is a platformer with some very light action thrown in. Maneuvering in the environment takes up the greater portion of your time. A great deal of the game will be spent jumping from one giant floating domino piece to the next, figuring out how to manipulate your surroundings to discover hidden paths and generally getting your Mario on. Normally, I’m not big fan of jumping puzzles, but Madness Returns features a generous respawn system so psychosis brought on by endless trial and error is minimal. You’ll never lose more than a few seconds of progress should you fail to make a jump and there are no punishments for dying over and over again.
It seems that every game these days is trying to copy Batman: Arkham Asylum’s detective mode and Alice is no exception. After imbibing a magic potion early on, Alice is able to turn on “shrink mode,” which, as the name suggests, considerably reduces her height and allows her to enter areas otherwise inaccessible. While in this mode, Alice can also spot hidden, neon-colored graffiti on walls that contain clues to hidden objects or hints about how to proceed past difficult sections of the game. The downside to this technique, as in Arkham, is that you’ll constantly want to be shrunk down so you don’t miss any collectibles. This is particularly annoying in Alice since entering shrink mode gives the heroine a bad case of the hiccups.
When not engaging in the game’s platforming elements, you’ll be busy ripping the game’s many imaginative beasties to shreds. Many of Alice In Wonderland’s whimsical creatures have been transformed into horrific versions of themselves. The Mad Hatter’s teapots are now steampunk monstrosities on legs. Even the Red Queen’s card guards, clownish in the cartoon, are now bloodthirsty skeletal warriors.
There’s nothing friendly about any of Wonderland’s inhabitants. Even Alice’s guide, the Cheshire Cat, is a sadistic, grinning, tattooed, anorexic nightmare. Good thing he’s on your side. I wouldn’t want to meet him in a dark alley. Madness Returns provides Alice with a good number of weapons, each of them in keeping with the game’s unpleasant tone. The aforementioned Vorpal Blade is nothing more than a large butcher knife and also your first melee weapon. You’ll quickly graduate to the Pepper Grinder, a gatling-gun style ranged weapon, handy for taking out Flying Pig Snouts. Later weapons become more destructive, especially the grenade launching Teapot Cannon.
Combat is your standard attack-dodge-attack affair. It’s not very difficult to win most of the game’s battles on your first try, even on harder difficulty levels, none of your opponents are especially tough. Health is generous and Alice can easily dodge attacks by vanishing in a puff of blue butterflies and popping up away from opponents. The game doles out new types of enemies with decent regularity and new types of combat pop up now and again for a quick change of pace. One truly engaging set piece has Alice growing to Godzilla-size proportions and stomping several thousand of the Red Queen’s card guards into submission.
Alice: Madness Returns isn’t a technical marvel on the scale of an Uncharted or a Crysis. You’ll have no trouble getting the game to run smoothly on even a low-end machine. But to obsess about the number of pixels being pushed around is to miss the point. It’s the game’s rather unique art style that makes it so engaging of an adventure. Wonderland flowers bloom What Dreams May Come-style at Alice’s approach. The Mad Hatter, the Red Queen, and all their compatriots have been run through a Tim Burton filter. Neither ugly nor beautiful to look at, every single creature in Madness Returns has an unsettling quality that fits in perfectly with the game’s tone. Alice switches outfit several times, in keeping with her current emotional state, from her basic blue and white tunic to a blood-red gown to a Cheshire-inspired dress.
Madness Returns is a beautiful game, proving once and for all that top-of-the-line graphics can be vacuous without the proper story and context. I’m looking at you, Crysis 2.
Voice acting is perfectly suited to each of the game’s characters. The Cheshire Cat exudes an oily charm. Human NPCs are appropriately shrill and annoying, making you long to return to Wonderland. Alice herself is bizarrely charming, with a posh accent and an oddly self-effacing yet grim outlook on life. I found myself thinking of Winona Ryder’s character from Beetlejuice more than once when seeking a comparison. Sound effects are appropriately mind-bending and otherworldly. Alice: Madness Returns is a feast for the eyes and ears, without requiring you to go out and spend a ton of cash to upgrade your hardware. I wish more games were as colorful and imaginative.
The Verdict [rating:3.5]
On the basis of its story and characters alone Alice deserves a perfect score. However, archaic jumping puzzles and too much time spent outside of Wonderland with boring humans taints the overall experience somewhat. And as much as I enjoyed Alice’s black humor, it does get a bit much sometimes. A bit full of itself. Still, Alice: Madness Returns is a great product, let down a bit by repetitive platforming and an occasionally depressing feel.
Your humble reviewer,