R. and I downloaded this game through the Playstation store one recent evening, basing our purchase solely on distant memories of playing its predecessor, American McGee’s Alice, on a PC over ten years ago. We enjoyed the first Alice game for its dark twist on the familiar (and already dark) tale of Alice in Wonderland, and for its beautifully psychedelic environments and characters; it even featured a blunderbuss well before the steampunk renaissance of recent years. For $20, we figured we’d get some fun of out a new installment while waiting for some other titles to be released (cough cough… DARK SOULS 2).
This action-adventure title, developed by EA and Spicy Horse and released in 2011, was exactly what I expected: fun, full of easy puzzles and variably difficult battles with interesting and wacky enemies, rounded out by an engaging story.
The storyline, delivered largely in appealing 2-D cutscenes, revolves around Alice Liddell, a young woman who is haunted by the murky memory of her family perishing in a housefire for which Alice may or may not have been responsible. She resides in a sort of minimum-security asylum, and I liked the way the story used themes of mental illness and psychosis (though admittedly in an entirely superficial way) to explore Alice’s forays into a warped and dangerous new version of Wonderland. The familiar characters are present, albeit in forms altered and twisted from those depicted in Lewis Carroll’s Alice books: the Cheshire Cat; the Mad Hatter, March Hare, and Dormouse; the Caterpillar; the White Knight and Queen of Hearts; along with a truly despicable new adversary. As the story of Alice and her quest to unravel her memories deepens, it enters some extremely dark and quite disturbing territory, especially in the final chapters.
The environments are predictably beautiful, ranging from lush and luminous forests, to card castles in the air, to labyrinthine caverns of pulsating flesh. The art design is similar to the first Alice title and provides a lot of ambience that makes up for sometimes repetitive jump, lever, and platform puzzles. The game is highly linear, and one significant complaint I had about the game progression is that the path taken regularly closes behind, meaning that backtracking to double-check for hidden items or optional challenge rooms isn’t possible.
The gameplay is simple, using a small repertoire of moves and weapons. Using double- and triple-jumps, paired with a gliding ability, Alice precariously navigates a world of ledges, moving platforms, and easily-solved puzzles, collecting teeth to use as currency in weapon upgrades. There are lots of secret areas to find and explore, and though most are pretty easy to spot, many have extra layers of “secretness;” you may find a hidden room containing a cache of teeth, but return to the main path too quickly and you might miss a false floor leading to yet another secret area with more collectables (the somewhat pointless “memories” and “bottles,” disappointingly serving only as collection achievements.)
Alice also has a fun “shrink” ability that allows her to temporarily see chalk markings indicating hidden items or upcoming enemies, otherwise-invisible platforms, and hidden miniature paths only accessible to a mouse-sized Alice.
By the second of five chapters, Alice’s arsenal is fully stocked, with two melee and two projectile weapons, as well as a small explosive device that is useful mainly to distract enemies. These weapons are upgraded using collected teeth, but the upgrades are global and don’t provide much noticeable difference other than a new colour and generally increased power. Battles are fun and fast-paced, if repetitive, generally relying on a combination of projectiles to weaken or stun and melee attacks to do heavy damage. When her health is almost depleted, Alice can go into “hysteria” mode (I love the nod to Victorian mental health terminology here) and fight invincibly for a few seconds in a last-ditch effort to finish the battle.
DLC content comes bundled with the game as currently available in the Playstation store. Included are a range of alternative costumes, each of which comes with an overpowered ability or buff (except for the Cheshire outfit, which eliminates health drops from enemies), and alternative weapons, which are also overpowered. I suppose these items are meant to facilitate play on the Nightmare difficulty setting (or perhaps for a second playthrough), but I wasn’t able to equip any of them on my first playthrough (on the Difficult setting) without resulting in a total lack of challenge in the game. Which was a pity, because from an esthetic perspective the alternative dresses are fantastic, and I would have liked to be able to equip them without added abilities.
If you decide to play Alice: Madness Returns, know what to expect. It is not a difficult nor wide-ranging game, but the visual appeal, new and very dark take on a familiar story, and well-paced gameplay make for a worthwhile foray. If you need a game for a bad-weather weekend or some casual pick-up-and-play fun, it’s a good download for the money.
Post edited to add commentary on the DLC.