Written By: Erika Haase
Alice: Madness Returns
Originally: Xbox360, PS3, PC
Now: Compatible on Xbox One
ESRB Rating: M
Publisher: EA Games
Developer: Spicy Horse
Quick Link Table Of Contents:
- An Introduction To Alice
- The Road To Alice:Madness Returns
- Story Summary (Spoiler Free)
- Gameplay Review w/Backwards Compatability Updates
WHO IS AMERICAN MCGEE’S ALICE?
Alice In Wonderland has rattled the creative bones of many since Lewis Carroll’s original book was written in 1865. Tim Burton has given it his signature warped, if muted for children, flair. Disney has given it their own wide-eyed, bright, cartoon approach. American McGee (yes, that’s his real name), however, has given it my favorite rendition. His Wonderland is a manifestation of an abused and traumatized mind, subject to the horrors of Victorian era mental care and patient abuse.
The Mad Hatter, Rabbit, Red Queen, and Cheshire are representative of internal demons rather than characters with their own motivations. The hideous creatures of Wonderland are manifestations of everything from lechery to gluttony, with a healthy dose of PTSD thrown in for good measure. Alice Liddell is not a heroine or a bright eyed, blond haired little girl in American McGee’s world. No, she is a victim desperately trying to escape a world that wants to do nothing more than destroy her spirit and sanity. Wonderland is a place she goes in her head to escape everything from physical to implied sexual abuse, and it doesn’t treat her kindly. Wonderland is where Alice learns to fight back. In McGee’s vision for Alice, it’s within her own mind that she’ll gain the tools to rebuild herself from the inside out so she might face the real world again.
GO ASK ALICE: A HISTORY LESSON
In the year 2000, a platformer by the name of American McGee’s Alice was released on the PC exclusively. Alice Liddell was introduced to us as the sole survivor, and subsequent witness, of her parents burning alive in their mid-1800’s Oxford mansion. As a result, she goes into severe shock, perpetually under the belief that it was she who was responsible for the fires. Alice, and a certain black cat who knocked over a candle in the library. American McGee’s Alice was dripping in style, story and was unapologetically dark in tone, gaining it a large number of fans. It saw the release of some truly grotesque, yet awesomely eerie, McFarlane figures several years after it had come out. The redesign of classic characters that had previously been bright and fluffy, like the Cheshire Cat, now returned looking emaciated, sinister, and demonic.
In an interview with Wired in 2000, McGee cites that many of the inspirations for his interpretation of Alice were personal. On top of an extremely unusual childhood, he was once physically assaulted by his biological father at the age of 13. He threatened to kill McGee and attempted to gouge out his eyes. He claims he escaped by convincing his father that they should go to a bar, and luckily it worked. I’ll just let that sit there for a moment.
Wired Interview with American McGee
However, due to a tangled web of misdirection and gaming political knots, it took over 10 years for a sequel to Alice to be released, despite high critical praise and a cult following. This was due, in part, to a movie originally being planned. When no movie had happened by 2007, focus shifted to a sequel game instead. EA once again acted as publisher, now working with McGee’s Shanghai based studio, Spicy Horse. At the time, it was the first console game entirely developed and designed in China for export. In 2011, Alice finally saw a return to Wonderland. Since it had been 11 years since the release of the original, EA included a download code for the original Alice. Unfortunately, it makes for a very poor console port, with horrendous controls and an overly sensitive camera that makes it (in my opinion) unplayable and likely to induce madness.
Don’t be dismayed, however, since Madness Returns includes a detailed historical account of the events of the original Alice. You won’t feel like you’ve even missed a beat. It would be nice to have played the first game on the same console, but you’re better off picking it up cheap on Steam.
Finally, Alice: Madness Returns arrived to far less attention than it should have gotten. With a lot of momentum lost after such a long gap, and a nearly non-existent marketing campaign, it has repeatedly been referred to as highly underrated as a result. While the series was originally planned to be a trilogy, the poor sales and moderate reception from the second game have left the franchise lost to an abyss with the last solid information about an Alice project being heard in 2014.
Alice: Madness Returns takes place in 1875, 11 years after Alice has been released from the asylum of the first game. She has been diagnosed as incapable of causing further damage to herself or others. She’s regained regular consciousness and become sane in comparison to her previous state. Alice is now 19 and sent to be under the care of Dr. Bumby in London – a therapist who seems keenly focused on getting Alice to forget her Wonderland and everything from her past, her family included. As she is no longer a child, Alice lives in Dr. Bumby’s home for the mentally ill and runs errands for both him and the Nurse there, all while constantly being reminded of how alone she would be without them. One would have hoped Alice’s mind was recovering, but her sessions only serve to give her increasing numbers of hallucinations and, you guessed it, back down the rabbit hole we go!
Alice’s return to Wonderland is hardly a happy one, however. While at first idyllic, it is being slowly consumed by slime known as “ruin” and there happens to be the small issue of a hellish train running rampant through all of Wonderland’s iconic locations. What scattered and nonsensical information she can manage to squeeze out of the Hatter, Caterpillar, the devastated Queen of Hearts, and even Cheshire himself, seems to point out that “the train goes where you go, Alice.” Clearly there is a new danger assaulting Wonderland, and using the logic that Wonderland is a manifestation of Alice’s mind, it is now up to you to discover what that might be.
Alice Madness Returns is a third-person adventure game like its predecessor, described on it’s Wikipedia page as being a “psychological horror platformer.” While as a whole being a fantastic experience, it is sadly plagued by obvious budgetary restrictions, poor quality control, and some lazy design oversight that mar the experience.
The camera sometimes handles like a bratty, claustrophobic child. Confined spaces seem to have a mind of their own and often the camera jumps to odd and awkward positions that suddenly flip the control axis’ on you causing you to walk right off the edge of something. This doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does, it’s obviously annoying.
BACKWARDS COMPATIBILITY NOTE: The camera seems to swing around far smoother on the Xbox One, at least in the opening area. The screen stuttered far less when coming around corners in enclosed tunnel areas, and while I haven’t gotten further into the game yet on a replay, I have a feeling the smoother overall frame-rate will make for a more enjoyable experience for those of you experiencing this for the first time, or a second-time through. /END NOTE
Screen prompts, particularly in the first level, remain on screen far past when they are needed (or long after you needed them) leaving you to sometimes fight entire tutorial battles with the gameplay tip dead in the center of the screen blocking your vision. This was never patched out, and is simply an example of lazy quality control.
The jump mechanic is a hybrid of something from the first game – a sort of floaty-double jump that allows Alice to extend her jumps on unseen currents. Eventually it can be combined with a dodge maneuver that makes for quick mid-air adjustments. The animation for this is beautiful, with green leaves and butterflies swooshing just under the edges of Alice’s skirts as she zips around in the air. There is often an issue, however, of figuring out the strange timing it entails. Even once you DO figure out its timing, you will still find the float period lasting shorter durations at random, crashing into invisible walls, or not chaining correctly into a double jump because of button recognition timing issues. When you’re mid battle, or trying to platform your way to a secret area, this is very frustrating.
BACKWARDS COMPATIBILITY NOTE: In the same vein as the camera issues from the XB360 version, I noticed her float-double-jump had much smoother reaction times. I didn’t have any issues in getting it to dodge and link jumps like I had before. The faster frame rate absolutely helps this issue, and while I’m sure it still has issues in certain areas, seems markedly improved simply by being played on a faster machine. /END NOTE
Delayed texture loading is not an occasional hiccup – it is a constant occurrence that often times pulls you out of full immersion In otherwise jaw droppingly beautiful worlds. This also happens in cut scenes that function with in-game graphics. In comparison to the beautifully done diorama style flashback scenes that are reminiscent of papercraft or wood carvings, it makes the game look cheap when it’s art style is anything but.
BACKWARDS COMPATIBLITY NOTE: The texture issues are still present, popping in often. Luckily they don’t usually pop back out, but it’s very obvious. The good news is that due to the incredible art direction of this game, it has aged very well. In the real world, everyone has a harsh, angular appearance that makes them look hand-carved, exaggerated, and decidedly sinister. In Wonderland, the colors are vibrant and the layout of levels is maze-like and fitting. Each area of Wonderland is individually realized, with nearly no repeated elements to give it the feeling of very separate segments of Alice’s mind. The colors definitely appear richer on the Xbox One, and if you’ve upgraded your television since 2011, it’s worth just seeing these areas again to soak in the beauty. /END NOTE
Combat can be fast and fluid, but also clunky. If you choose to lock onto your enemies, you’re often deprived of peripheral vision and have to cancel the lock-on to avoid falling off a platform in the midst of a battle. Combat can feel punishingly unfair in the face of many enemies in smaller areas because of this issue. Unfortunately, you can only block incoming shots when you ARE locked on so you can see how this constant switching of mechanics becomes annoying. However, like the jumping issue, once you figure out this games unique “timing” you will be able to get by passably.
On a more superficial note, there are issues with sound editing. Numerous times you can barely hear people talking, and if it weren’t for the subtitles you would have no idea what they said. More than once, there’s a feeling that there was supposed to be more to a scene. Even the final credits don’t have music the entire way through, scrolling text in silence for the majority. This is particularly saddening as the music of Madness Returns is beautiful and haunting. Esoteric melodies float through Wonderland, and chaotic ambiance fuels your rage in other areas. The sounds in this game deserved to be given VIP treatment and weren’t. If you ever want to experience the music for yourself, a fantastic playlist can be found here: Alice Madness Returns OST: YouTube Playlist
For all of its demons, however, I didn’t stop playing. Madness Returns has a sadistic wonder about it that makes you suffer through its low points to see the best it has to offer. The imagery is dark, violent, unforgiving, and disturbing. No topic is off limits, including the reality of child prostitution, corruption, the horrors of Victorian era psychological “treatment,” and the general treatment of the poor in London circa late 1800’s. Outside of the real world, there are several areas of Wonderland that are simply breathtaking. The beginning of the Queensland portion was one of my favorites, as was the initial forest grotto. The Dollhouse level was completely macabre and the final boss fight was cringe worthy in its use of symbolism as you realize exactly what’s going on, and what Wonderland is being used as a mental escape from. Alice’s costumes change with each world she enters, and her weapons as they upgrade became more and more spectacular in appearance. My personal favorite was the fully upgraded Hobby Horse.
Gameplay never stays boring, and is broken up from 3D platforming basics to interesting mini games that incorporate everything from a 2D platforming view, a pinball mini game, chess (of course), and even a side scrolling bullet dodging adventure under the ocean in a pirate ship. There are tons of collectibles of memories, and concept art. They add a lot to the story, and help you pick up on things that perhaps even Alice herself hasn’t put together yet about the people in her life, most of whom are out to get her, none of whom are her friends.
One other visual note that I need to bring up: Alice’s hair, considering the time of this game was made, and the duration of its development, is absolutely beautiful. It floats and blows about her face strand by strand. I’m not saying her hair looks completely real, however it’s buoyancy when floating on steam, or whizzing by on moving platforms is actually rather hypnotic. If anything was ahead of its time about this game, Alice’s hair was certainly one of those things.
BACKWARDS COMPATIBLITY NOTE: This still holds true. While definitely looking more dated than when I originally was giving kudos to her hair animation, Alice’s hair, within its artistic style confines, still floats and swings beautifully. If you can catch the light at the right angles, it even has a beautiful sheen to it that is screenshot worthy. /END NOTE
It’s upsetting that Alice has been lost to the ether ever since, but with funding and the original talent gone, it’s probably a blessing in disguise. We’ve all seen what happens with sequels that have had their heart and soul removed. American McGee’s Spicy Horse studio was closed down in 2016.
If you’re a lover of the original two games and going back for a re-play, I would also direct you to a recent discovery I made. An official Alice: Madness Returns art book is being sold on Amazon for around $25USD.
As for American McGee, he’s taken to living in a boat and traveling the high-seas. He’s promised to document his trips and create one-man indie games along the way for mobile gaming, and has a Patreon set up in case you’re interested in supporting the journeys through his own personal Wonderland.
For myself, the artistic vision of these games resonate in a way I can’t begin to describe. It all just feels right for what Alice is supposed to be. This version of Cheshire, an emaciated, disproportioned cat based on the look of a Hairless Sphynx breed, is my all-time favorite. His words of wisdom aren’t just memorable, they hit certain truths on the head in a way that resonate long after you’ve played the game. Alice herself represents true strength in the face of mental anguish and anyone who has faced feeling like they’re crazy can identify with her struggle to find herself again.
Do yourself a favor, and play this game. Or play it again. It definitely isn’t like anything you’ve played before, and I think that’s still true in 2017.