Game Review – Alice: Madness Returns

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.

Image from electricblueskies.com

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.

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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.

Image from electricblueskies.com

Post edited to add commentary on the DLC.

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Tomb Raider 2013 Review

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Back in my Playstation 1 days, I loved Tomb Raider and Lara Croft.  I even used to frequent a TR news site called the Croft Times (anyone else remember it?).  I’ve played almost all of the TR games over the years, and was curious about this new installment, given the hype about Lara’s redesign and the gorgeous environments.

Now that I’ve finished it, I can say that I really enjoyed this game.  Not because it’s challenging or groundbreaking, but because it’s fun.  Here are my thoughts on some aspects of the game.  (Note:  I’m only reviewing the main single-player gameplay mode.  Because really, who plays Tomb Raider for the multiplayer?)

Pacing

The story moves quickly throughout the game, and the gameplay is similarly fast-paced.  I never felt bogged down by difficult puzzles or boring stretches of play.  The alternating rhythm of exploration and battle was well-balanced and made me reluctant to end play sessions, always wondering what would happen next.  Lara’s “Killer Instincts” ability, which highlights interactive objects and quest items, ensures that you never get annoyed about having to walk up to every single item around in order to see if it’s “something.”  Everything you collect and find is instantly autosaved and geographic checkpoints are very frequent.

Story

To my delight, Tomb Raider has real character development and an interesting story.  I’ll admit I often play action-adventure games without paying much (if any) attention to story, spacing out during cut scenes, just in it for the gameplay.  However, I enjoyed the story in this game.  Not complicated or political (ahem… recent Final Fantasy games), laced with supernatural intrigue, and featuring an island that malevolently controls the weather to crash planes and ships and keep people from escaping (COOL!) and a religious fanatic for an antagonist (right up my alley).  Sad scenes were genuinely emotional and in general I really felt for Lara’s borderline-ridiculously-terrible predicament.

Lara

Obviously, Lara’s looks have evolved.  Her proportions, while still idealized, are at least grounded in reality.  She spends the whole game gritty, bloody, often limping or applying pressure to wounds, and is generally a far cry from her previously impervious and aloof incarnation.  I like her personality a lot, as she struggles in a relatable way with ethical decisions in a nearly hopeless situation.

Gone are the Cirque-du-Soleil-worthy acrobatic side- and back-jumps (and accurate shooting whilst performing these feats) of the older Tomb Raider games.  Lara jumps up or forward only, and lands hard, putting a knee and hand down (a nice touch). Sometimes when jumping to grab a ledge, Lara’s hand slips and you have to do a quick grab to keep her from falling.  Lara’s physics-defying ability to change direction mid-jump persists as a leftover from previous games, but since it’s sometimes handy, it’s hard for me really hate on it.

While she still possesses the upper-body strength of an Olympian weightlifter, the endurance of a Tour de France rider, and appears to have significant additional training as a gymnast and rock-climber, Lara is generally more realistic and relatable this time around.

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Cinematics

I have never seen smoother integration of cinematics than in this game.  The seamless transition between player-controlled segments, full-motion videos, and cutscenes that include player interaction is awesome.  For example, you are creeping Lara around an enemy camp when a guard spots you grabs Lara.  As the game cuts to a cinematic scene of struggle, indicators appear onscreen to guide you through timed button-presses to fight back.  If you time it right, Lara subdues the guy in an FMV and the game switches back to regular player-controlled mode as you dash back into your hiding spot.  If you miss the buttons or timing… the cutscene continues and it’s not so nice.

Visual and audio

As has been widely reported, the visuals are fantastic.  The ambient lighting, including from Lara’s torch, is realistic and moody and Lara’s shadow is perfect – no vague shadow-blob here.  The textures are for the most part very good; I almost never noticed any pixel-y weirdness, though I would have liked to see more movement in the plants and trees.  The explosions, and there are many, are seriously awesome.  The many action-packed sequences involving exploding and/or avalanching buildings and Lara’s frantic acrobatics to escape look especially good, as the camera is right there with you providing angles that are great visually and also allow you to see where you’re going.  I don’t think I ever felt a fatal fall or misstep was due to bad camera, and that scores big points with me.

The voice acting is excellent and the graphics are good enough that you can pick up on subtle expressions and gestures by characters that betray their feelings and intentions even when they’re lying through their teeth.  I particularly enjoyed listening to the conversations of baddies while creeping around to set up stealth kills; casual, random conversations giving way to frantic shouts when they realize they’re under attack.  (My favorite: a guard asking his friend to help him find Sprinkles, his pet rat).  The music is sparse and effective.

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Battle

The battle system in this game reminds me a bit of the Batman Arkham series. Enemy encounters occur in discrete battles, the beginning and end of which are indicated by Lara drawing or holstering her weapon.  Especially at the start of battle, stealth plays a significant role in the game.  I enjoyed the stealth aspect, which is saying a lot because normally I’m more of a guns-blazing type.

There is no health bar, and instead Lara can take a few hits, as the screen gets redder around the edges, before dying.  If she takes hits and manages to get cover for a short time, she’ll shed the damage and be back at baseline.  This means there is a lot of use of cover in the game, the mechanics of which are intuitive and easy to use.  Lara has a variety of long- and close-range attacks, as do the baddies, and there are lots of sticks of dynamite flying around to ensure that you can’t take cover in the same spot for long.  My only complaint here is that almost all of the battles are pretty easy, especially in the first two thirds of the game.

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Customization and skill development

Disappointingly, this is definitely the weak aspect of the game.  Lara has four weapons (the bow was my favorite throughout the game) and a pickaxe as her “gear,” and three categories of skills: survivor, hunter, and brawler.  Skills upgrades are purchased using skill points gained from XP, and include things like keener “Killer Instincts,” improved weapon use and different hand-to-hand combat moves.  The weapons are upgraded using “salvage,” the game’s currency, and found weapon parts.  The problem with this system is that given the abundance of salvage available and the relatively quick XP gains, it’s pretty easy to get all of the skills and upgrades available at a given time.  This means that there is no developmental path for Lara; the player does not need to choose between specializing in long-range versus close-range combat, or between a defensive or offensive skill emphasis.  Overall, it amounts to a system of character development that theoretically involves customization, but in practice is just a steady increase in power in all areas.

Verdict

Tomb Raider is a quick, engaging, and fun game.  So fun that I have forgiven the fact that it’s very easy.  There is little-to-no replay value in this type of game, but that’s alright.  Pick it up for a week or so of intuitive, exciting gameplay with a cool story, and bask in the return of a new and improved Lara Croft.