There's a lot I can't tell you about Alice: Madness Returns. As well as the traditional embargo, you'll be pleased to know that I barely managed to complete half of the review code during my 4 1/2 hour hands-on session, which should already have savvy value fans reassured about the length of the game.
What I can tell you, however, is that Spicy Horse's upcoming platformer is looking rather slick ahead of it's imminent release ... but there's a sting in the tail.
After the events of the original PC game, Alice starts out reliving her startling hallucinations in a hypnotherapist's office. She's a little older and desperately attempting to forget and suppress her memories of the original title... but after venturing out into the grimy Victorian British backstreets in search of medication, a mysterious white cat lures her into meeting an wizened asylum nurse who has a bizarre blackmail hold over our heroine. Following the crone back to her house, an unexpected series of events sends Alice back down to Wonderland to battle a new threat that represents an aspect of her shattered psyche.
Wonderland is as bonkers, dangerous and beautiful as you might remember. After arriving in a verdant paradise straight out of Lewis Carroll's book, the levels conform to coherent thematic zones linked by flash forwards to the real world. The Hatter's domain is a hellish industrial complex complete with grinding machinery, rivers of lava to negotiate and timed obstacles to dodge. The next area, Tundrafull, is a jaw dropping icy wilderness with networks of slides and slippery see-saw platforms to navigate. As well as being visually unique, each zone is a feast for the eyes thanks to an exceptionally detailed use of the Unreal Engine.
But let's get down to business. Gameplay-wise, Alice is an action platformer... and we'll take a look at the platforming first. Double jumps and glides are all mapped to the A or X buttons, with the ability to hover and rotate on steam vents to set up large sequences of jumps. A dash move can also be triggered mid-jump, but is more than a little clunky and frequently results in some humiliating falls. Timed obstacles and instant-death pits abound, but luckily the considerate checkpoint system let's you respawn without penalty after botching a jump.
Combat-wise, Madness Returns maps each weapon in Alice's varied arsenal to a separate face buttons. This allows players to alternate between weapons and set up simple combos, with a few achievements rewarding them for doing so on top of increased damage potential. The first weapon you'll encounter is the vorpal blade: a wicked knife that does massive, focused damage to a single enemy. A pepper grinder provided by the Duchess deals out serious ranged pain with frequent breaks for overheating, and can be used to 'season' floating pig snouts that unlock hidden areas and goodies. The heavy Hobby Horse is your traditional slow yet powerful option, and is invaluable for shattering fragile doorways as well as crowd control. You'll need to use all of the weapons effectively - as well as the clunky dodge and umbrella block - to best the durable Menacing Ruin foes and shielded Madcap goblins.
The shrinking potion, picked up a few minutes into the game, can be triggered at any time. It's primary use is to access tiny keyholes and otherwise inaccessible areas, but it also provides players with augmented senses that reveal invisible platforms.
Some 2D shoot 'em up sections and platforming segments break up the action from time to time. They're great fun if a little basic, and I can tell you much more after the embargo lifts.
As you know, a downloadable port of the original Alice will be included with new copies of the game... which is actually a necessity rather than a considerate touch. Madness Returns assumes that you still remember every little detail of the first game's plot and cast, meaning that it doesn't take any time to introduce the characters or their new roles in the Wonderland universe. Trust me, you'll want to play through the original before getting stuck into the sequel or lose practically all of the emotional impact.
Finally, I need to end this preview on a cautionary note. Whilst the insane imagery and surreal themes are a feast for the senses, they're only background elements to what - during the first third at least - is an extremely conventional action-platformer. You'll run and jump through empty corridors, put weights on pressure switches and dash through timed obstacles... and frequently (read: constantly) encounter enormous circular empty arenas with no apparent exit. Even inexperienced gamers will naturally expect a horde of enemies to spawn as soon as they enter the ring - and when you jump down, your adversaries appear on cue. And, of course, unlock the door when they die.
Alice: Madness Returns is looking beautiful, twisted and excellent value for money. But we're looking forward to seeing whether it manages to deliver any genuine innovation to rival its art style. Stay tuned for our full review!