It would be too easy to let hints slip or reveal tidbits that spoiled the story of Alice: Madness Returns, so it will be short and sweet. Alice: MR is an underrated gem of 2011, the review scores it has received in Edge, IGN and other official communities are terribly low for what is a quality, exciting and fun game. The story is based on, of course, Alice in Wonderland, with a twist. Most people are quite familiar with the story of Alice and her imagination; this game follows on from American McGee’s Alice, released late 2000. This game had been a hit and gained a good number of dedicated fans who have eagerly been awaiting a visit to Alice’s world once again. I had not played the first game, and I can say that this second installment doesn’t require you to have played the first or need any prior knowledge – there are aspects of the new game that relate back to the previous, but they are more easter eggs, or things which are explained in the story of the current one; for example a character refers to your “last visit” to them and then proceeds to tell you about it – which is pretty handy to give you a bit of backstory, though I’m sure Alice is simply thinking “well of course I remember this… I lived it several years ago!”
There are characters in it that you had seen in the previous game, and for old fans this will of course be quite a welcome experience, seeing the connection between the two existing.
Our lovely Alice is no longer an innocent fair-haired girl, but instead a troubled young lady who has gone through some traumatic experiences and this is her escape from reality. The first and second game follow the same story-arc in which a tragedy has fallen upon Alice and her family. The first game sees her as a younger girl, with a special possession and Madness Returns brings back Alice as a young adult, whose possession has been taken away – part of your adventure includes trying to recover this. She has been committed to an asylum, this occurred in the first game and in the second we’re seeing the continuations and consequences surrounding that. The story is told between stylized flashbacks of the trauma Alice has suffered and trying to piece it together through memories between reality and imagination, these are in the art style of hand drawn books and moving illustrations with limbs moving – a very appealing look and works well for the atmosphere. These flashbacks are only brief and the main gameplay takes place in Wonderland, or what was once Wonderland; there are several chapters (6 in total) and each has its own world, design and rather fancy co-ordinating dress! The other small pieces of the storytelling puzzle are moments when Alice slips back to what we assume is reality, in Victorian London. A rather drab, dull, and disgusting affair – with equally dubious dwellers! London is fascinating to explore whilst there and the design is fantastic; a huge amount of time has been dedicated to detail to create the right mood and atmosphere.
The Wonderland worlds are varied and at the end of each one you are excited and keen to see what the next one will be – there are puzzles scattered throughout and a lot of platforming. The designs are phenomenal and beautiful, it is like the original Disney Alice in Wonderland meets Tim Burton. The mixture of traditional and macabre works very well and the artistic team creating it clearly put a lot of thought into it. It feels truly whimsical and surreal. The designs stick to recognizable aspects of the original Alice in Wonderland worlds and as they were written; but with dark twists. I personally loved all of the chapters for different reasons, they all have their charms and fun. The final main world in chapter 5 was my least favorite, in terms of art design, gameplay & level design and frustration.
Alice herself is well designed with a whole wardrobe of dresses, these change via level to co-ordinate with the theme, or you can choose your own via the main menu. She’s a Burton-esque design, slim, angular with huge eyes and dark long hair. Her hair is wonderful in the game and the physics are quite spectacular on it – it moves in all the correct ways and floats in all the right places. She’s a rather polite girl, especially after all things considered.
The levels each feature similar puzzles, platforming and mini-games; this can get a bit repetitive, however the story and design keeps you going on for more. The gameplay itself is not as challenging as many other titles – which I enjoyed very much as it allowed me to go on and appreciate the game. The story unfolds and you piece together the puzzle of the trauma that Alice is trying to solve and figure out – there are many characters that you meet along the journey that contribute in their own way and help or hinder and aid in guessing what is going on. The game has hidden items such as pig snouts, which allow you secret areas or give goodies, there are also memories scattered around which you can find and plays out a short audio dialogue to help you figure out the story – this felt similar to Batman Arkham Asylum – wherein you collected logs and such to find out about characters.
The weapons are upgraded throughout the game by collecting teeth, there are 4 main weapons in total (additional extras available from DLC) and they are inventive, and each has its own strength and use for different situations or enemies. I won’t spoil them here as I think they are most fun to be discovered in the game! My personal favorite was in fact one that scalds! They are based on items that identify Alice in a way or have a connection to her or her world.
Enemies are scattered through each level; none of them seemed especially tough, there aren’t any major boss battles (or at least none that I could discern). Towards the end there is a key enemy who is invincible and if you pay attention to the story you are informed of that, so you have to navigate ways to avoid, and escape him several times. Each level has new enemies which are specific to that chapter’s theme, with a few regular generic grunts from previous levels.
Dialogue and story obviously play a key role in this game and these are told via the previously mentioned flashbacks, memories, and other characters encountered on the journey. The Cheshire Cat appears a few times during each level, at specific points to give you hints or guide, speaking in his usual riddles which can puzzle and confuse. Much of the dialogue is told in a way that requires you to think and perhaps read deeper into a metaphor or riddle being conveyed. There’s quite a bit of macabre or sinister humor injected throughout dialogue and scenes also.
There are small additional levels within each chapter that reward you with an additional red paint, to color your rose, which (when 4 are collected) can give you an additional rose of health on your meter. Roses are collected from boxes and smashing objects, as well as destroying enemies.
DLC dresses and weapons are available – each in fun and imaginative designs and with their own individual bonuses or power ups.
Each chapter is quite long and perhaps not easily completed in one sitting. My biggest gripe with this game was the camera at times; it would struggle to keep the correct position and angle, especially frustrating whilst floating in the air. The main story and eventual conclusion is quite disturbing and dark – though expected from this game of course. The end of chapter 4 and start of chapter 5 has been discussed on many forums and is considered rather perturbing. The game leaves you wondering, considered and thinking even after it has finished.
There is an accompanying Art Of book that can be bought separately; it is a wonderful insight into the creation, world and design.