Long time no sick
Who would have thought there’d be another Alice-game after so many years and not even bearing the name of American McGee (who only seemed to have released not-so-great games like Bad Day L.A. or Scrapped, neither I’ve played, but haven’t heard anything good about them either)? Now the waiting (if there was any) is over and one can finally dive deep down into Alice’s twisted reimagining of Wonderland.
All’s not well in Wonderland
And what a twisted and sick version it is! Just watching the intro and witnessing Alice’s imaginary friends’ heads cut off, blood spurting out of them and into her face, the now not so small child but more mature girl drowning in a sea of blood, being surrounded by screaming voices… Psycho overkill! And it doesn’t stop there. The original game wasn’t really a happy portrayal of wonderland, but this one definitely takes the cake, eats it and let it rot somewhere.
It’s not only the frightening characters (who are really scary this time, just the Queen of Hearts looking downright nightmarish), but how Alice’s real world, London, is shown. A bleak location to say the least, full of violence, child and women abuse, poverty. Something Fable III tried to address, but didn’t really achieve with its disparity between the serious and humorous.
Alice herself is confronted with sudden blackouts which constantly throw her back to Wonderland, then real people becoming monsters, her memory only fragmentary, a puzzle she has to solve. This is much more mature attempt to tell the story of the girl who lost her parents in a fire (an unsolved mystery at first, slowly being revealed as something more sinister) than the original tried to convey.
Eyes delight in artistic style
The artistic style is outstanding as well, every world grander in scale, highly imaginative in certain areas. Not to take any of the surprise away, but certain Asian influences (after all McGee’s new company is situated in China) make for some amazing visuals and surrealist gameplay ideas involving water colors. The soundtrack is atmospheric as well, at certain points pretty scary, in others elevating, like a dream and nightmare combined. There are also much more cutscenes, some in game engine, some in a papercut-comic-style, again creating a surrealist and weird world like none other.
If the original Alice game was violent and not suitable for children, this one is even less. To be honest I don’t understand how this got a 16+ age restriction rating. Even if Wonderland and its characters are imaginary, the way Alice’s perception of the world is shown (in one level being in a straight-jacket witnessing all kinds of tortures, imaginary or not) and how the story jumps in different timelines and states of mind, this would be much more suitable for 18+, not even counting all the blood which is spilled. A mature game in every sense of the word.
What’s in the game?
But all the praise of the form and content in the storytelling doesn’t hide the fact that gameplay suffers in some areas. First a playtime of 3-4 hours per chapter (6 in total, although the last is rather short) seems great value for money, especially for an action-adventure game. The only problem is that it’s simply too long. As has been said, there are some really cool gameplay ideas and level design has great moments as well, but if they’re used again and again just to lengthen the chapter, it gets a bit tedious and loses some of its attraction. Often it feels as if the developer wanted to make different mini games and then put them randomly in the game. They’re still fun to play, but not so many one after the other.
Form and content as some separate entities?
The strongest selling point of Alice: Madness Returns is definitely its art direction (check out The Art of Alice: Madness Returns as well, apparently a very nice hardcover book about the production process, even showing some more twisted ideas which didn’t make it into the final game!). The original might have set the first step of making any mature renderings of Lewis Carrol’s story difficult, especially since none has been done on the big screen so far, but the newest game does a tremendous job of making Wonderland feel alive with all its twisted characters, due to some great graphics (nothing outdate like I read in some reviews), strong voice acting and haunting music. If only it were a bit shorter and didn’t overuse so many ideas.