Thursday, July 14, 2011

Alice: Madness Returns Review

Alice: Madness ReturnsGood day ladies and gents, J. Wellington Rommefeller here to review not one, but two titles! When American McGee’s Alice was released almost eleven years ago, I recall liking the idea of a twisted take on a popular children’s story.  Alas, this was not to be, as the game was released for PC and I had yet to acquire for myself a computer of suitable class and sophistication. Ten years later, I had all but forgotten about the game when I caught word of its sequel’s impending release. The first Alice’s large cult following was as good an endorsement as any, inspiring me to pre-order the sequel, which included the original as a bonus. Was the cult right, or should I have been more cautious about sipping their Kool-Aid?

I decided to begin by playing the original Alice; it only seemed natural to begin at the beginning, as it were. I quickly became enamored with the visuals and art style of the game, but was caught somewhat off guard by having been thrown into the middle of the action with not much of an explanation as to just what I was doing in Wonderland in the first place. I’m nearly positive this decision was made by the developers to inspire confusion and a sense of mystery in the gamer, and that would have been completely acceptable had the controls not been equally as perplexing. I was presented with a few game tips, but ultimately had to figure out the vast majority of what I was doing on my own. The game’s physics also felt as if Alice was forever running on ice, and the combat felt unreal, no sound effects or haptic feedback to tell me I hit my target. I simply gave up on the game only two hours into it. I was ready to stash the sequel away and not play it either, but then it dawned on me – Alice was originally released as a PC game. I had been playing the Playstation 3 port of a game meant to be played with a keyboard and a mouse, and suffered all the failures of precision one would expect when using a console controller to play a game without a targeting system.  I will say that I enjoyed looking at the game’s scenery, but doing anything but standing still and panning the camera around was an exercise in pain I wish not to repeat again.

I forgave the original and decided to start up the sequel, which had been designed for consoles as well as the PC. Alice: Madness Returns began with a splendid recap of past events in such a way that I found myself curious, but not lost. Initially I was rather put off by the art style. Where was the colorful, fragmented Wonderland I had seen in the first game?  Soon, though, I realized that the drab, washed-out environment had been purposely included as a story device. When Alice is in the real world, the colors are akin to those of many realistic, gritty modern games, but it is when Alice enters Wonderland that the game’s true art style really shines through. I immediately fell in love with the style and art of Alice. Each world the player traverses has its own theme, and each new environment is distinct and markedly different from the last. Upon entering a new world, it’s a real treat to get to know its enemies and mechanics.

The gameplay in the sequel is an immense improvement upon that of Alice’s original adventure. Sound cues and quick reactions put the game solidly within the ranks of such impressive combat franchises as God of War and Devil May Cry. Alice’s trademark Vorpal Blade makes a roaring comeback with its quick, deadly action. Her knife is supplemented by the slow, devastatingly powerful Hobby Horse, the swift firing Pepper Grinder and the mortar-esque Tea Pot. The addition of a targeting system also helps players focus on each enemy instead of wildly swinging about and praying for hits as one was wont to do in the original. Overall, combat has become easier and less frustrating, making the game far more enjoyable. Having the freedom to look around at the brilliant scenery without the distraction of poor fight mechanics and nigh insurmountable battles allows the beauty of Alice: Madness Returns’ to become a truly immersive experience. The physics have also been improved to make jumping, running, and changing directions feel more natural and less like the Snowman’s Land world of Mario 64.

If you find yourself concerned about being lost in the sequel because you did not play the original, fear not; playing only the second game in its entirety does not hinder the experience at all. Alice: Madness Returns does a spot on job of making newcomers to the series feel right at home. All that being said, the story is certainly not without its flaws.  Characters are reintroduced and left behind too quickly to really get to know and enjoy them. Some felt as if they were included simply because they were present in the original tale of Alice in Wonderland, rather than for any specific plot-related purpose. The game’s story follows Alice as she tries to repair Wonderland and reclaim her memories of the horrific accident that took the lives of her family. Each chapter brings one new fact about the incident to light and Alice slowly pieces together the truth. For all of Alice’s trouble and the narrative tone set by the game, I would have expected a better conclusion than the one eventually reached. This ending felt rushed and thrown together, as if the writer could have taken a bit more time and vastly improved upon it. After ten hours of buildup, the brief climax cheapened the experience.

Alice: Madness Returns has better art style than a Tim Burton movie, combat similar to God of War and a good, but not great story. If you enjoy platformers or games with a distinctive visual style, this game is a must play. The improved mechanics are draped in engaging art and driven forward by a unique retelling of a familiar story. If you would not at least rent or borrow this game, I fear you may be as mad as dear Alice herself.
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