Talk about cult classics I wish I’d known about when they released! I found Alice: Madness Returns to be a unique and disturbing experience; merging the imagery and scenery I appreciate from psychological horror with action game mechanics. Steve-O and I received this game as a Christmas gift. While we haven’t played the first game, American McGee’s Alice which was released for PCs in 2000, the disc came with a free download of the first game, which we plan on starting ASAP. This blog post will not make any comparisons with the first installment (though I’m anticipating this to be a superior experience in comparison to the decade-old PC game).
In Madness Returns, the player controls Alice in both reality and Wonderland as she tries putting the pieces of her fractured psyche back together. In mundane reality, the player mainly talks to NPCs and walks from point A to point B. Be sure to take a close look at Alice’s fellow citizens. And don’t do so while eating or drinking anything. Especially the women. Ugh. There is a lot of storytelling that leaves holes. It is hard to tell if it is intentional or not. But if I was paying close enough attention, from what I gathered, whenever Alice faces a significant amount of duress in the real world, she goes to Wonderland to face her problems in her imagination or subconsciousness or whatever. This leaves a bit to the player’s imagination to piece events together.
While in Wonderland, memorable characters such as the Cheshire Cat and Mad Hatter appear. They drop kind and not-so-kind hints to Alice about what the deuces is going on. Basically, her damaged mental state is affecting Wonderland, and not for the better. Alice goes on a personal journey, so to speak, to fix Wonderland and herself. This journey involves some neat and frustrating puzzle platforming, as well as killing volatile creatures with some of the strangest weapons I’ve seen in a video game yet.
The battle system in Madness Returns is reminiscent of many typical action games, but with bizarre twists. In Wonderland, Alice wields every day household items with deadly skill. A kitchen knife serves as your fast attack button. A Hobby Horse is the heavy attack. A Hobby Horse is one of those old-fashioned horse heads attached to a stick that kids used to pretend to ride on, in case you were wondering. I never knew that was the name for them. A pepper grinder serves as a rapid-fire gun, primarily used for peppering pig snouts (I am NOT making this up) and taking down annoying aerial enemies. There is also a teapot which can be charged to shoot, well, tea grenades. These are the four primary weapons you can level up with teeth dropped from killing enemies and destroying breakables. Yes, teeth. Seriously, I am not creative enough to come up with this stuff on my own. Alice is also supplied with an umbrella used for blocking and shooting back projectiles, as well as a clockwork bunny bomb for pressure-sensitive timed plates and acting as a decoy during battle. The umbrella and bunny bomb cannot be upgraded. I wish the time bomb could have been upgraded to do more damage and last longer before automatically exploding. Using it as a decoy to distract multiple enemies came in very handy at certain points in the game.
We were disappointed in the fact that there aren’t many boss battles in this game. It is divided by chapters, 6 in total, so we assumed there’d be an epic boss battle at the end of each one. Well, spoiler, there isn’t. In fact, there’s a mean tease at the end of a chapter that makes you think you’re gonna have a huge boss fight on your hands. Then it… fizzles out. Another related complaint to the battle system is how targeting works. I’m glad targeting exists, as too many action games seem satisfied not bothering with it. However, to switch targets (which is practically essential when shooting) the right stick has to be tapped in the direction you want your target to move. Very annoying, because that also functions as your camera mover. Not two functions that should have been tied to the same command. Especially for compulsive camera fiddlers like myself.
The battle system is a straightforward, what you see is what you get deal. There’s no fancy combos to unlock or anything. Upgrade with teeth and that’s it. We had all of our weapons maxed out while still having a few hours of gameplay left, giving us nothing else to look forward to. Enemies have annoying features that force you to use a certain weapon to make them vulnerable. But if that didn’t exist you’d do nothing except button mash, so I guess I can’t complain about that. There is a Hysteria mode you can trigger when Alice’s health gets low. Think of it as like a Rage of the Gods or Devil Trigger mode. Alice does a ton of damage, moves super fast, and regenerates health. I often forgot to use it, but I had fun with it when I did.
Madness Returns incorporates some interesting puzzles and exploration tools. Remember the food and drink that made Alice grow or shrink while in Wonderland? Instead of making her eat and drink constantly, she can do it on command with the press of a button! Well, she can only shrink on command. And when she does, you have access to hidden platforms, mini keyholes to walk through, and hints scribbled on your surroundings that point to secrets or tell you where to place your clockwork bunny. There are even snouts to pepper that can only be seen with Shrink Sense! Very tricky. Finding secret passages and platforms usually brings you to teeth, bottles, or memories. Teeth are for upgrading, bottles are for unlocking artwork, and memories are quotes from other characters in Alice’s life that either shed light or confuse you even more. As you progress into the game, you’ll find yourself using Shrink Sense more and more to traverse Wonderland. If you miss a platform or die, don’t fret; the game is really forgiving of death. Alice will pop back to life a platform or two away with really no punishment for death. I could have seen myself becoming very frustrated with this game if that were not the case.
And now onto my favorite aspect of Alice, and that’s the scenery. Exploring Wonderland will fill you with a sense of twisted delight. The background and decorations can only be the imagination of a pure psychopath. And I love it. The first Chapter’s design is great. The impact is lessened in the middle chapters, but I promise if you stick with it, the Red Queen’s domain and onward will thoroughly impress. There are really random and really deranged sights to feast your eyes upon. I only wish the last few Resident Evil and Silent Hill games had imagery this powerful.
Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for the enemy designs. Many of them are sort of bland and lose flavor after fighting them the entire game. Really cool enemy designs, like the card soldiers, only show up in one chapter. Again, having epic boss fights at the end of each chapter (or even every other) could have spiced things up. All you get are more difficult fights spaced out with a ton of ads to screw with your targeting. The final boss fight was pretty well designed as well, though it committed the same difficulty-scaling trick with the pesky enemies whose sole purpose in life is to take your auto-aim away from the big bad guy.
Personal video game pet peeves aside, I strongly recommend Alice: Madness Returns. I haven’t even played the first game and I had a great time with this, um, unique game. Play it. Play it now.
**Side note: The online PSN store only has one piece of DLC for this game. For $1.99, you can get an added ability to each weapon and SIX new outfits! Each outfit has its own properties as well. Well worth the small investment.**