Alice: Madness Returns

Year: 2011
Platform: Xbox 360
Publisher: Electronic Arts
Developer: Spicy Horse
Genre: Action/Adventure
Review Date: 9/11/11
Rating: *** or **** (depending on your criteria)

Who would have thought that "American McGee's Alice" (2000) would have spawned a sequel? Especially eleven years later. Thankfully, current technology allows for a more spectacular and engrossing exploration of Wonderland, and the game is a delightfully twisted treat for the senses. After the events in "Alice," Alice Liddell was discharged from Rutledge Asylum and sent to an orphanage under the care of Dr. Bumby, who uses hypnotism to make Alice forget about her tragic past. Unfortunately, this is having an adverse affect on Wonderland, and her shattered memories send Alice spiralling into madness once again. Wonderland is being destroyed by an Infernal Train, and it's up to Alice to save Wonderland, and ultimately herself, by recovering her lost memories and facing the truth surrounding the loss of her family ten years ago.

As an exploration of someone's broken psyche, the story can be difficult to piece together, and there are a lot of vague disconnections and ambiguities. The "real world" of London is a dirty, dangerous, and violent place, full of filth and vice. Prostitution runs rampant and is a recurring theme. When Alice's grip on reality fails, her hallucinations take her to Wonderland, where you have full control over Alice's actions. Armed with her trusty Vorpal Blade, she encounters Cheshire Cat, Mad Hatter, Dormouse, Rabbit, Mock Turtle, Carpenter, Walrus, Caterpillar, Red Queen, Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, and other characters from the original game. The game is broken into six chapters, each built upon a specific visual theme and separated by lucid segments of reality.

First and foremost, this is an art game, and the presentation is absolutely fantastic. The art direction is astounding and the demented vistas of Wonderland are overflowing with style and imagination. It's also bears a "mature" rating, both for adult content and graphically unsettling imagery. While each level has its own mind-blowing charm, I was especially smitten by "The Mysterious East," which is inspired by Asian art and design. It's utterly fabulous to look at and evokes pleasant memories of the stellar "Okami" (2006). The character design is excellent and Alice is absolutely gorgeous. Curiously, everyone else is hideously ugly, both in reality and Wonderland. Is this an artifact of Alice's perception, or simply an artistic decision? Perhaps I'm reading too much into it. Susie Brann and Roger Jackson reprise their roles as Alice and Cheshire Cat, and their performances are wonderful.

The controls are very good and it's easy to move around and observe Wonderland. However, Alice occasionally gets stuck in the scenery and is unable to move. Alice's walking animation is a bit stiff and floaty, but her hair and clothing animations are outstanding. An interesting omission is that Alice has no rotation animation, which means that when you turn around, she just pops to face the new direction. In this day and age that seems like a huge oversight. The game also suffers from numerous other problems, which makes it a less than a perfect experience. The most glaring problem is texture popping, where levels of detail flicker in and out depending on your orientation. The game utilizes the popular Unreal Engine, but I haven't seen texture problems this bad in at least ten years. The LOD issues also plague the menu screens, which exhibit a noticeable delay between rendering lo-res and hi-res versions of images. Visual banding is also noticeable in some of the darker lit areas.

This is the first game I've played that hasn't come with an instruction manual, which makes me sad. Granted, the state of instruction manuals these days is pathetic, but I still like to read them. Apparently, it's EA's new policy to only offer documentation within the game, but you can't access it while you're playing. You have to quit and go to the main menu first, which makes it kind of useless as a reference guide. Then there's the manual itself, which is unreadable unless you have at least a 50" high definition TV set. The in-game captions and subtitles are also unreadable on a standard television, which makes me wonder if they even bothered to QA that.

The game features auto-save, which is both a blessing and a curse. Unfortunately, this means you can't go back to a previous spot and do something differently without replaying the chapter from the beginning. The auto-save is weird and unpredictable, and usually 2-3 checkpoints behind. This means that whenever you choose to continue the game, you get sent back to do things you've already accomplished, which makes choosing your exit checkpoints very difficult. Thankfully, the game's difficulty is reasonable and ramps up very slowly. Throughout the course of the game, Alice acquires additional weapons including a hobby horse for strong melee attacks, a pepper grinder for ranged attacks, and a teapot cannon for ranged explosions. These are upgradable by finding teeth that are scattered throughout Wonderland. You can also upgrade your abilities by purchasing an optionable dress and weapons pack, which is the best use of DLC that I've seen so far. This is equivalent to buying cheat codes, as the enhanced weapons and alternate costumes give you better offensive and defensive power.

In addition to the visual glitches and performance issues, the game features some legitimate bugs as well. On several occasions I would defeat an enemy, only to have them become invincible and continue to attack me. There was another battle where I had a giant wasp attached to me and dodging refused to remove it. The game kept flashing the "Press RT to dodge" message, but dodging had no effect. This meant that all I could do was walk around and wait to die because I couldn't fight back. And of course, restoring the last auto-save put me back several checkpoints so that I had to perform another annoying task again. Speaking of which, the game tries to mix up the gameplay occasionally with mini-games, which are cute, but mostly a nuisance. Several of these mini-games are tile puzzles, which I despise. I hated them as a kid and I loathe them as an adult. I immediately referred to a walkthrough to get past all of the tile games because they just make me angry.

Load times are reasonable and placed at logical points, except later in the game. During the last third of the game, the loading points become disruptive and occur in the strangest places, often times in the middle of a jump. Very odd. It's unfortunate that more resources couldn't have been assigned to optimizing the software so that it could complement the game design better. Especially considering the mind-numbingly long (and terribly rendered) credits roll, which clocks in at over ten minutes. It's clear where the focus of the project was, as there were only about six programmers on the game as opposed to the hundreds of artists who were involved. Still, the game isn't broken by any means, just a bit rough around the edges. It's still an incredible journey that's worth experiencing, especially for fans of twisted psychological horror like "Silent Hill", "Fatal Frame", "Illbleed", or "Rule Of Rose".

As an extra bonus, you can also download a console version of the original "Alice" game. It hasn't aged very well, but the content is still interesting and it's better than the original PC version, which was so buggy and cumbersome that it was unplayable.

Most questionable credit: "This product may include product sponsorship or product placement." What do they mean by "may contain?" Do they not know? And why do they need to bring that to our attention? Is it a warning or deterrent of some kind? Ridiculous.