Developer: Spicy Horse
Here we go again. After literally murdering her own madness in the decade-old original, Alice's insanity has returned (hence the title) in the form of the menacing Infernal Train: a burning cathedral on wheels that's laying waste to the imaginary realms of Wonderland. Though a hypnotherapist is doing his best to help her forget the rogue memories, our heroine soon finds herself wandering the streets of London and periodically descending back into the twisted nightmare world between flash-forwards to reality. It's a decent enough premise for a reunion tour.
The visuals are the first thing you'll notice. Madness Returns looks absolutely gorgeous, which is partly due to atmospheric lighting and detailed texture work courtesy of the ever-reliable Unreal Engine. However, it's mainly testament to the consistent quality of the art direction. Wonderland is as bonkers as it is beautiful, and each thematic zone (such as deep blue ice fields or hellish industrial complexes) is packed with deeply surreal imagery, enemies and design elements. A preternatural sense of wrongness and horror underpins tragically innocent and childlike themes. It's a banquet for the senses, and regardless of where you point the camera, your eyes will pop and your mind will blow.
Once you've wrapped your brain around it, though, you'll realise that the surreal chicanery is just camouflage surrounding one of the most dull and conventional action-platformers to have released in recent years.
You see, the art design meets its nemesis in abjectly poor level design that smacks of last-generation thinking. The beautiful art direction is relegated to the background and horizon, whilst the play space itself consists of a miserable collection of boxy, empty corridors linking shamelessly obvious circular arenas that spawn waves of enemies when entered. Hyper-linear and clichéd platforming sections (timed switch shooting and pressure pad puzzles, anyone?) also frequently make an appearance, resulting in an experience that's uniformly dull and highly derivative. Even though Alice can occasionally shrink or shoot hovering pig snouts to unlock new areas, it's impossible to get over the grinding linearity and lack of anything remotely new.
It's time to deal with the raw mechanics behind the action, and we'll start with the platforming. The clunky, boring and frustrating platforming to be more precise. Alice's multiple jumps never seem to grant her enough lift to pass over the longer gaps (not helped by oddly long and unpredictable pauses between moving platforms shifting position), and it's impossible to know whether her double jump has regenerated or if hitting A again will cause her to fall to her death. The dodge move is a similarly ropey proposition, and tends to punish players by moving them in a completely unexpected direction rather than towards their objective. It takes far too much time to chain dashes and jumps together, and frankly, practically any platformer you could name manages to pull it off with more panache. At least the considerate checkpoint system revives Alice without penalty if she plummets into oblivion. Which will happen a lot, by the way.
As an action-platformer, then, Alice: Madness Returns has failed in a full half of its remit. This means that the combat needs to pick up the slack, and thankfully, I'm relieved to report that it does. Alice's Vorpal Blade and Hobby Horse hammer provide a selection of light and heavy crowd-clearing attacks that can be organically strung together into devastating combos, and the aforementioned arenas tend to simultaneously bombard you with a selection of weak cannon fodder and larger, multi-stage enemies. The dash, which fares so badly during platforming segments, redeems itself by offering an effortless way to relocate behind shielded foes, and the parasol can be used for context-sensitive blocks or reflecting ranged attacks back on their original trajectory. Peppering foes (literally) with fire from the pepper grinder or deploying the remote-controlled bomb allows you to switch up your attacks even further, to the point where each encounter is a deeply tactical and intense engagement rather than an orgy of button-mashing.
Every one in a while, Alice attempts to shake up the overly-padded formula with mixed success. An underwater 2D shoot'em up minigame and a two-dimensional platforming section (amongst others) are fun while they last, but are mechanically unpolished, shallow and only last long enough to exaggerate the utter blandness of everything else.
What Alice: Madness Returns ultimately needs, therefore, is a strong storyline to tie everything together... but sadly the plot completely fails to engage its players. The narrative is padded to extremes; to the extent where any given two hours of gameplay doesn't move the story in an interesting direction. Many levels, especially early on, exist as unashamed filler material. Alice herself is portrayed as an unlikeable, snooty ice queen who's impossible to relate to (rather than, you know, a vulnerable teenager trapped in her own nightmares), and the supporting cast doesn't receive enough face time to be more than one-dimensional cardboard cutouts. In fact, most of the important characters only serve to open doors or provide Alice with a weapon or item that she needs. The opportunity to present players with a living, breathing universe filled with memorable antagonists has been shamefully squandered. Just as an example, your joy at discovering a lost city of fish-people will soon turn to bitter disappointment as you realise that there's no one to talk to and nothing to do save pushing onto the next platforming section.
As mentioned in my review code impressions, Madness Returns assumes that players remember every detail of the original PC game and doesn't deign to fill in character backstories or their role in the revised mythos. You'll need to play the included download to gain even the tiniest shred of understanding about Wonderland and its inhabitants, and though this arguably isn't an advantage in its own right, it does lead us nicely down the one rabbit hole that the package has to offer: raw value. Thanks to its rampant padding, the campaign is both meaty and lengthy; lasting much longer than many of its peers and providing completionists with level-specific achievements or collectibles to grab. The bundled download of the original game will also nab you several hours of flawed enjoyment on top of the new content. It's certainly a case of quantity over quality, but if you're looking for something to keep you busy, Alice: Madness Returns certainly fits the bill.
- Excellent visuals and art style
- Great value for money in terms of raw quantity
- Tight combat
- Weak platforming
- Terrible level design
- Ultimately a boring, dull, derivative, padded and tame experience
The Short Version: No amount of trippy visuals can disguise the stolid, conventional and uninspired gameplay that Alice: Madness Returns brings to the tea party. Tight combat and excellent value ensure that American McGee's latest yarn can't be ignored out of hand, but at the end of the day, you've played this game a thousand times before.