Given that eleven years have passed since American McGee’s Alice first graced CRT monitors and wired keyboards, you’ll forgive me for not remembering all that much about it. What is difficult forget however was its tone – its insistence on framing Alice and her outings in Wonderland through a cynical and sadistic filter of bloodied knives, tortured souls and hellish locales.
This much belated sequel is very much concerned with the continuation of those same macabre themes and aesthetics. American McGee’s vision of Alice, both here and in the previous game, depicts life post her adventures in Lewis Carroll’s original stories. Unable to cope with her family’s untimely passing away, she has spent the past 11 years in an asylum trying to overcome her psychological scarring. Upon returning to her usual refuge of Wonderland, she finds that it has been distorted by her unstable mental state and that her murderous thoughts have transformed it into the gothic, horror-toned kingdom you can see in these screens.
Needless to say, it’s a far-cry from the saccharine visuals of Disney’s interpretation.
All is not entirely lost of Alice’s part however, by traversing the now nightmarish landscape of Wonderleand, and dispatching of its various enchanted ghouls, demons, teapots and playing cards, Alice may be able to uncover clues as to the identity of her parent’s real-world killer/s. Essentially, it’s a classic tell of revenge that has wrapped in a shroud of ‘emo’ so thick it would make the most heavily eye-lined 16 year old Marilyn Manson fanatic shudder.
Alice’s jet-black hair, ghostly white skin and gothic-inspired dress sense evoke images of Tim Burton’s The Corpse Bride and Nightmare Before Christmas. Even when she sports her traditional threads of blue dress and white apron the stark red blood stains remind us with stark clarity that this is not the kind of Alice you would want your kids to grow up idolising.
Our time spent questing with Alice thus far has been confined to a single location centred around a foreboding, floating black castle set against a backdrop of rather unappealing grey/green clouds. Said castle is inhabited by short, stocky, mustard-skinned, big-nosed goblins sporting teacups as helmets, saucers as shields and forks as armaments.
Alice’s primary weapon is a nasty looking butcher’s knife with which she slices and stabs at her foes until bested. When the need arises, she can wield a hobby-horse which acts as her ‘heavy weapon’ as well as a pepper-grinder gun and teapot-cannon (read: grenade launcher). Combat is a fairly simple proposition with each weapon assigned to its own button and combos evolving naturally from mashing away until your heart’s content. Your ranged weapons can overheat if used for too long within a short period but there’s nothing by way of finite ammunition or reloading to worry about.
While the input may be simple, combat is surprisingly difficult and requires you make fairly intelligent use of your various tools at the right moment. For example, you’ll need to use your hobby-horse to smash shields before you can do much damage to the enemy itself and at times the number of foes mean the best course of action is to hang back and thin out the crowd with one or both of your ranged weapons.
There’s also a clockwork rabbit which attracts/distracts enemies and can be exploded on cue and Alice herself can transform into a swarm of purple butterflies and dodge out of harm’s way before reforming as her miserable looking self a short distance away.
Aside from the combat the gameplay is made up of the typical third-person adventure/platform elements of well-timed jumps, optional exploring and/or treasure seeking and regular boss battles. The floating castle level’s primary challenge is to navigate your way across large floating cogs that act as a bridge between combat-focused exterior courtyards and interior chambers.
In order to reach many of the cogs, Alice first has to activate air vents that blow out gusts of steam which can be hovered upon and used to observe the area before triple-jumping (and, if required, floating) her way to the preferred platform. As is a requirement for anything featuring the first-daughter of Wonderland, Alice can shrink herself down – such an action allowing her to squeeze through tiny gaps containing loot as well as reveal secret markings and hints as to which direction is the correct one.
Despite the dark, grisly paint that Alice: Madness Returns has been dipped in, there’s no escaping that this is fairly standard platforming fare. In terms of gameplay, it’s not a million miles away from the likes of Spyro the Dragon or Jak and Daxter. Yes, it seems slightly more challenging than those examples but the core mechanics are not far apart. It’s difficult to fully understand just who is going to be seduced by this combination of ghastly aesthetic and traditional third-person platformer.
Adult gamers may buy into the intimidating, foreboding atmosphere that American McGee dreamt up and Spicy Horse are building but, it’s unlikely they’ll be won over by the kind of gameplay generally associated with kid’s games. Still, given the less-than-usual take on one of fiction’s most famous heroines, Madness Returns is well worth adding to your watch-list.
Alice: Madness Returns is due for a UK release on Xbox 360, PlayStation 3 and Windows PC 17 June 2011.