This is an older game, but I only played it recently. I’d been watching a Let’s Play series on YouTube, and this looked like a satisfyingly old-school platformer, so I grabbed it and powered through in relatively short order.
Alice: Madness Returns is a sequel to the cult classic, American McGee’s Alice. Madness Returns is a platformer/hack-‘n-slash game very much in the vein of the brilliant old Legacy of Kain games (in terms of its mechanics, anyway). You control an older Alice (how old is never quite specified, but presumably some years after the first game, which itself took place 10 years after Alice’s original Wonderland adventures) as she struggles to regain the broken memories of a childhood trauma, the cause of the titular madness.
The narrative is fragmented and revealed in an annoyingly flash-backy way. There’s a fair bit of ambiguity, which, it could be argued, is by design and relates to the madness theme–but I think in this case it’s more a sign of poor storytelling. The game tries to be Memento and ends up being more like an episode of Family Guy, with its arbitrary flashbacks and non sequiturs. As ever, my complaint isn’t that this approach is unoriginal. My complaint is that it’s poorly executed. The whole thing is told in a sort of comic book style, which is fantastic for comic books, but when you’re dealing with a full-motion interactive media experience, you really need a slightly more fluid narrative.
I never played the original when it released way back in 2000, but I was aware of it, and its weird, dark spin on Alice in Wonderland. Madness Returns is certainly dark, too–at times, cloyingly so. As an analogy, imagine the game designers walking into a Build-a-Bear Workshop and hosing the place with goat blood and chum. It’s not quite as disturbing as they want it to be, because you’re aware of how artificial it is. It’s only dark because they wanted it to look dark, not because horrible thing were actually going on. It’s still gross and vaguely disturbing, but also overwrought.
“Overwrought” is actually a good word to describe everything about Madness Returns. As the title suggests, insanity is a theme, and Alice’s dialogue with other Wonderland characters is largely nonsensical. She spouts vaguely philosophical nonsense at every opportunity (particularly when the Cheshire Cat is around), and through it all I couldn’t stop thinking about the game designers and their fire-hoses full of offal.
“Look at how CRAZY this all is!” they gleefully shout as they dunk another teddy into a vat full of eyeballs.
But for all its contrived-ness (that should be a word), Madness Returns is still a fun, if at times frustratingly linear and repetitive game. The battles are smooth as silk (if incredibly, incredibly repetitive), with intuitive controls and a handful of interesting weapons (though, again, they get old after a trillion fights ended through the same exact button combinations). Alice’s design is interesting, and her “Hysteria” mode (the requisite super-powered panic mode that ups her attack and makes her temporarily invincible) is freaky as hell.
Madness Returns is worth playing. It’s less than $20 now, new, so pick it up if you’re looking for a throwback to the days of PS1 platformers like Soul Reaver. Like those games, Madness Returns offers an interesting (if sloppy) story and some cool environments which just about make up for the boring gameplay.
I nearly forgot–a word about the ending. Shit. That’s the word.
It’s not that it’s great. It’s actually kind of stupid, and it’s all revealed in a typically disjointed fashion. But the stuff that comes out in the last twenty minutes or so–yikes. The reason Alice’s memories are all suppressed isn’t what you think, and the bad guy isn’t who you initially think it is–and what the bad guy is actually doing is super messed up. So, despite the general silliness of the whole plot, there is a moment of satisfaction when this seriously depraved individual gets what’s coming to them. That moment is marred considerably, though, by the fact that you only learned about all this crap like twenty minutes previously. So for hours and hours and hours you’re playing this game, and you don’t know who the real bad guy is, and then you find out AT THE VERY END and… Shit, you know what? Just watch the final boss fight and ending cutscene on YouTube. That’ll save you the trouble of slogging through the whole bloody thing.