Albert Einstein once defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. The biggest problem in “Alice: Madness Returns” is it doesn’t even seem to have intended results to begin with. Madness, indeed.
The original “Alice,” released in 2000 for PC and Mac, stood out at the time for presenting a whimsical, colorful world in a cinematic fashion. Amid the abstract, grim world of “Quake” and “Unreal,” it was a welcomed but flawed distraction. The project wouldn’t have existed if not for Lewis Carroll, but it’s American McGee who brought his twisted vision of the source material to life.
Well-known for his days as a level designer at ID Software, McGee created some of the most memorable parts of “Doom II” and “Quake.” He has spent recent years as a creative director on games such as the abysmal “Bad Day L.A.” and several other forgettable projects. As a result, his name, which used to be included in the title (“American McGee’s Alice”), is now barely visible on the box of “Madness Returns.”
Once again, Alice returns to Wonderland, following the events of the books and first game, as an orphan fresh out of a mental asylum. The story follows her quest to find peace of mind, uncover the repressed memory of her parents’ death and bring balance back to Wonderland. Along the way, she hacks her way through about 200 Wonderland inhabitants and visits scenic locales back in London, such as a whorehouse and an orphanage.
The story unfolds at a glacial pace, stopping for irrelevant secondary characters who serve as a means for Alice to display some dated, mid-’90s attitude. As you go between Wonderland and reality, there is no narrative focus to keep the mystery or momentum intact. None of the characters are well-defined or the least bit likable. But never mind the troublesome combat, suffering Alice’s goth-centric personality is a challenge of its own. Although, her dresses that change from stage to stage are occasionally delightful!
As with the original, the art direction and inspired character design are a breath of fresh air and remains the main incentive to keep exploring Wonderland. Unlike the original, the level design and combat are as dull as dishwater. The seven chapters in the game take place in drastically different worlds, but each one is so long-winded and monotonous that fatigue becomes inevitable.
The original “Alice” struggled to replicate the console experience on the home PC, building the core of the game around awkward platforming and third-person shooting. The combat in the sequel has changed quite a bit. Reminiscent of 3-D “Zelda” titles, you’ll spend the majority of your time in combat locking on to an opponent, spamming a single button and dodging their blows.
The combat in “Zelda” works because of Link’s swift movement and the enemies coming in manageable packs. Developer Spicy Horse could have spent a bit more time studying these basics for “Madness Returns.” Locking onto enemies is a chore, switching between weapons is a sluggish affair, and the enemies themselves are rarely fun to fight. Persistent enemies require the player to wait for a particular moment to attack — because waiting is so much fun in action games. On top of all this, you’ll be fighting the lock-on camera system which keeps enemies out of sight. But unlike “Zelda,” hardly out of mind.
Outside combat, Alice controls like a dream. Her floating jumps, glide and dash are wonderfully implemented. The days of struggling to jump from platform to platform due to poor controls are no longer an issue for Alice. However, Spicy Horse rarely put the player in interesting or original challenges. Jumping from platform to platform, being bounced by trampoline-like mushrooms and getting a lift from a team pipe would have been tame and tiring even by “Super Mario 64” standards.
The level design is elementary and repetitive. Rather than putting the player’s “Super Mario Galaxy” skills to the test, the game is more interested in implementing road bumps. Levers must be pulled, items must be collected and objects must be fired upon for several seconds until they are triggered. You’ll occasionally solve a puzzle, pilot a boat in a shoot-em-up segment and take part in other mini-games, none of which are well designed.
More than the original, “Madness Returns” is a game weighted by its poor execution of heady concepts. Spicy Horse should be applauded for managing to bring color out of the Unreal 3 engine (known for its ubiquitous brown and grey palette), but otherwise they have created a game that captures none of the joy of its source material. Even the game’s most interesting distractions remain half-baked despite overstaying their welcome.
If there is any concept that isn’t spread thin, it’s most likely because it was being culled from the abandoned “Alice” film McGee fought to make for nearly a decade. That project probably would have been just as boring and in need of personality as “Madness Returns,” but at least that journey would have ended a lot sooner.
Printed on 07/07/2011 as: Platformer-style sequel fails to live up to original