Girlz 'N' Games webcomic #91: Love-Hate
Of course this comic could apply to a thousand games, but for me, most recently, the love-hate in question was directed at action platformer Alice: Madness Returns. (Before that, the last game to really have me smashing my keyboard was Prince of Persia: The Two Thrones). Anyway…
When it released back in June, the long-awaited sequel to American McGee’s Alice racked up a lot of 7/10 review scores. And, having finished the game now, I would give it the same rating. Alice: Madness Returns isn’t amazing, or even groundbreaking, but it’s still a solid piece of interactive entertainment... and good value for money, seeing as a thorough play-through can clock in at around 20 hours. For the record, I’m not someone who refuses to play a game that scores less than 8 out of 10. In fact, I’m highly suspicious of 9/10 and full marks reviews. But I digress.
Plot wise, Madness Returns is set shortly after the events of the original 2000 game. Having been discharged from the asylum, Alice is now undergoing therapy at a rundown London orphanage for damaged children. However, Alice’s sessions with Dr Bumby aren’t going well. In fact, the psychiatrist’s attempts to block out the worst of Alice’s memories (a very unorthodox approach to mental healing!) plunges the young woman back into nightmarish hallucinations. Wonderland, once a safe haven, has become corrupted once more, and it falls to Alice to identify and stop the polluting force before the imaginary world is destroyed – and with it her sanity.
The storyline in Madness Returns is as fragmented as Alice’s mind, and confusingly jumps around for the most part as Alice shifts between Victorian London and Wonderland. Eventually though, all the pieces do fall into place, just in time for the conclusion and the game’s most traditional of boss fights.
I would recommend Alice: Madness Returns for its visuals alone. It’s probably the most beautiful and visually inventive game I’ve ever played. The world design is delicious, from the Mad Hatter’s Steampunk domain to the Queen of Hearts’ kingdom that includes a vertigo-inducing cards-in-the-sky sequence, a labyrinthine gothic castle and a building interior that resembles human entrails. Then there’s the Mysterious East, rich in Oriental symbology, that actually makes battling insects fun by transforming them into armoured samurai.
Sometimes, for short stretches, the stunning art direction even shakes up the gameplay itself – an example being a 2D jumping puzzle sequence styled after Japanese watercolour paintings.
The problem with Alice: Madness Returns though is that the fantastic stages are typically alternated with dull levels – like the underwater stretch – that you can’t wait to complete. And man, the stages in Alice 2 are looong. (At least once you’ve completed a level, though, you’ve unlocked it to play again on its own, or never again). It just seems like a greater number of short stages would have been preferable to 5 or so numbingly long ones.
Madness Returns’ biggest failing though is the repetitive nature of its gameplay. Every stage you jump for a bit, then fight for a bit, then jump, fight, and jump until you reach the end battle. Things never really ramp up in intensity as you progress through the different levels. This said, the tedium does mean that you really appreciate the puzzle sequences and other challenges that break briefly from the norm. By far the most enjoyable stage in the entire game has a giant Alice stomping gleefully on the Queen’s undead card army.
Although there are the obvious frustrations from repeatedly failing jumps, it’s the combat that tends to be biggest annoyance in Madness Returns. Alice’s moves, and use of household items (pepper grinders, teapots; the vorpal blade) as weapons, are very gratifying. However, some foes are particularly tough – beware the Colossal Ruin! – and as you quickly learn in this buggy game, a death during combat can force you to restart from halfway back across a stage. This is in stark contrast to a jump-induced “game over”, where you typically respawn right at the point of failure. Also, the game's targeting mode is a pain in the ass. I can’t imagine the difficulty of trying to switch between a dozen simultaneously attacking targets when playing on console, but on PC it was certainly irritating being forced to activate the clumsy mode for one specific foe.
Out of interest, Alice: Madness Returns features fewer weapons than the original game, but now comes with upgrade options. Just don’t stress too much about collecting the teeth necessary to buy these upgrades. Even if you aren’t pedantic about picking up every fang littering the levels, you should still enter the final stage with all your weapons maxed out.
In the end, Alice: Madness Returns is an undeniably flawed game, but if you, like me, are a fan of its macabre and cultishly popular predecessor, then I think you’d be willing to overlook the niggles and slog through the worst bits. Regardless of anything else, it’s a treat to be back in McGee’s twisted Wonderland, and to experience it in all its “now gen graphics” glory. Wonderland, and the new-look Alice – with her multiple, beautiful costume changes – are a treat for the eyes.
And frankly I was impressed by how well the game ran on my 4 year old graphics card.
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