Saturday, July 9, 2011

Alice: Madness Returns Review

“We’re all mad here.”

Taken from Lewis Carroll’s original, “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” this quote very much stands out for me regarding the review at hand. In the year of 2000, Rogue Entertainment released the original American McGee’s Alice on the PC and Mac. A Playstation 2 version of the game was also planned, but got canceled early on. As a result of this, many missed out on it, as they either didn’t have computers that had the capability to play it, or simply couldn’t find a copy, as it became very difficult to snag one after a certain point. Cue 2011; we finally receive the highly-anticipated sequel, “Alice: Madness Returns. Is this one a sure-fire winner, or does it simply fall down the rabbit hole?

The game takes place immediately after the events of the original, with Alice being released from her asylum and sent to an orphanage to be taken care of by Doctor Bumby. Bumby is said to help children with their troubled pasts with hypnotism, in the hopes that the harshest memories will disappear. Alice continues to feel pain and suffering over her family’s death, having many hallucinations and outbursts. When sent to get some medicine, she notices a white cat and begins to follow it. It is at this point that she stumbles into another rabbit hole and her new adventure begins.

I will start by saying what is probably going to be obvious to most. The graphics and scenery in this title look absolutely gorgeous. The first game brought a memorable vision of a gothic and macabre Wonderland, and this sequel extends upon that in ways I couldn’t have even imagined. From brush landscapes and bright mountains, to dark caves and fiery depths, it’s hard to not to get caught up in some of the unique and imaginative lands. It’s true that there is a bit of a graphical inconsistency with one stage as opposed to the next, but I don’t think anyone playing this is really going to mind all that much, as it is not a hugely noticeable inconsistency, and they’re all truly sites to behold. Some cutscenes are told in a fashion where the characters are all appearing in a form similar to pop-up books, but in motion. They provide another interesting approach to viewing the game and its unveiling story. One more point of interest to note is the real world in the game itself. It creates a dark and brooding atmosphere, combined with Alice’s hallucinations, to make for one truly terrific ride.

The next bit of info I would like to get out is the music and sound. The music in the game is overall superb, and helps set the tone for the game very nicely. I would have liked a bit more variety than what was present, but the music certainly good enough that I didn’t mind it so much. The voice actors are all very well-done and match with their game characters quite professionally. The biggest departure in the voices from what I could tell, was definitely the Chesire Cat, who’s voice appeared much deeper this time around. It wasn’t a bad voice-job; just drastically different from what I remember him sounding like in the original.

The next few sections I’m about to describe, are the cause for the mixed reviews the game has been getting. It is with this understanding, that I hope everyone will now know what to expect and determine if this title is for them or not. I’m going to start with the gameplay mechanics. The first thing that one who has played the original will want to know is what was improved, if anything at all. I am happy to say that quite a bit has been touched up in the last 10 years. The combat in the original American McGee’s Alice was one of its biggest flaws, making hits difficult to land on your enemies, as well as making it difficult to tell if you were even doing damage to the enemies in front of you. In Madness Returns, we have a system similar to that in “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time,” and “God of War,” borrowing a few elements from each. While this doesn’t give the game so much of a unique feel, one will remember the fighting in the game much more positively when trekking through this sequel. Alice can slash with her knife, bash with her Hobby-Horse, shoot, dodge, and lock on to enemies while doing all of these things at once. As the game progresses, you learn to take advantage of these abilities far more effectively. The combat in the game is the reason you’ll keep playing until the end.

The other gameplay aspect to mention, and probably one of the biggest reasons for the mixed reviews, is the platforming elements of the game. While taking away the ability to grab the edges of platforms in order to climb them, the jumping is much improved, allowing Alice to bounce herself back up at least three times, as well as glide in order to reach the next platform in the distance. As a result of this, many levels feel very much spaced out in places. Some reviewers see the platforming in a disappointing light, calling the gameplay too dated for this generation. Others like myself, found quite a bit to enjoy about the platforming. It’s not perfect and the camera angles could still use a tremendous amount of work, but it was overall a very fulfilling experience, especially to fans of the original, as well as fans of 3D platformers in general.

There were a few other gameplay modes added to break up the monotony, and all of them come off in very interesting ways. The biggest stand-outs were the 2D side-scroller sections, where Alice moves along a 2D plane, timing her jumps and dodging enemies in order to make it to the following location. In one stage, Alice eats the cake that says “Eat Me” and grows gigantic, enabling sort of a “stomp the crap out of everything” stage that proves to be quite entertaining. There is also a neat little mini-game in which you control a doll’s head around a 2D/3D plane to reach the next goal for Alice.

The story of the game carries everything through nicely, but not right away. Of the 6 chapters in the game, I felt that the story didn’t start to truly pick up or have any real developments until about the 4th chapter. This is why a bunch of reviews have also labeled this game as “boring.” I imagine not many of these reviewers actually stuck around for the entire game. Otherwise, they might have seen some of the interesting plot twists and maybe even changed their mind. Gamers will really need to rely on the scenery and the combat to get them through the first half, but after that, I imagine the experience will start to become much more rewarding to those who stuck around. With that said, half of the game is a long time to wait in order to start really getting into things.

I do have to note one more thing in particular that irked me about this sequel. Near the end of every chapter, you usually encounter some type of giant or menacing creature, only to have it destroyed for you by some outside force or cutscene, just as they were building the scene up in the fashion of a bossfight. The only actual bossfight in the game is the one you face at the very end. It’s a decent fight, but this one out of what could have been nearly 6 was extremely disappointing to me. I was really hoping for more in this area, and you likely will too.

In conclusion, I think that anyone who played and loved the original American McGee’s Alice will find a lot to appreciate about the way the game was changed and updated. Those who did not get to play the original may still want to pick this up, as both the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360 versions of the game come with a code to download the original game (also downloadable for $9.99, using the Madness Returns disc to play). Getting to experience this classic, as well as its sequel in a complete package make the whole thing much more worthwhile in the long run. While a flawed experience, it’s hard to peg this game when we’re getting almost nothing but “Shooter 5438954” thrown in our faces constantly. This is a nice change of pace from that line of gaming, and something truly worth checking out. Just bring your patience with you for the first half of the ride.

8 bashful Hobby-Horses out of 10

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