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only search AE

 

Platform

Xbox 360

 

Genre

Action / Platformer

 

Publisher

Electronic Arts

 

Developer

Spicy Horse

 

ESRB

M (Mature)

 

Released

June 14, 2011

 

 

- Gorgeous, gothic visuals
- Dark, depressing atmosphere with a gut-punching storyline
- Extra collectibles and content

 

 

- Repetitive gameplay
- Levels that drag on, and on, and on, and on….
- Camera issues during combat

 

 

Review: American McGee's Alice (PC)

Review: Alan Wake (360)

Review: Dead Rising 2 (360)

 

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Alice: Madness Returns

Score: 7.0 / 10

 

alice madness returns          alice madness returns

 

You don’t need to be an English Literature high school teacher to know that Alice in Wonderland is a pretty freaky book. Often theorized to be the drug-induced writings of a madman author, Lewis Carroll’s series of books inspired many disturbing interpretations beyond Disney’s toned-down animated classic. Even their recent Tim Burton re-imagining doesn’t hold a candle to American McGee’s nightmarish PC adaption, which takes the bizarre but ultimately family friendly story of the original

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and turns Alice into a committed inmate in an insane asylum who escapes into the twisted and violent Wonderland inside her psyche in order to overcome the trauma of losing her family in a fire.

The original PC game earned a strong cult following, which banned together in angry protest when plans for a live movie adaption were scrapped in favor

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of Disney’s less-gruesome adaption. While McGee’s darker vision lost the chance to fill up Hot Topic, at least it’s finally received a sequel eleven years later.

In Madness Returns, young Alice has been released from the asylum but is no closer to overcoming her inner demons. Forced to live in a rundown orphanage while receiving ineffective psychotherapy, a chance encounter with a familiar white cat sends her spiralling back down the rabbit hole and into Wonderland, which is slowly but surely being corrupted before her very eyes. In her mad quest to discover the truth behind her family’s murder (if one even exists), Alice must dive deeper into the dark recesses of her mind, as well as the city around her, until the two worlds slowly intersect into a dark and dreary spiral of madness. Suffice to say, no other interpretation of the classic series comes close to this ultraviolent (and ultra-depressing) reimagining.

Dark and depressing though it may be, it sure is pretty to look at. Like most modern makeovers of the original books, Madness Returns features a striking art style, combining the gothic look of Tim Burton with the otherworldly horror of Clive Barker. Rarely has the Unreal engine been used for such striking visuals, the closest contender in recent memory belonging to Bioshock (which, incidentally, was another setting that combined alternate history with macabre horror). There is an otherworldly feel that is prevalent in both Wonderland and the real world, with multi-colored psychedelics in the former and depressing sepia-toned visuals in the latter. To really appreciate the intricate details of the graphic engine, one need only look at Alice herself; the gothic beauty undergoes several cosmetic changes in each part of Wonderland she ventures into, from neon-patterned dresses to countless strands of flowing hair. Enemies and {questionable) allies alike are also diverse with individual designs and animations; you have your familiar characters like the Mad Hatter, Cheshire Cat, Walrus and Carpenter along with the Silent Hill-inspired Ruinous, as well as many other twisted creatures and common-folk alike wandering around. Despite some texture pop-in during the real world segments, the consistently gorgeous visuals and artwork make Alice Returns one of the best looking titles this year.

 

alice madness returns           alice madness returns

 

Too bad the same couldn’t be said about the gameplay. Fundamentally, both the platforming and action sequences control quite competently; Right from the start, Alice has access to a triple-jump that also allows her to momentarily glide with each hop, which helps in making a precise landing on floating platforms; Combat-wise, she starts off with a short-range vorpal knife and a long-range pepper-grinder, as well as several other weapons obtained throughout her adventure (which can then be upgraded in the main menu by spending the game’s currency….teeth).

The problem lies in the pacing; while the aesthetics continue to progress in innovation, you’ll have witnessed the core gameplay mechanics within the first two hours. You’ll hop from floating platform to floating platform, fight off enemies in set waves, pull a nearby switch, hop on more floating platforms, shrink down to reveal hidden platforms, pull more switches and fight more enemies. Consistent gameplay is one thing, but each area will go through each mechanic like a checklist for hours upon hours upon hours. It brings to mind the type of platformers released on the Nintendo 64 that tried to cram as many collectibles and repetitive gameplay then necessary.

And the more you keep experiencing the same mechanics, the more its flaws become more apparent; targeting enemies during combat works well enough with one or two opponents, but when the area is filled with five or more, the camera struggles to keep them all within the player’s visibility. Several of the instant-death traps (such as spikes or fire) can result in some debatable deaths too due to collision detection, which can also affect Alice from making a theoretically successful jump from platform to platform. These would be minor quibbles if, again, the game didn’t insist on repeating these mechanics over and over again. Once in a while there will be a break in the monotony (such as a section that turns the game into a 2D Paper Mario-inspired backdrop), but these moments come few and far between.

If you have the zen-like patience to put up with the repetition, however, the aesthetics become the real reward for playing; the story progresses into darker and more disturbing territory, as both of Alice’s worlds continue to crumble around her, while each new area (including an undersea harbor filled with fish folk, a feudal Japan-like setting filled with samurai insects, and a literal house of cards, to name a few) becomes an impressive spectacle to behold. Collector enthusiasts will especially partake of the hidden memories, concept artwork and other extras to be found and earned throughout; early adopters will even have access to the original PC version, re-released for consoles via a free download.

Had Madness Returns cut its length by half and tossed in a few more gameplay mechanics, it could have easily been one of the best titles released this year. Pacing issues aside, however, the grim and gorgeous art style and storyline keeps it within the “must play” line. Just be certain you have the time and patience to jump into that rabbit hole, because it’s going to be a long way down.

 

- Jorge Fernandez

(August 2, 2011)

 

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