“The past is dead.” This line sets the tone at the start of Alice: Madness Returns, the long-awaited sequel to American McGee’s Alice. Having played both titles, and seeing the obvious differences in how each game approaches enemy encounters and world traversal, I would also say this one line is a fair summation of how old game design has faded into a memory. The original Alice rarely abided by convention, choosing never to hold the player’s hand or spell out all the answers, and it mostly played by its own rules. The sequel forgets this free-thinking mode of adventure and conforms closer to what modern video game design has become: straight-forward and simplistic. Madness Returns still delivers mind-bending visuals and a strange tale worth telling, but those strengths are in juxtaposition to the gameplay itself, instead of the two working in tandem.

But let’s start with the positives, shall we? Madness has indeed returned, with a vengeance. Returns is more gruesome than the original in almost every way, especially the beautifully animated 2-D cutscenes that might force the faint of heart to turn away in disgust. With the leaps in technology since 2000, Spicy Horse is able to render every grotesque detail with stunning clarity. Just like American McGee’s Alice before it, Madness Returns is not Lewis Carroll's children’s story you might be familiar with. Prepare to be disturbed.

Alice is every bit as blunt and bitter as she was in the first game, just with an added tinge of sorrow and anger. She’s hunting for the truth behind what happened to her family when her house burned down and took away everything she loved. The closer she gets to answers, the more her mind begins to unravel. Alice has always been unstable, but here she becomes downright unhinged. It’s a haunted side of the character that’s never really been done to this degree, and is very effective in a few key story moments. She proves that not every protagonist has to be a generic white dude with sarcastic quips or a chip on his shoulder. I would tell you what game I was taking a shot at there, but there are really too many to mention.

Wonderland feels larger this time around, and livelier. The environments are greatly expanded, giving them ample room to breathe. There’s loads to explore and discover. I would have liked it if the Victorian era portions of the game were a little more substantial, outside of framing Alice’s state of mind before slipping back into Wonderland. These sections get more strange and sinister as the game goes on, but the early stages are a little dry. Thankfully, all these moments are redeemed by the end when the game travels into some very uncomfortable territory. This is a compliment to the game’s ability to wring true pathos out of insanity.

The platforming was one of my biggest issues with the original due to how unresponsive Alice felt. In Madness Returns, jumping feels more precise, and the addition of a mid-air ‘twirl’ that acts as a double and triple jump makes corrections easier. The ability to float between jumps also helps. This freedom of movement allows the player to really get up close with all the little nooks and crannies the developers have shoved into Wonderland.

Unfortunately, like beautiful people with too much make-up on, some cracks begin to show the closer you get. Sometimes, the game is quite rich with color and detail, other times the textures look blurry and faded. There are some areas that just get dark for the sake of hiding the lack of detail in the environment. It’s a clever, if lazy, way of hiding your flaws.

In fact, consistency is Madness’ biggest problem. Yes, the game is quite a bit longer than the original, and the world larger, but those elements open the game up for more spots to fail. Not every gameplay scenario is well-executed, and not every environment is memorable. Some ideas overstay their welcome. It’s not necessarily padding, but there is a general sense that some things were stretched just a little too thin. The original Alice didn’t linger long enough for its faults to really manifest in the player’s mind. They were over before you dwelt on the negatives, and really, this only let you remember the positives.

While not every environment is a hit, they remain one of the franchise’s greatest assets. Castles made of playing cards floating in the sky (my personal peaceful place), a mystical incarnation of the far-east with trees made of china and foreign scripture melting down the walls, two worlds literally being ripped apart, and so on. There’s never a shortage of ‘wow’ moments that caused me to put down the controller for a moment and simply take a look around. In fact, around a fifth of my overall play-time was probably spent just ogling at all the pretty/fucked-up images.

The same care really wasn’t put into the combat. Fights are flashy, but fairly simplistic. They never really evolve past slashing and shooting, and thus, the enemies rarely pose a challenge. Reduced amounts of weapons and weapon usages from the original make fights more repetitive and pattern-based. Defeat an enemy once and you’ve pretty much got it memorized for the rest of the game. Returns really works best when it gets away from those combat heavy moments and back to what it’s good at: transporting the player to another world.

At any time, Alice can turn small. When she does, she has a sort of ‘small-sense,’ that allows her to see hidden objects and passages in the environment. A lot of the time, this is the only way to find certain collectibles and memories. It’s reminiscent of the detective vision in the Arkham games. Every time you enter a new area, you feel compelled to switch into this small-sense so that you don’t miss anything. The secret puzzles aren’t quite as challenging or clever as they are in the Arkham games, but it’s still a nice addition that makes the world feel even more magical.

Although, there is a downside to all this, especially for those adventurous at heart. All these clues and hints hidden in the environment can make the solutions to some puzzles painfully obvious. It’s like someone spoiling something in a movie ten seconds before it happens. Instead of having to experiment with the game’s arsenal of weapons, a hint will simply paint a picture of a bomb on the wall. Gee, I wonder what I’m supposed to do? It’s straight-forward to a fault. The original Alice didn’t often hold your hand, while Madness Returns holds your hand a little too often and a little too tightly.

So while the graphics and hair physics have greatly improved since 2000, not all of the gameplay's "advancements" are welcome. Everything is a little safer, a little more predictable. These complaints don’t apply to the story (which is bizarre in all the best ways) or characters, but it would have been nice for a unique game to be built around this unique world.

“The past is dead,” as are some of the key elements that made American McGee’s Alice such a stand-out game when it released. Maybe Madness Returns’ short-comings wouldn’t have been so noticeable if the game had been shorter. You see, when someone is crazy, the longer they ramble on, the less interesting they become. Their insanity becomes tiring and repetitive. The mystery fades.  This is Alice’s fate in Madness Returns. However, there are still plenty of twisted pleasures to be found in the warped world of Wonderland. By the end, I’m sure you’ll want to remember most of your stay in this insane asylum.


Final Score: 7/10

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