Dear Alice has been away for some time. It's been eleven years since American McGee first turned Carroll's fantastical world into a dark and foreboding place filled with danger and desperation, Alice delving deep into the Wonderland of her mind to burn away the scarring memory of watching her family and their Victorian home go up in flames. It's been eleven years since Rutledge Asylum...and Alice is free, albeit under the care of a psychiatrist.
Except she's not actually doing too well. The madness is coming back, more vividly and stronger than ever since she moved back to the city. So it's back to Wonderland for the young lady, diving back into her own psyche as she once again struggles to battle against her recurring demons and, by healing Wonderland, heal herself.
At GDC, those present had been treated to a demonstration of one of the later levels that saw Alice returning to Queensland, now decrepit and derelict. The GDC demo was on display at the showcase too (more on that in a bit) but we were rather more interested in the new environment we got to see - Hatter's Debate. Set more or less halfway through the first level, we were told by the rep that Tweedledee and Tweedledum had gone a bit mental, tearing the Hatter up into a number of pieces, and it was Alice's job to go and find all of the bits of him and reassemble the nutty gentleman.
Whereas Queensland was rather dark and foreboding, the surroundings embracing the gothic colours of red and black, the heightened, stylised architecture all twisted and slightly deformed - not to mention populated by aggressive card guards and the Executioner - the Hatter's domain, taking on his obsession with clocks and timepieces, looks like an ethereal homage to Victorian steampunk.
Floating cogs abound, offering up platforming challenges that require you to often switch on a valve and ride a burst of steam to its uppermost point before leaping from jet to cog to cog to jet. Alice has a triple jump at her disposal and, back in her traditional blue dress for this level rather than the red seen in Queensland, holding down the jump button during any of them will allow her to gently float to safety.
It was good to see a fair balance between the platforming elements and the combat, the latter never becoming overwhelming. At first, watching the game, one had the dawning fear that this would be just another Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - a linear beauty that used make up to paper over the cracks of being a substandard God of War clone. But Madness Returns encourages exploration, the shrink mechanics particularly useful in uncovering new routes, passages and hidey-holes.
Hold the left bumper, you see, and Alice can shrink down in size once she discovered the magenta Shrink Flower in the level, allowing her access to areas her larger self would not be able to reach. On top of that, though, mini Alice can also detect invisible platforms for further exploration. Unfortunately, those platforms disappear within seconds of Alice regaining her normal size, and she can't jump when she's tiny. Needless to say, being an inverted-camera fan and not being able to change the controls, these leaps of faith - 'Think Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,' added the rep, helpfully - cost me Alice's life a fair amount. The checkpoints were relatively forgiving, though, so apart from a wry smile and some wounded pride, there was no huge frustration in the end. One thing I did find was that it forced you to slow down every once in a while and gave you the opportunity to appreciate the degree of detail that has gone into the design. As with the first game, the concept, the vision, the design and direction are big draws here and it's easy to see why.
If there was a gripe to be made about the first game, it is perhaps that the combat felt a little stale and clunky. Not so here, our Alice is armed to the teeth this time. Back comes the Vorpal Blade, useful for swift, light attacks, and eviscerating card guards. Her Hobby Horse, which, like her dress, changes in design according to the level she's in, is the instrument of heavy attacks, useful for smashing shields and finishing off downed opponents, her umbrella yields a useful deflection function, and Alice can drop mechanical rabbits that serve as trigger mines. From range, though, she's also deadly - sporting a Pepper Grinder machine gun and the incredibly handy Teapot Cannon, which serves as a grenade launcher. There's unlimited ammo for them both, but overuse (in the case of the latter it only takes two shots, or one charged slug) results in the Wonderland equivalent of overheating. Pulling in the left trigger allowed us to lock-on to enemies for quick ranged vengeance, but there's a free-aim mode too that allows for manual fans to do things their way as well.
The first enemies we faced here were the Mad Caps - snarling gnome-like creatures that looked fairly reminiscent of miniature clones of Sin City's Yellow Bastard character. They were relatively easy to dispatch, although they attacked in packs and attempted to circle and flank, often attacking simultaneously. Their shielded companions required you to break down their defences with the Hobby Horse or the Teapot Cannon before you could finish them off. Handily, Alice also comes equipped with a suitably whimsical evade ability that sees her teleport short distances in a puff of blue butterflies, out of harm's way. The Mad Caps handily telegraphed their attacks fairly early on, although their numbers meant quite often we rolled out of one attack into a another to begin with, and button mashers would have probably met their end rather quickly.
Dashing around the place, there are several things to scavenge for and collect. There are teeth lying everywhere, and enemies will drop more; teeth that serve as currency here in Wonderland for weapon upgrades (of which there are four for each). You'll also uncover 'Drink Me' bottles that open up character bios and glorious concept art, extending the fantastical lore a little further.Memories come in two sizes: smaller reminders will reveal snippets of previously repressed dialogue, larger ones unfold via Victorian paper theatre, often leading Alice towards a forgotten or repressed truth, an epiphany of sorts about past events, sometimes uncomfortably so. In fact it is one of these that kicks the game off - the subtle hint that the fire all those years ago might not have been a simple accident after all.
Our sojourn in the Hatter's domain ended with a mini-boss fight with a character seen in the trailer above: the Eyepot. As with the larger card guards and baby faced monstrosities seen in Queensland, there was some kill deduction to be done. Clearly the eye was key, and defeat was a case of sidestepping the pot's powerful ranged attacks, whipping out the Pepper Grinder and blinding the mechanical picnic aid before giving it a hiding with the Hobby Horse.
We were rather sceptical beforehand, we'll be honest, but the demo did its job rather well. Although there are still niggling reservations, and we really hope the end product doesn't become too much of a combat slog, there was plenty here to make us want to see more. Part of it is aesthetic: we've been waiting to see more of McGee's take on Wonderland for over a decade and it's finally coming, and it still looks fascinating. But the gameplay seems to have improved too, the combat was fun and responsive, and it'll take an in-depth review to see whether or not that becomes stale or whether Spicy Horse are able to keep shaking things up. The sections we got to play - and we leapt on the GDC demo afterwards too - were tantalisingly short, just enough to whet the whistle, nowhere near enough to satisfy. But we want to spend more time in Wonderland, and it looks like we won't have to wait too long, either.
Alice: Madness Returns is out on PC, X360 and PS3 on June 14th.