Alice is traumatised by memories of her parent's death, an act which she believes herself responsible for. As Alice battles with her memories, she's sucked into a changed Wonderland, affected by a Gothic train which is a metaphor for the character's broken grip on reality.
Like its predecessor, Alice: Madness Returns is a Gothic and psychological take on Lewis Carroll's fiction in both Alice's Adventures In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass. Given the scatter-brain structure of the original novels, Madness Returns is very much a unique story based on the ideas and characters from the original source material. The game flips between Victorian London and Wonderland, as Alice tries to piece together her memories by seeking support from both real-life acquaintances and fictional Wonderland figures. Favourites such as the Mad Hatter, White Rabbit, the Queen Of Hearts, and of course, the Cheshire Cat all make appearances throughout the narrative, though surprisingly Wonderland is quite a lonely place at times.
Despite having a psychological-horror basis, Madness Returns is very much an action-platformer as per its predecessor. Alice's platforming abilities set up huge skill-based puzzles, as your primary objective is often moving from one side of the world to the other. Despite the game being quite linear in design, Madness Returns' throw-back design sensibilities open up multiple paths for literally hundreds of unlockable items, memories and story-snippets. The memories — which work in a similar manner to BioShock's audio diaries — really do flesh out the plot, essentially teasing the game's conclusion at the mid-point of the game. But in a title that can feel devoid of story development in spots, the hidden items really do help push the narrative along; and they often require some clever platforming to reach.
Alice: Madness Returns boasts a relatively lengthy single-player campaign, running 20-hours if you spend time searching for every hidden item. As an added bonus, new copies of the game also come with a downloadable voucher for the original American McGee's Alice, which has slightly improved visuals and additional trophy support.
While we're fond of Madness Returns' platforming nucleus, we're not going to deny that the game's art direction is pivotal to the experience. American McGee's recreation of Lewis Carroll's imagination is nothing short of stunning, emphasising the darker, more Gothic aspects of the children's tale. Madness Returns spans several chapters each taking you to a series of moody environments ranging from a children's dolls-house to the courtyard of the Red Queen. One of the game's most impressive moments is when you're dropped into the blue-skies above Wonderland and challenged with the task of navigating across playing card pathways to reach a distant castle glowing on the horizon. It's a showcase of both Madness Returns' bonkers art direction, and also technical proficiency. We've been fairly open about our dislike of the Unreal Engine in the past, but Madness Returns manages to look sensational in-spite of its code base. Texture pop-in is kept to a minimum, and the game literally explodes with vibrancy in places. Of course, that's all off-set by some of the game's moodier environments, none of which are more Gothic than Madness Returns' depiction of Victorian London. Skulking through the streets of Whitechapel Market as the pale-faced Alice are among some of the most impressive moments in the game. Interactivity is low here — you're essentially being funnelled through a linear tour of the location — but the art-direction is stunning. Buildings loom over the gloomy city streets, while deviant "gentleman" attempt to capture the attention of Alice in request of the young girl's cooperation with their sexual fantasies. These early walks through Victorian London are a hint at Madness Returns' overall narrative, which meanders into increasingly dark territory as the plot comes to a close. Wonderland might be a subject of fantasy, but it's impressive just how well Madness Returns mimics the madness in its real-life interpretation of Victorian London.
Ever since Super Mario 64, the three-dimensional platformer has held an important place in our hearts. It is our favourite genre, despite being under-represented in 2011. In essence, Alice: Madness Returns feels like a throw-back to the times when every character had a double-jump. The game does very, very little to advance the nature of 3D platformers in a modern context, but it's perfectly adequate from a gameplay perspective. Alice is a fun character to control, featuring double-jump and float abilities that make her perfectly suited to Wonderland's array of meandering platforms and simple puzzles. After consuming the famous "Drink Me" liquid, Alice is able to transform into a smaller incarnation of herself, opening up new pathways and an heightened vision component, displaying invisible platforms that often lead to hidden objects. You'll spend much of your time with Madness Returns navigating platforms in quirky environments and looking for secret routes. It's simplistic and old-fashioned, but its refreshing in its uniqueness. Despite Madness Returns' game design feeling locked in the early 2000's, the simple fact is that game's of this kind no longer exist.
Madness Returns is an action-platformer, so in collaboration with the character's navigational abilities, Alice is also armed with an arsenal of lethal implements. The first weapon you'll happen upon in Madness Returns is the Vorpal Blade, which you may recall from the Jabberwocky poem. You'll also find a pepper grinder machine gun, tea-pot rocket launcher, umbrella shield and hobby horse axe. What's neat about Madness Returns is not the weapons themselves, but the way they are implemented into the combat. Most enemies require you to use a combination of weapons in order to successfully see them off. For example, to kill off the game's antagonistic tea-pots, you need to fire pepper into their eye and then slash at it with the Vorpal Blade. It's disappointing how few enemy types there are in Madness Returns, but the strategic variety leads to some super-fun combat encounters throughout.
Interactivity in a psychological capacity is so under-used. Video games have the ability to utilise gameplay in a way that really deceives expectations, but so few game designers try. Silent Hill 2 and Batman: Arkham Asylum are recent examples that were successful in this area. There's a gameplay section in Alice: Madness Returns that prompts a similar emotional reaction. It's best we don't explain exactly what happens, as that would spoil your first experience of the set-piece. But it's nice to see designers take advantage of the interactive nature of video games to create some really compelling and emotional narrative flavours.
Alice Liddell's portrayal in Madness Returns is pretty faithful to Lewis Carroll's creation. Alice is a strong, fearless protagonist like many female characters from Victorian literature of the time. Madness Returns does a good job capturing that persona in Alice, both through solid voice-acting and pretty strong writing throughout.
Alice: Madness Returns is a very formulaic game, and while it's refreshing in a modern context, it does very little to accelerate an ancient genre. Perhaps most worryingly, is that the game seems to run out of ideas very early on. Despite boasting a lengthy campaign, Madness Returns puts forward many of its concepts from the off-set, leaving little discovery in the gameplay beyond the odd quirky mini-game and new locales. As such, it can feel like the title's overstaying its welcome. You'll muddle through some amounts of tedium for the next slice of story, but Madness Returns would have benefited from being better streamlined and paced. While the level design is good and the platforming is solid, the whole package lacks ideas outside of the art direction.
Madness Returns' closing chapter is over in a flash, which is bizarre considering the first section runs for over three hours. The game feels unevenly paced in places, with the final-third leaving a rushed after-taste. The narrative development seems to fall at the way-side in the game's penultimate hours, before being thrust into the spotlight again in a hurried "let's wrap things up" climax. It's a shame, because the story really does wrap-up in a dramatic fashion, we just wished more time would have gone into making these final scenes even more impactful, perhaps at the expense of some filler in the middle sections of the campaign.
Alice's Zelda-inspired lock-on mechanic is pivotal to much of the game's combat, but it can be horrendously fiddly in places. Switching between targets is completed using the right-analogue stick, but it rarely functions in the manner you'd expect it to. Combat encounters where you quickly need to switch between multiple targets feel like they've been designed with the problematic targeting system in mind, generating challenge not because of the actual inputs required, but the jankiness of the mechanic instead.
In an age where the PlayStation 3 is dominated by similarly styled modern combat shooters, the release of Alice: Madness Returns feels like a breath of fresh-air. The game's throwback sensibilities are ironically refreshing in a modern context, though the game's limited gameplay ambitions wear thin in the game's unpolished final-third. But ultimately it's the art-direction that makes Madness Returns such an impressive package, crafting a warped and intriguing world fitting of Lewis Carroll's legacy.