Sunday, June 26, 2011

American McGee's Alice - A Dark Twist On A Classic Piece Of Literature

In 1865, an English author under the name Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) put out a book, entitled "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," followed by a sequel in 1871 called "Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There." These went on to become two of his most famous works, gaining many adaptations and unofficial sequels as the years passed, one of the most well-known adaptations being the 1951 animated film released by Walt Disney Pictures. Late in the year 2000, Electronic Arts (EA) released their first M-Rated game, American McGee's Alice, a notable game from the mind of American McGee that is now a valuable collector's item. With the release of a sequel 11 years later, new copies of the new game came with a code to download this legendary title, which is how I was able to finally play it. After completing it, I found the game to be quite challenging, but very satisfying by the time I got to the end.

Set years after the events of the Lewis Carroll books, Alice's house is destroyed in an accidental fire that takes her family along with it. Being the sole survivor of this tragedy, Alice becomes wracked with guilt and is admitted to Rutledge Asylum for treatment, a stuffed rabbit her only companion. Ten years later, she is transported back to Wonderland, which has been warped by her thoughts into a dystopian nightmare. Aided by the Cheshire Cat and a Vorpal Blade, Alice travels through the hellish landscape in search of the Queen of Hearts, whom she must kill in order to regain her sanity and restore Wonderland to it's original, magical state.

As you wander this twisted Wonderland, you can pick up other weapons to use aside from your starting Vorpal Blade, among them Cards, Jacks, and even Devil Dice. Depending on your usage of these weapons, they use up a blue Will meter at your right of the screen, accompanied by a red Sanity meter on the opposite side representing your Health. You can recharge both of these meters with Mantras, a small boost with small diamond-shaped ones and a much larger boost with bigger, heart-shaped ones. You can also pick up items multiple times for an upgrade, the most obvious visually being the Devil Dice, and some items restore only your Will or Sanity, though these are more sparsely placed.

You can obtain Mantras by collecting regenerating ones in the open or by defeating enemies, which differ depending on the stage, such as insects in garden stages or mini devils in more hell-like locales, but you most commonly encounter Card Guards. Grasshopper Teas can give a temporary boost of speed, Rageboxes give you extra strength for a brief period, Hand Mirrors make you invisible for a short time, and a Turtle Shell you obtain at one point allows you better maneuverability underwater. The Cheshire cat pops up occaisonally to give you cryptic advice, but these hints can easily be figured out.

Being a game released in the year 2000, there is a more gradual difficulty curve compared to other games both old and modern, which is good as it allows you to gain better reflexes for handling swarms of enemies. The graphics obviously don't age very well, especially given that it was originally a computer game for 10 years, but there is still a lot of variety in the visuals. Some of my favorite levels to look at were the ones in Pale Realm, an area made entirely of the game Chess, a theme from "Through the Looking-Glass." The area before you enter shows a great example of the creativity of the level design, as Chess spaces are haphazardly placed to create a deadly atmosphere out of a common board game.

The sound quality of the game is amazing, even for a ten-year-old game, and the voice acting feels quite natural. Though the voice actresses for Alice in this game and the Disney film are different, her game voice sounded similar to her Disney voice to me, but this strangely fits as that movie is most likely the one you associate the story of Wonderland with. Chris Vrenna, a former member of Nine Inch Nails, has created the perfect soundtrack for this game, and it's amazing how much of it is composed of old toys and other common sounds, such as opening doors and women screaming, crying, laughing, or singing eerily. You can even buy the soundtrack on CD, which sets the mood fantastically and actually gets you interested in playing the game.

Of course, no game is without it's problems. In this case, I ran into a glitch where Alice would just run off in one direction without my intervention, causing a death during the early Jabberwock fight. One time an enemy actually froze her in place, which I was thankful for because it actually got me back control of her. This only happened a few times though, but another nasty one came up a couple times where she would just go into a corner and the camera would fix onto one spot, once at the very beginning of the game and another time near the end. This also caused the controls to lock up, including the PS button, giving me no other option but to restart the console. This didn't come up again after the restart, but it was a rather annoying bug. Because this can come up, and for the sake of getting through faster, I would recommend saving at every chance you get.

American McGee's Alice is a real masterpiece of gaming that shouldn't be missed by gamers over the age of 17. A lot of care went into making this game and it really shows, spawning a legacy in the PC world that has now come to consoles through an official sequel, Alice: Madness Returns. If you have any sort of interest in this title, I would suggest picking it up as soon as you can. The experience is worth it in the end, your reward being the satisfaction of having played a great game that is sure to give you an adrenaline rush.

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