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Alice: Madness Returns Review

14 Jul 2011  by   Paul Younger

Consider yourselves lucky: my first thought was to write a concept review. I was just going to write out the lyrics to Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit and then whack a score on the end. Terrible idea, I know; it might’ve seemed clever at first, but it would’ve gotten monotonous. The style couldn’t really have carried it for an entire review.
Funnily enough, that would’ve made it the perfect concept review. If you swap out the word “review” for “game” then the above describes Alice: Madness Returns remarkably well, because – like that concept review – Alice: Madness Returns is all about style over substance.

Madness Returns picks up a little while after the close of the first game. Alice, her mind in better shape than it was back then, has moved out of the asylum and now lives in an orphanage under the care of a psychiatrist. “Better shape” doesn’t mean perfect, though; the Wonderland that represents her psyche is falling apart again, this time because of a huge, corrupting train rushing through it. If that wasn’t enough, she’s starting to have flashbacks to the night of the fire that killed her family and put her into her damaged mental state – flashbacks that imply the fire might not have been the accident she’s always thought it was.
Which, in short, is an excuse to do some platforming in a variety of worlds set in Alice’s head. Unlike the first game, these are tied together with some very short segments set in the real world: you potter about faux-Victorian London until Alice gets traumatised by something, at which point you’re whisked away to a level inside her head, based around whatever she saw in the preceding London section.
It works well, for the most part. Wandering around London lets you pick up on pieces of the backstory and soak up some atmosphere, and gives you a chance to guess at what sort of environment you’re going to end up in next. It’s a very minor thing, but it breaks up the flow between the surreal levels rather nicely, and makes the mind-bending architecture that follows look even more special.

It’s impressive that such a thing is possible, because said mind-bending architecture is beautiful. Really, really beautiful. Each world has a distinct visual theme and feel, from the environment to the enemies to Alice’s costume, and everything fits wonderfully. These aren’t the most cookie-cutter of themes, either: while the first level shifts from a lush and green Wonderland towards a slightly trite and dull steampunk world, other worlds break the mould, with the most impressive being a mid-game world themed around ancient Japan. Expect samurai wasps and origami ants, along with animated backgrounds and world design apparently drawn from ukiyo-e paintings and woodcuts.
Madness Returns is nice in picture form, but it’s breathtaking in motion. I don’t just mean the world design, either; this is one of the few games in which I not only looked forward to seeing the next costume design for the protagonist, but I specifically noted down that the protagonist’s hair was lovely. (Look, it might move in an unrealistic manner, but it flows beautifully, okay? Okay.)
The rest of the production values are equally lovely. The cutscenes switch over to an animated style that nicely contrasts with the hideous amounts of gore that crop up (the intro has Alice’s face get torn off, for reference) and the voice acting is at worst tolerable, and at best superb. Special mentions go out to Susie Brann and Roger Jackson, reprising their roles as Alice and the Cheshire Cat from the first game – although I remember the Cheshire Cat being a little more useful back then. Here, his advice tends towards cryptic life tips, rather than cryptic advice on the situation at hand. Still, if the aim was to confuse…

Eagle-eyed readers will notice that, while I’ve been extolling the virtues of the visuals and the audio, I haven’t actually mentioned the gameplay. In short: it’s tedious, repetitive, and boring. It’s perfectly functional, but that’s pretty much the best that can be said for it.
You’re either platforming or fighting for most of Madness Returns. Platforming works, albeit in a rather floaty and imprecise way. Alice doesn’t have a double-jump, you see – she has a quadruple jump and the ability to glide, and if you can get through the entire thing without once forgetting whether you’ve done three or four jumps, you’re a better player than I. Thankfully, falling to your doom just returns Alice to the start of the section without even a life penalty to slow you down.
This is spiced up with pressure pads which need to be weighed down, targets which need to be shot, and platforms that are only visible when you shrink yourself (which makes sense in context, honest). As I said, it all works. The problem is that all of these things appear pretty early, and repeat endlessly. The game has optional areas hidden away, but – other than recovering memories (short snippets of dialogue that explain little bits of subplot) – the only reason to do these is to get teeth for the obligatory weapon upgrade system, allowing for some practically unnoticeable damage and capacity increases.

That system would probably be more compelling if the combat was interesting, but it’s not. Alice’s massive stock of weapons from the first game has been reduced down to five rather dull implements of death: the Vorpal Blade (light attack), the Hobby Horse (heavy attack), the Pepper Grinder (machine gun), the Teapot Cannon (grenade launcher), and the Clockwork Bomb. No Blunderbuss. No Ice Wand. No Demon Dice. No Jacks. No Eye Staff. Nothing original or interesting, in short, which is a massive step back.
None of the weapons are designed to link into the others, and neither the Vorpal Blade nor the Hobby Horse has more than a single combo. As such you just stick to whatever weapon you like best, unless you’re up against an enemy that requires a particular approach. It might seem harsh to criticise a platformer for having combat that fails to match up to God of War, but if you’re going to stick this much combat in, you’d better make sure it’s up to par.
It’s disappointing, because even the combat is pretty. Enemy design is impressive, the animations and sound effects are lovely, and there’s attention to detail in everything. Dodging doesn’t have Alice roll out of the way, for instance; she bursts into a flurry of blue butterflies, which reform a little way in whatever direction you dodged. It’s great. It’s amazing. It’s tied to a dull mechanic.

In light of the production values (which would’ve kept me playing right to the end, even if I didn’t have to complete the game for review) I’d be willing to forgive the dull platforming and combat if it weren’t for one thing: Madness Returns goes on for too long.
Each world outstays its welcome by about an hour, and attempts to break up the flow by switching genre to rhythm-action, side-scrolling platformer, or Super Monkey Ball don’t work particularly well (with the exception of a Godzilla moment in the game’s closing third). It’s strangely masochistic: I was begging for the end of each world, but as soon as it was finished, I was rapt with attention at the sumptuous visual feast that came next… until an hour or two had passed. This is not a game with great pacing.
It is, however, a game with truly stunning production values. There’s some great animation, fantastic voice acting, and the levels have jaw-dropping visual design. It’s also painfully repetitive. If you’re willing to put up with the tedium then it’s certainly worth a look for the prettiness alone… but if you want a game with equally good visual design, a sharper wit, a truckload more originality, better level design, better pacing, and a smarter take on the levels-inside-the-mind theme, then (and you knew this was coming) you might want to consider Psychonauts instead.

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