Given the esoteric undercurrents of Lewis Carroll’s seminal page-turner, you can hardly blame today’s artists for striving to create the definitive adult Alice – even when the results have been mixed to say the least. While Angela Carter’s short story, Wolf Alice, breathed new life into Carroll’s fiction with its bold exploration of female sexuality, recent attempts – such as Tim Burton’s 3D re-imagining – have felt more like ostentatious homages to the original material. Despite its best intentions, American McGee’s Alice falls into the latter camp.
You see, Alice: Madness Returns isn’t quite as mad, original, or inventive as its thinks it is. On the contrary,for a game that features flying pig snouts, tattooed cats and a Scottish octopus with a penchant for booze, it’s strikingly conventional. The game’s raison d’être, then, isn’t narrative reinvention, but McGee’s arresting vision of Wonderland – which titillates almost enough to obscure the game’s conventional platforming tropes.
Years have passed since the original game, and Alice now finds herself in the cosy quietude of a Victorian orphanage – a far cry from the bedraggled asylum of her youth. Despite this, Alice’s mental state appears to have worsened. Still haunted by visions of her parent’s fiery demise – and the all-consuming fear that she might be to blame – Alice retreats into her imagination for answers, recalling a Wonderland that’s far more twisted, psychotic and macabre than ever before.
The game’s cutscenes – which are rendered in a gorgeous paper cutout style – certainly look the part, but the accompanying dialogue leaves a lot to be desired, frequently falling onto the wrong side of literary nonsense. Fortunately, AMR’s environmental storytelling fares much better. Exploring the Victorian streets of London has more than a whiff of ‘Fable’ about it – with NPCs that recite their tales of woe, and a dark, steampunk aesthetic that reflects the emotional state of its heroine.
It’s an approach to storytelling that’s all but forgotten by the time players reach Wonderland, however, in which McGee’s spotlight begins to favour his ugly supporting cast. Many of the original characters return, of course, including The Cheshire Cat, The Mad Hatter and the Queen of Hearts, but their gothic incarnations possess neither the wit nor charm of Carroll’s ensemble. Instead, cameos are merely perfunctory – the Cheshire Cat once again provides players with hints, while the other characters fill the gaps between missions and, occasionally, new worlds.
In terms of gameplay, AMR takes the form of an early 3D platformer with an emphasis on weapon-based combat. However, despite borrowing from some of the best games around (Zelda’s swordplay, Resi 4’s over-the-shoulder camera when wielding weapons, and Bayonetta’s Witch Time dodging mechanic), AMR still manages to stick out like a Vorpal Blade to the heart.
Regardless of your surroundings, the way in which you traverse Wonderland remains the same. Platforming recycles the same floating objects and vertical gusts ad nauseum – a matter it attempts to disguise by refashioning its art assets to hilarious effect. Suffice to say, platforming remains the same whether you’re jumping between Mahjong tiles, icebergs or elaborately decorated playing cards. Alice can also shrink to diminutive proportions with LB, enabling her to squeeze her way through tiny keyholes and reveal invisible platforms, which never fails to raise a smile.
It’s the game’s combat, however, that truly shines here. In many respects – with its lock-on camera, emphasis on swordplay, and shield that can be used to deflect incoming projectiles – it feels like Zelda, only with the weapon-based combat we’ve come to expect of modern adventure titles. Alice’s weapon of choice, the Vorpal Blade, can be used to defeat the majority of Wonderland’s deranged critters, and it’s equally as satisfying to use as Link’s Master Sword.
Throughout the game, players unlock an array of traditional weapons – many of which have been re-skinned to fit Alice’s dark aesthetic. First up, there’s the pepper grinder (a gatling gun) which can be used to destroy enemy shields, allowing players to finish them off with the Vorpal Blade. Soon after, Alice stumbles upon a Hobby Horse (a gigantic hammer) which can be used to defeat heavy duty foes with tough defenses, which is our particular favourite.
Many of Alice’s weapons can also be used outside of battle, including the bunny-shaped clockwork bombs, which can also be used to blast through weak walls in a manner similar to Batman’s explosive gels – or even placed upon switches, allowing for time-critical platforming challenges. Alternatively, the pepper grinder can be used to shoot flying pig snouts or pressure gauges to open up new pathways and platforms, which mixes up the action a little.
Somewhere in the middle is the Teapot Cannon (a grenade launcher), which deals massive damage to large groups of enemies. However, its implementation is problematic. Only one weapon, either the Pepper Grinder or the Teapot Cannon, can be mapped to the attack button, meaning that players are forced to choose between them. Given the amount of time players will have spent with the Pepper Grinder, and its usefulness in battle, it’s little wonder that many gamers will stick with what they know.
As seems to be customary these days, players can also upgrade their weapons. They do this by collecting bloodied teeth, which have been scattered across Wonderland. While players can enhance everything from a weapon’s rate of fire, cool-down time, attack power and even appearance, the process is hugely unattractive. Rather than allowing players to upgrade attributes individually, upgrades are level-based – meaning that by the time you’ve accrued enough teeth to upgrade the level of your desired weapon, the game’s enemies have become tougher – rendering upgrades almost unnoticeable.
There’s certainly a lot to like about Alice’s latest adventure in Wonderland. Artistically, the game is beyond reproach. Environments, despite the occasional shoddy texture, are beautiful to behold, and Alice’s animations remain elegant and graceful throughout. Unfortunately, McGee’s latest doesn’t pack the gameplay punch to match the quality of its art design.
Alice: Madness Returns is a competent little platformer, but one that ultimately falls prey to its own hype. The plaforming is solid and the combat is superb, but the story – which should have injected new life into Carroll’s literature – is incoherent at best, with characters that are all but impossible to care about. McGee’s Alice is certainly worth a look, but it’s safe to say that by the time you’ve hit the halfway point, you’ll have seen everything the game has to offer.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Microsoft Xbox One 360 was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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