Xbox 360, PS3, PC Review: We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad.
Spicy Horse opened the door and found that it led into a small passage, not much larger than a rat-hole: it knelt down and looked along the passage into Alice: Madness Returns. Spicy Horse saw a hole too small and went back to the table: this time it found a little bottle on it, and round the neck of the bottle was a paper label, with the words `DRINK ME' beautifully printed on it in large letters. It took a sip, and was suddenly filled with ambition. This ambition was used to expand their concept--making a sequel to a ten-year-old cult-classic--into something utterly brilliant.
And so it did. Alice: Madness Returns, following the same Alice from 2000's American McGee's Alice, has all of the hallmarks of a truly great game. Where the original stumbled--in finding a rewarding gameplay experience to fill out the premise--Madness Returns does not. It's as fully a fleshed-out experience as any other third-person adventure game, with a lengthy campaign, varied gameplay, and an interesting story that delves deep into the psychosis of Alice Liddel.
The world of Wonderland is as warped and disturbing as could be hoped. Enemies are twisted abominations--baby doll parts held together by tar and awful goblins--and the environments are just as disturbing. Meeting up with the Hatter and Cheshire cat is wonderful and familiar, even for those who didn't play much of the original. It works as both a sequel to American McGee's Alice and a game on its own.
The visual presentation, too, is absurdly beautiful (in its own twisted way). While the game starts off with Alice bouncing between the colorful Wonderland and the dark and dreary London, where the mentally tormented Alice is anchored in reality, other locations, such as Steampunk and Oriental-themed worlds, are visited as well. Each comes with its own set of enemies and puzzles, keeping things fairly varied.
As the heroine platforms her way through five unique environments she picks up a number of unique weapons, from a lightning-fast Vorpal Blade to the heavy hitting Hobby Horse to the devastating Pepper Mill, which functions like a chaingun. While far from a Devil May Cry-clone, the game allows for switching between these weapons on the fly, which makes for extremely satisfying combat. Getting into large battles with imaginative creatures can be overwhelming at times, but it's usually more fun than frustrating.
But soon Spicy Horse's eyes fell on a little glass box that was lying under the table: they opened it, and found in it a very small cake, on which the words `EAT ME' were beautifully marked in currants. `Well, I'll eat it,' said Spicy Horse, and after a bite they felt a strange, armature wave take them over. Suddenly, they were ready to hamstring their efforts, and take the ingredients they had assembled to make a potential great and mix them into something much more... disappointing.
And so it did. Nearly every element of the game, in some way, is hindered by a shortcoming. The pacing is all over the place, with each of the five worlds lasting a solid hour longer than it should. Often, it feels as though it was intentionally, artificially lengthened, with extra rooms and areas that add absolutely nothing to the experience. There are constant distractions to lure Alice off the beaten path down long, empty corridors that will sometimes lead to items with plot or gameplay significance. They'll also sometimes lead to bottles, which can be collected for the sole purpose of collecting bottles.
The mini-games puzzles are often a complete disaster. They always start off fun. The mini-game where Alice needs to roll a doll head through a Sonic the Hedgehog/Trials HD-like level? Awesome... the first time. The third time? Broken, awful nonsense. The same can be said about the 2D platforming segments and the musical mini-games. They all start off well, and feel like a solid addition to spice things up, but once they wear out their welcome--and that happens fairly quickly--their inclusion feels like a burden.
It's filled with awful little flaws like those. Glitches? I'd constantly get stuck on the floor for no reason. Camera woes? Sometimes the camera was so encumbering I felt as though it might be revealed to be an actual villain--an anthropomorphic Looking Glass or something. The story? It's strong, but way too jumpy, and while it feels like all of the pieces are there to a strong, interesting narrative, it's assembled in such a strange way that it fails to reach its potential. There are several instances where the game feels like it's building towards something epic, but too often Alice arrives and the moment is spoiled by a cutscene. Boss battles are completely absent save for the finale, and that comes after five worlds where the foes are dispatched of by 2D cinematics.
It's a shame, too, because all of the flaws feel like they're a result of a developer trying to make something too big, and stretching themselves too thin. They accomplished the big, but it feels, well, too
big--it clocks in at over 12 hours, where I think I'd have much preferred a well-paced eight-hour game. In fact, it sort of feels like an eight-hour game with patches and half-constructed expansions lengthening it to 12. Each level feels like it has an appropriate ending two to three hours in, but then there's always some additional platforming segments and repetition of earlier areas just for the sake of it--as if they were forced to make it longer. It might sound silly to complain about a game being too long, but poor pacing can really spoil a good thing.