This is part of my Steam Challenge Series (the full list is here).
I never played American McGee’s Alice back at the turn of the century. Part of the reason was a distaste for the horror genre, part of it was that I didn’t have much respect for games based on book or movie IPs. Then, when I first got this game, I hesitated because I hadn’t played the previous one. What if I needed that backstory? Would it make sense? I finally decided to just jump in anyway and hope.
That was a great decision. I have to say, I think that Alice: Madness Returns is a criminally underrated game. I am slightly more comfortable with playing games that have darker, grittier themes now, and it all comes together superbly here. I don’t even care that I missed the previous game.
It’s an action platformer, with slightly more emphasis on the platforming than combat. That is the crux of the one major criticism I have with the game, which I will go into later. For now, I’ll just gush about the highlights.
It’s so beautiful. The art direction in Alice is simply incredible. Every environment is wonderfully detailed, but the major triumph is the atmosphere. Spicy Horse have managed to capture an already surreal and twisted world in Wonderland, and make a surreal and twisted version of that. It is a joy to simply look around whenever you enter a new zone, and marvel at the balance the developers have kept between the familiar and the new. And the new is all dark. Grim. Grotesque.
The audio is amazing. The environmental music is extremely evocative. Combat music is forgettable, but not bad. But the standout here is the voicework. The voice acting is spot on, the dialogue is very well written, and overall it is just perfect.
The story is fantastic. Not just the plot itself, but the way it was revealed. I love the way things are pieced together over the course of the game, and the different perspectives that are on offer to keep you guessing as to what really happened. In a story about insanity, where the lines between fantasy and reality are not just blurred but in constant motion, having you doubt Alice’s version of events is a very effective tool to keep things interesting. I have no problem with accepting this game’s story as headcanon.
The combat is pretty good, except for one thing that annoyed me. You gain an umbrella that can act as a shield, and if you time it right, you can rebound ranged attacks back onto their source. This is actually required in order to break some defences. However, you can only use the umbrella when you are locked on to a target, and doing so changes all your movement to basically orbit the target. This is a very bad idea when you are in a fight with multiple attackers – which is most of them. I managed to work around it with lots of dodging and movement, but it was a pain in the arse sometimes. Otherwise, combat was clean, smooth, and well balanced.
The platforming is quite well done. I have no issue with the level design at all, except for the length. Seriously, some of the chapters/zones were ludicrously long. It took me a little over 20 hours to beat the game, and I would say that you could remove about 5 hours of platforming from several zones without changing the story experience. I did appreciate the several minigames that were scattered throughout the game, it broke up the pace a little. But even there they should have dialed it back somewhat.
I highly recommend this game to anyone who loves the Lewis Carroll books. I saw someone describe the game as “Alice in Wonderland fanfic”, and I cannot agree more. It is clear that the developers submerged themselves into the lore, and brought us this absolute gem.