The dark, twisted world of Alice’s “Wonderland” is rife with possibilities. It’s the atmosphere that grabs us and remains a central focus throughout the game; the imagination and creativity involved is impressive and appreciated. Sadly, a mediocre camera, somewhat unreliable controls, and an ill-advised emphasis on heavy combat all conspire to confuse the presentation. It wants to be more than just a standard action/platformer; it wants to give us a unique, engaging story that plays off the excellent backdrop; it wants to bring us inside Alice’s struggling mind; it wants to immerse us in the frightful majesty. But it never quite reaches its goal.
Graphically, I expected the game to excel. But while the artistry and character modeling is actually quite good, the rest of the visual display seems inconsistent and muddy. On the one hand, there are plenty of highlights – especially in levels that are more open, letting you look out over a horizon of intimidation and horror – but on the other, there’s a definite lack of polish and overall achievement. The level design, while occasionally inspired, is a tad repetitive and even tiresome in some areas. The special effects aren’t bad but sharpness and clarity take a definite hit when up close and personal; I can only assume it’s better on a decent PC.
The sound is notch above, thanks mostly to a few strong voice performances and a solid soundtrack but once again, we hear it all too often. There just isn’t enough diversity in the technical elements, which leads to a pacing problem: because both the atmosphere and sound wear out their individual welcomes too soon, we find ourselves rushing to reach something new. Some of the music selections really are fitting and nicely implemented, though, and I’m a definite fan of those distinct English voices; the Cheshire Cat is great. He’s the one character I didn’t mind hearing too often. The game just feels strained from an audio and graphical standpoint.
As you might expect, you will spend your time in a dark, nightmarish version of the charming, colorful Wonderland from Lewis Carroll’s classic. Just about everything is twisted or mutated in some way, and the landscape often switches back and forth between lush – if decidedly bizarre – vegetation and industrial, steam punk-ish backgrounds. The only similarity between this landscape and Carroll’s original is that no creature is normal. Here, though, there are evil alter egos of some of your favorite characters; some might actually try to help, but most are just bonkers or even downright murderous in their intentions. It’s quite the setting.
But the observant gamer will notice something is amiss during the first few minutes of play in Wonderland. The controls feel a little awkward and loose and collision detection can be a definite issue. Furthermore, when you enter battle with your trusty knife, the situation gets even more precarious due to an unstable and often frustrating camera. Then you toss in a third-person shooting mechanic with the pepper grinder (yeah, it’s kinda hard to explain) and an erratic roll-dodge maneuver, and you’ve got a battle system that lacks fluidity and solidarity. The block isn’t too terrible, though, and pressing the block button at just the right time allows you to reflect projectiles. You block with an umbrella, by the way.
That latter point is an indication of the great imagination and creativity that is continually present in your adventure. You can shrink down in size at any time to explore hidden areas “through the keyhole,” spot secrets by stepping inside mysterious purple flowers, and increase your various combat abilities. Alice can also double-jump and glide, even if it’s often difficult to gauge the distance she’s capable of crossing. You’ll come across air vents you can float upon, moving platforms, switches, dangerous lava, and various enemies that will tax your combat skills to the maximum. And here’s where I grow confused.
In addition to iffy controls and an annoying camera, the enemies often get irksome. It’s not their fighting style or AI, really; it’s more about the focus . In my estimation, what should be a visceral and intriguing quest feels extremely repetitive and monotonous due to the obvious emphasis on combat and platforming. We lose track of the story (during particularly long and tedious sections, I completely forgot where I was going and why I was going there) and the pacing takes a serious hit. I expected more story-based scenes and themes, I expected more puzzles, and I expected more interaction with strange characters.
What I got was a game that felt more like Devil May Cry . I just don’t believe the focus of this game should be combat and action, especially when the controls simply aren’t up to snuff. The bottom line is that while the environments are extremely impressive from a creative standpoint, there isn’t anything all that special or entertaining about the combat and platforming, which just gets tiring. Oh, and I should mention that save points are way too far apart. Perhaps we’re all just a little spoiled these days, and I accept that, but I died in one spot after several tough battles and platforming sections, and I was sent a long ways back.
That’s problematic due to the number of times you might die for various reasons. Now, all this being said, I will say that this adventure is far from unplayable; in fact, due to its great length and captivating atmosphere, you’ll probably keep playing. Also, I should add an important note- the more I played, the more I got used to the flaws and eccentricities. You learn to either deal with them or avoid them altogether. It’s a good thing I kept playing, too, because I was seriously miffed during the first hour or two. I don’t like the focus on combat but it’s a deep system that is rewarding and functional, and I enjoyed many of the encounters.
Alice: Madness Returns has a lot going for it and if you stick with the journey, you’ll likely come to terms with the inherent instability. Spicy Horse obviously put a lot of work into the environments – even if they’re not as technically impressive as I would’ve hoped – the character design, music, and effects are quite good, and you do get this, “man, I really want to see what’s next” feeling when playing. It’s just too bad that the rest doesn’t gel; why such a focus on action when the control scheme can’t really handle that emphasis? Why not do a lot more with the atmosphere and storyline? Why does it take the story so long to get anywhere? These are questions I didn’t want to ask.
But you might get sucked into this wicked world. And that’s the good news: if this happens, you’ll probably be satisfied.
The Good: Voices and music are highlights. Great imagination and creativity. Cool character and enemy design. Secrets and collectibles enhance adventure. Lengthy campaign.
The Bad: Technical elements are a little underwhelming. Ill-advised action focus. Story too long in developing. Unreliable controls and a frustrating camera.
The Ugly: “The whole damn place is ugly but in a good way…and you could’ve done more with it.”