Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Second Look - Alice: Madness Returns

Note: The following review contains spoilers for Alice: Madness Returns.

When I first played Alice: Madness Returns, I enjoyed it for what it was as a follow-up to the dark and twisted American McGee’s Alice, playing which spurred me to actually read Lewis Carrol’s Alice duology. However, it only occurred to me after looking up the game later that I managed to somehow miss the point of the story to some degree, and so wanted to play it again to catch anything about the game’s themes I may have missed. That, and I had been meaning to try out a $2 DLC (still available as of this writing) that introduces new dresses and further upgraded weapons that “break” the game. After taking another trip through the corrupted Wonderland via New Game+, I felt as though I was able to fully enjoy the game and appreciate it more for what it is.

A year following Alice’s release from Rutledge Asylum at the end of American McGee’s Alice, Alice is having a tea party in Wonderland with the White Rabbit, however things quickly go dark as the White Rabbit warns her of incoming danger. In the real world, Alice is seeing a psychiatrist, Dr. Angus Bumby, who aims to help her forget the trauma of the fire as she has since had a relapse following her release. While roaming the streets, Alice starts following a white cat that reminds her of her cat Dinah and soon finds herself back in Wonderland. While there, it is made clear that something is not quite right, as an outside force has been affecting her mental state enough to make it corrupt again.

The story is engaging on its own, though it requires you to have some knowledge of the previous Alice game in order to have a better understanding of its characters and dynamics. First run copies of the game included a download voucher for the original game, which I played first before my original playthrough for story purposes, though currently a digital download is still available for purchase.

On my second playthrough, I was able to better pick up on the game’s themes and the symbolism that ties into it. The corruption of Wonderland via outside interference is reflected in the designs of the new enemies, which feature a heavy doll part aesthetic. The true nature of the main antagonist, known in Wonderland as the Dollmaker, is also hinted at by the Wonderland and real-world characters, especially Cheshire Cat, throughout the game, though the hints are much easier to pick up on the second time. This comes together during the penultimate level, The Dollhouse, which features some disturbing imagery on its own; the doll theme becomes a lot more apparent, as the Dollmaker turns people in the real world, largely underage, into “living dolls” and all that implies.

The graphics still hold up well after eight years, presenting the corrupted Wonderland in all its HD glory. A number of levels also take their own interesting visual direction to make them stand out from each other, including one that takes heavy inspiration from Chinese art and origami. That said, I did encounter an issue multiple times where, upon loading a save file or a new area, the textures would take a few seconds to fully render, though this did little to diminish the quality of the game. One thing that deserves high praise, though, are a number of cutscenes that are rendered in a paper cutout style, which helped to visualize plot points in a way that the in-game graphics could not and at some points doubled as an effective way to tell Alice’s memories of the fire as she slowly puts the pieces together. As more of a personal thing, while I am intrigued by the direction American McGee took with the Alice character, I will say that the redesigns for the Insane Children were a little much for me, even though they do fit in with the game’s visual design.

Returning areas such as Queensland (pictured) also have a new look to them.
From left: Executioner, Alice, Card Guard.

The gameplay is varied between platforming and combat, with one level that takes place underwater (Deluded Depths) featuring side-scrolling ship combat to both add some variety and quickly show travel between two different points. Some levels also require some puzzle solving, often including finding a set of blocks to solve a picture puzzle within limited moves, a rhythm-based minigame, or (in Queensland) solving chess puzzles. There is the option to skip these puzzles if you mess up or you find it too difficult; I did not because I wanted to be able to beat them, though I won’t blame you if you do choose to skip any of them.

The platforming is well-designed, some areas spaced such that it takes advantage of Alice’s more quadruple-jump. However, one thing to keep in mind is that Alice is no longer able to grab onto ledges, and so if you mess up you will fall, often to your death. Additionally, Alice is unable to attack while in mid-air, which can be a tad inconvenient at times. The ability to dodge can also be used in mid-air, however, which can help you in a pinch if you miscalculate jumps.

Additionally, some areas can be accessed using the ability to shrink (Shrink Sense), usually through oft-hidden keyholes that reveal themselves when shrunk. Shrinking also reveals hidden clues within each level, usually either telling you what to do or indicating where to find one of several hidden collectibles; you can even get a trophy for finding the hidden Spicy Horse logo in Oriental Grove. These collectibles include Bottles (which unlock concept art) and Memories (which reveal more of the story from the perspectives of multiple characters).

Other hidden areas include Radula Rooms, which are usually either a trivia question or some form of gauntlet against multiple enemies. Completing Radula Rooms gives you a Paint Pot, collecting four of which paints a rose red and increases your health, represented by roses. If at any point you end up on your last rose, there is option to enter a state known as Hysteria for a temporary power boost, in which Alice does not take damage.

Hysteria prevents you from dying in combat, however level hazards such as
fire and spikes can still kill you.

There’s also a multitude of weapons used for both combat and traversing the area, among them the classic Vorpal Blade, four of which can be further upgraded using Teeth found throughout each level. The Hobby Horse and Teapot Cannon are useful for plowing through enemy defenses, though certain areas are blocked off such that either of these may be needed to access them. The Pepper Grinder is a highly versatile weapon, as it can be used for long-range attacks as well as for hunting down Pig Snouts to either unlock new areas or summon new items. It should be noted, however, that finding Pig Snouts requires you to actually listen for them, and even then, some of them are invisible and require shrinking in order to find their exact location.

One extra weapon, known as the Clockwork Bomb, functions as a time bomb, however it is also often required for puzzles involving pressure pads that involve using the Pepper Grinder to shoot a clock. As the game progresses, these puzzles are increasingly designed such that you have just enough time to get to the clock to shoot it, and being even a second off may either allow you to just barely make it or have to start the whole journey over again. There’s also the Umbrella, used for blocking and deflecting ranged attacks, which requires you to focus on the enemy first. Admittedly there were a few times where I accidentally activated Shrink Sense instead, though is a fault on my end due to the button placement.

There’s also a variety of dresses for Alice to wear, each of which can affect gameplay in some way, such as increasing drop rates of teeth and roses or increasing the use of Shrink Sense. There’s the option to let the story dictate what Alice wears or to equip her with a specific dress before going in, however there’s a bit of $2 DLC known as the Weapons of Madness and Dresses Pack that adds even more powerful versions of the four upgradeable weapons as well as a multitude of dresses with their own effects, such as constant Shrink Sense, regenerating health and the ability to activate Hysteria at any time.

The music, composed by returning artist Chris Vrenna, measures up to the soundtrack presented in the original American McGee’s Alice. The score does an amazing job in capturing the dark atmosphere of the game world, making heavy use of string instruments in the game’s main title themes to set the tone. Upon the game’s original release, I was able to obtain a small snippet of the soundtrack from a pre-order via digital download, which I have concluded to comprise of some of the more prominent tracks in the game. I have since become aware that a more expanded version exists, though it was released in a highly limited quantity.

The voice acting in the game is also good, with some returning voice actors doing an excellent job reprising their characters. Susie Brann in particular shows some improvement with the role of Alice and the uncredited Alistair McGowan portrays Dr. Bumby well as someone who seems nice and yet is ultimately untrustworthy. I should note that a number of returning characters, such as Cheshire Cat, White Rabbit, March Hare and Mad Hatter are voiced by Roger L. Jackson. Taken with his work on American McGee’s Grimm, Jackson shows impressive range as he manages to recreate the voices from the American McGee’s Alice and make them his own to where I couldn’t really notice the difference.

Since the release of Alice: Madness Returns, a pair of short films were produced via Kickstarter known as Alice: Otherlands, which see Alice enter the minds of historical figures in order to help resolve their mental issues; these videos have since been released on YouTube. Aside from this, while a film adaptation of American McGee's Alice is currently still stuck in development hell, McGee has recently announced his intention to get a proper third Alice game, Alice: Asylum, off the ground, which would serve as a prequel to the original Alice game.

Potential logo for the game, assuming it gets enough support.

Alice: Madness Returns holds up well after eight years. Looking at it again, it tells an engaging story that tackles some heavy themes and features some interesting symbolism that’s cleverly worked into the visual design. This, combined with some solid sound design and music make this one of the more interesting takes on Lewis Carroll’s Alice series. I would recommend this game to existing fans of American McGee’s work as well as fans of the Alice books who are looking for a different spin on the concept, however I would strongly recommend playing American McGee’s Alice first for the sake of the story.