Alice: Madness returns: Nightmares, in Wonderland
Dark reinterpretations of classic children’s literature are nothing new, hell even dark interpretations of Lewis Carroll’s famous Alice in Wonderland novel are not new. Please look at Tim Burton’s take on the story (an extremely tame adaption when comparing to the game I am going to be talking about today), the Czech movie Alice in 1988 and Alice in Murder land (don’t look that up). These are only some of the many dark takes on the source material. There is a slightly sinister undercurrent that many people have picked on in the original texts. American McGee’s Alice and the sequel Madness Returns take that creepy undercurrent and ramp it up to 11 in something that is both familiar and totally different to the text that inspired it. Alice: Madness Returns is an interesting beast that deserves discussion and not just because it is an EA game with child sex trafficking as a major theme.
Following the events of the first game, Alice Liddell has been trying to forget her past troubles and cure herself of PTSD (considering the state of the medical and psychiatric community in Victorian Britain at that time this will go well) however visions of a corrupted Wonderland continue to haunt her and she is inevitably dragged back to her world of fantasy to prevent it from being destroyed. The story at first appears somewhat basic and tries far too hard to be edgy with it’s imagery and dialogue; Alice’s dialogue especially had a tendency in the first act to come across as a very edgy Goth teenager (not helped by the black and white colour scheme of her dress). However when the game starts properly in Wonderland the writing picks up greatly- becoming a haunting tale of innocence lost and exploitation of children. Alice herself, while troubled with mental scars becomes quite admirable in how she is able to overcome whatever Wonderland or reality throws at her while being able maintain a kind, reserved air in the face of her own nightmares. She is pragmatic and her own person fighting for the right to be respected when no one else would while not seeming out of place within the time period. Speaking of the time period; Spicy Horse’s grim depiction of late 1800s Whitechapel is surprisingly on point with the rampant prostitution, poverty, crime and worse as well as the callous disregard for children and the mentally damaged in ways that are not explored in many games (or even movies outside of Jack the Ripper story lines and films based on Dickens books) and doing it in such a way where it is sympathetic towards those who suffered at the hands of an uncaring or ignorant system. Alice: Madness Returns has some truly horrific imagery that in the hands of a lesser writer would have been for mere shock value but with the addition of character and symbolic meaning behind the horror allow the game to be more than just Alice in Wonderland; but with scary wallpaper plastered over it.
The gameplay is a little bit of everything. In the real world (the tiny periods when you are not in Wonderland) it is a third person walking simulator where you just walk around until something triggers Alice to retreat back into Wonderland for whatever reason. It mostly serves to contrast the differences between the real world and the imaginary and show that Alice’s life in reality is just as harsh as her life in Wonderland, however once in Wonderland the game turns into a 3d hack and slash platformer aka the early God of War games. The patforming works for the most part with some expectations when it is a little sticky. This stickiness seems to appear when I use a jump pad mushroom and not being allowed to do anything until the jump animation had ended making the controls unnecessarily clunky that would result in some annoying deaths. This also manifested with Alice getting stuck on ledges for a few seconds before falling to her death because the collision detection failed or the double jump decided to not double jump enough. The game’s platforming is at it’s worst with the 2d sections in the Caterpillar’s domain (Oriental Grove) where controlling Alice feels like the keyboard was buried under liquid cement. It is not the worst bit of platforming I have experienced and it is fine to play. The problem is that it just needed a little bit of polish to remove the stiffness and make it perfect. I like the shrinking mechanic as a way to see invisible platforms and secrets. It not only thematic to the original source material but also encourages exploration and approaching platforming in an interesting and creative way as well as memorising patterns.
The combat itself is great to use and feel. The selection of weapons might be considered small to some (six weapons in total) but they all have their uses in combat, solving puzzles or reaching hidden secrets. My favourite weapon is the Hobby Horse (this is an Alice in Wonderland game alright) because it feels so good to use, the sound design in this game is perfect and whenever the Hobby House smashed into the ground with a high pitched whinny I felt like shouting something like “Banzo motherfucker!!” The lack of boss fights in the game is a little disappointing with only one at the end of the game. This would not be so bad if the game did not tease one the end of the Hatter’s realm before ending with an anti-climax. I openly said, “Is that it?!” (Something close to that at least)
Let’s talk about that lock on camera shall we?
In Alice: Madness Returns you have the option to lock onto enemies. There you will always attack the foe you have locked onto and the camera will mostly keep the nightmarish mound of goo in your field of vision. The problem is mostly as the camera had a bad tendency of getting stuck behind walls or even the enemy itself which makes it difficult to see what I was doing or even what I was attacking. The problem continues with the fact that the lock on key is caps lock and the ability to switch between targets is mapped to the tap key. This makes getting out of tough situations more annoying than anything as the extravagant font that appears when locked on results in my view being obstructed and preventing me from responding to incoming attacks. The awkward key mapping itself makes it hard to switch or get out of lock on; I have never in my ten years as a gamer have ever used caps lock or tap for anything let alone a lock on feature mapped to those keys. It was awkward to use and felt like the game was not designed with the lock on feature fully in mind.
While not graphically impressive nowadays the game has an impressive amount of creativity behind it. Wonderland itself looks wonderful to behold even while it was being corrupted. The enemy designs are beautifully creepy while still maintaining the Wonderland idea we all know and love. Some mentions should go to The Dollhouse Level, a genuinely upsetting level that handled the heavy themes of child exploitation maturely and tastefully through symbolic and metaphorical association. I love the reinterpretation of the Mad Hatter, March hare and the Dormouse as Victorian industrialists. There is some brilliant satire of the terrible work environments at the time; it is both creepy and quite hilarious at the same time.
The game is sadly not well optimised; I suffered low frame rates, stuttering, five second freezes and a few good old crashes. I am not sure if this was a problem back in 2011 but please be warned, that if you want to get this game that there are problems with the game’s performance.
Alice: Madness Returns is on one hand a daring game that explores themes and material that few games rarely (if ever) highlight. It is intelligent and brave enough to treat the heavy subject matter with the respect and maturity it needs. On the other hand however it is badly optimised and suffers from a lack of mechanical polish. I have heard rumors that Spicy Horse rushed this game out due to demands from EA but I cannot be sure of this. Alice: Madness Returns is a great game that could have been a masterpiece if it was given a little bit more time to cook.
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