Platform: Xbox 360
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Review Date: 10/2/11
American McGee's twisted take on the Lewis Carroll classic is pure genius. Unfortunately, when it originally came out for PC gamers back in 2000, it was so buggy that it was nearly unplayable, and I was forced to give up within an hour of starting it. With the release of "Alice: Madness Returns" (2011), the original game was ported to the Xbox 360 and offered as a downloadable add-on. Fortunately, it fares much better, even if the graphics and gameplay seem dated and clunky.
The story revolves around Alice Liddell, a young girl suffering from the trauma of losing her family in a fire that she may or may not have been responsible for. Ten years later, she has retreated into her mind which has become a warped version of Lewis Carroll's original Wonderland, populated with dangerous and grotesque characters. A skeletal Cheshire Cat offers cryptic advice as Alice makes her way through various areas to reach the Red Queen, which is the physical manifestation of her guilt. The story is extremely well written and all of the characters represent some facet of Alice's tortured psyche. The art direction is superb and pushes the limits of what the "Quake III Arena" engine was capable of handling at the time. The game features excellent voice acting, which was exceedingly rare ten years ago, and a delightfully unsettling music score from Chris Vrenna (Nine Inch Nails).
The game was originally designed for the traditional run-and-gun mouse and keyboard controls, which can make the console version a bit cumbersome. Fortunately, navigation and camera movement feel natural, but quick and accurate target acquisition is extremely difficult with a game controller. This becomes more of an issue as the game progresses, as enemies become faster and more dangerous. Alice also suffers in combat because she simply doesn't react fast enough. If she throws her Vorpal Blade, she becomes defenseless for about five seconds before she can throw it again, and her melee attack is slow and sluggish. Close quarter fighting is suicide, so you have to keep your distance and used ranged attacks at all times. While combat is definitely the game's biggest sore spot, the platforming sections also suffer from control issues. Sometimes Alice just misses her jumps altogether, or slides off of edges without any input from the player. Thankfully, the game features a quick-save option which allows you to save the game at any point. This is a wonderful feature that reminded me of playing the original "Tomb Raider" (1996) where you could save your game after every jump and every enemy you defeated. It's a little clunkier in the console version since you have to go through the menu instead of just hitting a hot-key, but it's not particularly disruptive.
The first half of the game managed to keep me very engaged, but after I reached the Mad Hatter's domain, I completely lost interest and stopped playing. I'm not even sure why. I was still very interested in following the story, but the combat was getting too difficult and the novelty of the presentation was starting to wear off. It's interesting how quickly a game can cut its connection to the player with just a simple shift in aesthetics and mechanics. Curiously, "Alice: Madness Returns" suffered from the same problem, although the difficulty spike wasn't as severe. I was still able to make progress through that game even as my interest waned.