weighted traps to get from one end of the level to the other, all the while exploring the area for hidden collectibles.
Sound great? It is…but only for the first few hours. The problem, you see, is that that’s really all you be doing for the whole game, only with the occasional scenerey change. It’s 15 hours of the same thing, spread over 5 chapters, over and over ad nauseum. At roughly three hours per chapter, even the most beautiful surroundings overstay their welcome. It takes you out of the fantasy of it all when a level goes on for two hours longer than it should and you just want it to end. I can’t help but feel that game would be vastly improved with tighter direction and better pacing.