Ten years ago American McGee released a game called Alice that served as a sequel to the children's books by Lewis Carrol, and it would be a dark and twisted sequel at that. I totally dig dark and twisted, so I ate up all the media and ads that were released to promote the game. I still remember the catchy poem used in one of the print ads:
I've been called back to Wonderland
It's darkened since I dreamed
The Queen rules with an evil heart
It's time I intervened
When the game was released, I went out and bought a copy (once I had the cash to spend, so I got the "sanitized" alternate cover with Alice holding the ice staff instead of the bloody Vorpal Blade), fought with my computer's wimpy video card by installing a myriad of drivers and just accepting the craptacularness that was Windows ME, and settled in for a great gaming experience.
After Alice, American made promises of other games that he never quite delivered on until Grimm many years later, but it wasn't the same. So imagine my surprise when he produced a full-on sequel to the original, and my further delight when it was announced that people who bought Madness Returns new would get a download code for the original game as well to play on their console. This was a very easy consumer choice to make. I'll get to Madness Returns in a moment, but first the original. So how does it fare being a 10-year-old PC game on a modern console and what kind of experience does it offer?
Well, for starters, boojums are still bastards.
American McGee's Alice
Alice holds up rather well for being as old as it is. The graphics show their age, but aren't too shabby to look at and in some places are still a bit impressive. In particular, the swirling void in some parts of the Fortress of Doors and the funhouse mirrors in one of the Hatter's stages. Even though you'll be running the game on a powerful machine like the 360 or PS3, you'll still be fully aware that you're playing a very old game, so it's a good thing they put effort into the graphics the first time around.
The voice acting is a bit hit or miss; the actor for the Gryphon is exceptionally bad and most supporting roles are mediocre, but the actors for Alice, an old gnome, and especially the Cheshire Cat really deliver. In fact, the banter between Alice and the Cat provide some of the most well-acted an entertaining bits in the game. The music is appropriate, but there are a few stages where the melody is too present to be ambient but too short to be a proper tune, and it can get a bit distracting.
The gameplay is reasonably solid, but can be a bit frustrating at times. There's something about the way Alice moves when she lands from a jump that feels somewhat slippery and uncontrollable and it makes many of the jumping puzzles more problematic than they should be. A nifty little reticule lets you make an aimed jump from a standstill, but the range at which it shifts from a jump reticule to a regular aiming reticule is very limited which in turn limits its usefulness. This slippery control was easier to manage with a keyboard and mouse so this is a poor control conversion, but it's not enough to hamper the game in any major way, it's just a minor bother.
Combat could've used a bit more feedback on when you actually hit something, and the Vorpal Blade, your first weapon, is near useless (though not as useless as the Deck of Cards), so expect a bit of a challenge until you get the flamingo Croquet Mallet at which point things get a bit easier.
The story remains pretty solid: after her adventures in Wonderland and through the looking glass, a fire in the middle of the night destroys the home of young Alice Liddell and claims the lives of her parents and sister. A traumatized Alice goes catatonic for years and is institutionalized in an asylum. Then one day the White Rabbit appears to her and brings her back to Wonderland, which has fallen into corruption and decay under the rule of the Queen of Hearts. Since Wonderland was always in her own mind, its decay represents her broken sanity, so her quest to save Wonderland is also a quest to save herself.
Age is generally unkind to video games, but Alice holds up pretty well. It's an absolutely wonderful pack-in for folks who may have missed it the first time around, and it's a great incentive to buy new (note to studios: this is how you really convince people to buy new, not by giving pretty armor). It's not perfect and it shows its age, but it's still fun to play.
Alice: Madness Returns
Madness Returns picks up some few years after Alice leaves Rutledge Asylum at the end of Alice and ends up as the oldest child in an orphanage under the care of Doctor Bumby, a psychiatrist who tries to help the troubled children forget their memories but seems to have minimal success with Alice. Dejected after an unproductive session, Alice wanders the streets of London before falling back into Wonderland yet again. All seems peaceful until the Cheshire Cat crosses her path and warns her of a new danger in Wonderland, and it's not long before the gorgeous scenery starts to fall apart into decay and ruin. This time, however, it's not the Queen of Hearts wreaking havoc, but some outside force that has invaded Wonderland, and thus her mind.
Madness Returns is beautiful, particularly when transitioning between the dinginess of London and the splendor of Wonderland. Drand was not as impressed when he watched me play, but he also didn't see the Card Bridge, which was simultaneously serene and haunting. There are a few places where some graphical glitches occur (z-axis texture conflicts, mostly), but overall the game is a testament to modern graphics.
Gameplay is greatly improved over its predecessor. Alice is much more sure-footed and is aided by, I kid you not, a quadruple-jump and glide from the get-go. Combat has been improved as well and the designers decided to eschew Alice's arsenal in favor of four upgradeable weapons that fall on the matrix of ranged:melee::fast and weak:slow and strong. And the Vorpal Blade is actually your main mode of melee attack, so yay for that. The only real complaint that I have is that there is very little variety in the types of enemies that you encounter over the game, and the Ruin-type enemies are severely over-used and eventually become more annoying than interesting or frightening.
The music is very ambient with no memorable tunes but everything evoking the proper mood for the setting. The voice acting is largely well-done, though Alice starts out a bit rough at first and comes off a bit cheesy. The actress finds her stride in short order, though, and plays the part convincingly. The Cheshire Cat is as awesome as ever, though it's a shame they didn't (or couldn't) bring back the original actor. Still, the new guy does a great job, and the only complaint that I have is that a few too many of his lines are recycled from the previous game. One or two lines would be a lovely homage, but towards the end-game it felt like some of the writers just decided to phone it in for the Cat which does him a great disservice.
I really enjoyed Madness Returns and would argue that it's money well-spent. Yes, the idea of making a twisted tale out of Alice in Wonderland is not especially challenging one, but American McGee put a great deal of effort into it and the results show it. The gameplay, graphics and story all come together for a game that took notes from its quality predecessor and improved on it in every way.