Alice: Madness Returns
Ten years after being released from Rutledge Asylum, Alice is a poor orphan working at the Houndsditch Home orphanage. Still deeply troubled and wracked by survivor’s guilt, Alice’s hallucinations of Wonderland begin to return mysteriously. Over the course of the game, Alice will travel back and forth between her miserable, impoverished life in Victorian London and the emotional refuge inside her head- Wonderland.
With each visit, Alice is able to uncover clues – suppressed memories – that offer a glimpse of the truth about the mysterious fire that killed her whole family so many years ago. As she descends deeper into madness, Wonderland mirrors her mental state and becomes more twisted, decayed, and dangerous for her. Fortunately for Alice, inside Wonderland she becomes an idealized version of herself – able to glide vast distances, shrink at will, and fight her mental enemies with a vicious arsenal.
Alice: Madness Returns has some high points and regretfully some low points. The highest point being that the level, environment and character designs are extraordinarily imaginative. Taking a page from the first game, Alice’s world she lives in and the world residing in her head are haunting to the last dreary drop. The good folks at Spicy Horse didn’t pull any warped punches to make the gamer extremely uncomfortable from beginning to end. For the most part the world inside of Alice’s head is broken, rusty and disconnected in so many places. For example, the first chapter of the game has you exploring the Hatter’s Domain, where you find the crazy-ass Mad Hatter broken into pieces in a clockwork land. Surrounded by broken gears, rusty caverns and lava-filled levels, nothing is right in this domain. The boys and girls of Spicy Horse Games really made sure to emphasize how positively broken our main character is from the first game through these warped and wasted visuals.
Truly, it’s one of the most important and fascinating parts of Alice: Madness Returns.
Going along those same lines is the level design the game features. While linear in nature, the game features some pretty good level design that has our main character leaping off small cliffs and estimating out jumps from platform to platform. The depth of the levels, going along the same style as the visuals, will make gamers uncomfortable, as I had a knot in my stomach quite a bit during the review period. For example, during the second chapter you have to help put a play together, so that you can move on with your adventure. In doing so, you must go convince a drunkard octopus to give up his script that he has written. To obtain the script you have to follow and find the octopus three times. The separation between hiding spots of the inebriated creature is pretty significant. You have to jump on jellyfish (avoiding the red ones with spikes) to get from area to area. The jumps have to be pretty precise, as it’s extremely easy to die. This depth and design in this particular level reflects on quite a bit of levels in the game. Now, not all is uncertainty as you go from place to place. Spicy Horse wants gamers to give their minds a rest now and then, so they make some levels short and easy to beat. For example, at the end of the first chapter you’re going to be expecting this epic battle with the mouse and rabbit from the Mad Hatter’s tea party, but ultimately you get nothing. While sort of a disappointment, the adventure to get to that point is quite exhausting for the mind; suffice to say I was happy to just move on. Keeping the gamer on their toes and then rewarding their minds with rest constitutes a good level design in my book.
With that said, levels do get repetitive here and there. The visuals help to steer your attention away from that fact, but once in a while you’re going to want to turn the game off so you can rest a bit. Repetition is good for the mind, but only in small doses.
Now, something that wasn’t too repetitive was how well the character design looked. Going along the same lines as the environments, you’ll find a haunting, emo-filled batch of characters waiting for you. Starting with Alice, you’ll find our favorite emo girl dressed in tattered clothes that could only be described as the evil Alice in comparison to Disney’s Alice. Sporting stringy black hair and eerily gazing eyes, you’ll find her looks set the tone for the game. Along the way in the game you’ll also find different characters such as teapots that have a creepy red eye, a variation of ‘Ruins’ that look like black oil sporting arms and baby faces and a variety of creatively put together characters that fit the bill of this game perfectly.
Again, visuals helped to sell the first game and Spicy Horse Games doesn’t disappoint with their representation of Alice’s situation.
From design to visuals, even the fantastic soundtrack of the game really drive home presentation-wise of how screwed-up Alice truly is in the game. When I saw the first game I couldn’t believe how messed up it looked, but I was intrigued. This time around it’s the same feeling, which just proves that the focus was to set the mood correctly through visuals and sounds (and good level design).
Aside from these strong points, the game also has some strong gameplay elements. The first element is the weapon system. As you progress in Alice: Madness Returns you will pick up weapons along the way. The first weapon is the Vorpal Blade, which is nothing more than a large kitchen knife. Once you obtain this weapon you can go around collecting teeth (that’s just severely messed up) that act as coinage. If you collect enough teeth then you can pause the game and upgrade your blade at any time. Convenient? God, yes. Many people will complain that there should be some sort of rule or some sort of upgrade structure that is a bit tighter, but I’m happy just to jump right in and upgrade at any given point in the game. It’s simple enough, it doesn’t require memorizing a flowchart and trying to estimate how to best use your teeth, which is what a platformer like this really needs.
What about the variety of different weapons in the game? You’ve got about five weapons to play with, though you can only upgrade four of them (the bombs don’t really count – though they can do damage). If you have the DLC then you can access more weapons, but they’re technically just extensions of the four main weapons. I like what Spicy Horse has done in terms of weapon offerings and feel like there doesn’t need to be more. In the age of the Call of Duty and Battlefields of the world, it’s nice to see a restricted limit hopefully due to story and character and not creativity. Use the weapons with care and enjoy beating a monster with a hobby horse.
With all this positive where does the negative lie? Good question, let’s break this down.
The first problem the game suffers from is divided into two pieces, but both come from the same issue; the creatures. The big problem with the creatures you encounter in Alice is that there isn’t enough of a variety of them. For a game that is positively open to some of the nastiest things the mind could create for a game, there is a lot of repetitive enemies in each chapter. For example, you’ll see a pattern in the very first chapter of the game. If you’re not fighting a troll armed with a fork then you’re fighting a mad-eye teacup. If you don’t fight that then you’re fighting a variety of Ruin. You wash-rinse-repeat those enemies for the entire chapter. You tell yourself that chapter two is where everything is going to break out, but you get more of the same repeating. The lack of variety in enemies from level to level, and the emergence of way too many versions of the Ruins make for a lackluster fighting time. The game cannot make up for this through visuals, as you will have a constant reminder that enemies simply don’t progress as you progress through a chapter.
What makes this even more magnified is the lack of proper AI in the game and faulty trigger points for enemies. While I should be thanking Spicy Horse Games for saving my sanity in this tough game, there were moments where I could trigger an enemy and then back off to safety. For example, there was a spot towards the end of the first chapter of the game where I triggered a bunch of enemies on a floating platform then backed off onto an opposite platform to gently take them out with my pepper grinder from afar. It was easy to do and those goobers couldn’t do anything about it. Now, due to their awful AI I can also take out my enemies from afar and plan around their repetitive attack natures. For example, when I got to the second chapter that’s predominantly underwater, I was able to trigger my fish enemies and just sit there as they repetitively kept hiding and reappearing from under the sand. What makes this example even worse is that I would drop a bomb in front of them and set it off. The fish creature would get hurt and come back for more of the same until they were dead. Have your creatures back off, run away and wait for you (Alice) to actually hop down before setting up another attack; just don’t take it like a fish.
Another thing that I had to wrestle with the entire game is some very loose controls. The scheme was fine, as finding buttons to do what I needed them to do didn’t cause much of an issue, but controlling the camera was a game of its own. One of the biggest issues since the arrival of the 3D platformer in the video game industry is whether to make it set or free floating for the gamer. Alice: Madness Returns is pretty much a user controlled camera game that tends to do its own thing from time to time. For example, in the midst of a fight with multiple creatures towards the end of one of the chapters, I found myself trying to kill an enemy and at the same time keep an eye on another when they attacked. Getting the timing and angle down were nearly impossible, and extremely frustrating to deal with. When I’m fighting five things I would prefer the camera (on its own) pull back to accommodate a bigger view of the board. If I have to worry about targeting an enemy or using a particular weapon (like the pepper grinder) and fight with the camera then it’s not going to be a great experience. Spicy Horse Games needed to put in an equation where if the situation involves three or more enemies that the camera would pull back to reveal everyone on the screen. From that point on it would be up to the gamer to adjust the camera. As it stands, the game doesn’t care how many are attacking the camera is completely controlled by the gamer. If you’re trying to aim with the pepper grinder and check to see if you’re about to get stomped by a giant Ruin then I wish you good luck; that feat is nearly impossible.
I’m not sure my wife has heard me curse that much before this camera debacle.
On a side note, and this is just a very small issue, there were a few times where I forgot control combinations to unleash certain moves like pulling out an umbrella to block an incoming bomb. When I went into the menu system to retrieve instructions on how to use the umbrella I was greeted with nothing. Unless I missed it, Spicy Horse Games really needed to give gamers the option to view moves as you learn them. When you learn a new move there is a two to three frame picture of a chalkboard with key commands; it’s simple and easy to understand. Yet, unless I’m missing it completely there is no way to access these steps once you learn them. I had to break out the reviewer’s guide that was provided to me to even confirm that the umbrella was an option and that I wasn’t dreaming it. Everything you do in a gamer should be recorded, especially instructions/training that you learn.
So what about the game’s difficulty. If you can ignore the camera issues, the AI and the repetitive nature of the enemies then you’re going to still find a very tough and frustrating game waiting for you. There were certainly moments in the game where I couldn’t find a solution to a puzzle, as the game doesn’t hand anything over to you easily. For example, early on in the game you’re going to fun into a few levels where you can’t find a solution. Sometimes the solution is just a button on the wall that you have to hit and other times you’re really going to have to go through a trial/error process. It’s tough stuff and definitely not for the gamer that is easily frustrated. I think most reviewers that reviewed this title are going to count off because they can’t figure things out, but that shouldn’t go against the level design of the game; sometimes it’s just the reviewer. Sometimes during the game I just sat back and said, “What am I doing wrong?” and other times I just said, “**** this ****, it’s just too ****ing hard for me to ****ing run through!”
This game isn’t an easy game, so don’t expect that. Anyone who tells you it was a simple run through is either lying or as crazy as Alice. Keep in mind folks that I was running the game on ‘normal’. This game is challenging and even more so if you want to run through it collecting memories and other little fun trinkets to make the experience even deeper. I found myself fascinated by some of the hidden areas of the game and at one point it became my main obsession with the title. That does relieve some frustration during the game play, but it’s only a rest stop on a long trip.
So, is the game fun and worth your money? I found the repetitive nature of the enemies and the lackluster AI to be a major turn-off. I kept going through the game to explore the design of the visuals and levels, but there was some small void with the enemy and camera issues that never was fulfilled properly. The game can be fun, but only if you can get hooked by the story and visuals. The game takes some time and patience from gamers, which isn’t a set of attributes most gamers maintain nowadays. The sequel may not do the original justice, but it does have some fascinating moments of entertainment. Is it enough to warrant a purchase? That’s ultimately up to you. I would definitely try before I buy, but if you’re a fan of the original then you’re going to buy Alice: Madness Returns anyway. It is a bonus that the original Alice comes with this game, but is that enough to push a gamer over the edge for a far from perfect 3D platformer? Again, for me it would definitely be a try before you buy situation, but I could see myself purchasing this if not only for the collecting portion of the game and the original packed in with it.
Maddening at times...
There’s a lot to like with Alice: Madness Returns, but regretfully there is more that needs work to make it even more likable. Had this had a few more months to stew in beta and the release date pushed back into the holiday season then maybe these little things (camera, AI and repetitive enemies) could have been worked out. As it is, the game is a little broken, but certainly not as severely as the main character.