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Alice: Madness Returns

(Electronic Arts; US: 14 Jun 2011)

After 11 years, Alice Liddel is back—along with her madness—in the appropriately titled Alice: Madness Returns. The long break between sequels is significant because this feels like an old game at times. It’s a traditional action-platformer through and through, but instead of feeling dated, it feels fresh. The action-platformer is a rare genre these days, and Madness Returns makes an excellent case for its return.


As an action-platformer, the core gameplay consists of jumping and fighting. Combat is fast and precise. You can lock on to enemies and the targeting doesn’t change if another monster comes between you and it, and it’s easy to switch between targets. Animations are swift, so you’re never at a disadvantage if you miss; there’s no wasted movement. You have a variety of weapons, and each is useful against particular enemies. In fact, some enemies can only be killed with a specific weapon. What’s most impressive is the learning curve that ramps up so subtly it’s almost imperceptible. Instead of just throwing stronger enemies at you, challenge comes from having to fight a variety of enemies at once. Each creature has its own weakness and attack pattern, so fighting against a group forces you to quickly prioritize who must die first. If you can’t manage the crowd, you will lose. The lock on camera is annoying at first since it obviously limits your view of the battlefield, but time slows down if Alice is about to get hit, giving you a chance to dodge every incoming attack even if it’s from an unseen enemy.


Platforming is filled with floating blocks and bottomless pits. The levels are necessarily linear, but since there are a ton of secrets hidden everywhere, exploration is encouraged and rewarded. Alice herself is a pleasure to control. She can turn on a dime, can float in the air, and has not just a double-jump but a triple-jump, allowing her to cross wide swaths of land with ease. This ease of control is important because there are lots of invisible platforms in Madness Returns that only appear when Alice shrinks. However, you can shrink at any time, so you’ll often shrink to find your destination, then grow and make your leap of faith. Since Alice is easy to control, it’s easy to gauge how much jump is needed to cross a certain distance, and the invisible platforming becomes a thrill.


But while the levels are fun to traverse, they’re not so fun to look at. When textures load, the game looks good, but sometimes this can take a while. There’s constant pop-in. Even if all you do is turn the camera away and back, some texture will have disappeared and reappeared. Some don’t come in at all, so the world remains blurry and pixilated. I suspect that I played through all of Chapter 3 without ever seeing the world at its finest. The rocks, which I suspect were supposed to be highly stylized, were just brown/grey blocks. But what game lacks in graphical fidelity, it makes up for in style.


The art is fantastic. Every living creature, whether in Wonderland or the real world, is a disturbing caricature. Alice’s old nanny has beady eyes and a big nose, a sailor looking for sex is twice the size of a normal person, and the whores that dot every sidewalk of London have pencil thin waists, big breasts, and bony, sunken faces. Everyone looks frightening, and this is just in the real world. Wonderland is both beautiful and scary, turning from an eerie dream to a nightmare in a second. One moment you can be taking in a strange but peaceful vista inspired by ancient Japanese art, but then you turn a corner enter a village with origami animals tossed about, torn to pieces, and pinned to walls with toothpicks, red paint splashed around their bodies and dismembered limbs while their paper huts burn. The visual variety within the levels is also impressive. You’ll want to keep playing just to see what comes next. While some bad textures can make the game look dated, the excellent art ensures nothing ever looks bad.


But the best thing about the game, by far, is Alice herself. She’s a fascinating, strong, and likable character. She explores the seedy side of London with a world weary confidence that should be unrealistic considering her age—when a man twice her size makes advances at her, she pushes him away without a thought. But she earns her confidence. We see her fighting off inner demons in her own personal hell, and no man seems like much of a threat compared to that. And yet, the game takes time to remind us that she’s still just a young girl: When told she has to visit a man that she doesn’t like, she crosses her arms and pouts, “He’s always useless.”


She’s also quite clever. The story revolves around her trying to find out why her childhood home burned down and killed her family. In the real world, she visits and questions people that were connected to her family in various ways, while in Wonderland she searches for forgotten memories. She’s crazy (quite literally) but she knows that and uses it to her advantage, using her hallucinations as a conduit to help piece together her shattered and repressed past. 


Alice is equal parts crazy and clever, confident and juvenile, and with her big ol’ butcher knife in hand, she looks legitimately badass. As a result, she earns a place as one of the best female characters in gaming.


Alice: Madness Returns has more than its fair share of technical issues. In addition to what’s been previously mentioned, Alice can get stuck on the geometry of a level, even when it looks like there’s no geometry to get stuck on, and there are times when the game jumps from gameplay to cut scene too abruptly, making certain story moments hard to follow. Also, the exaggerated accents make me glad subtitles are turned on by default. However, none of these issues harm the core platforming and combat, the central mystery is compelling, Alice is a joy to watch and control, and the various art styles of Wonderland are so bizarre that your curiosity alone will keep you playing. And you won’t be disappointed.

Rating:

Nick Dinicola made it through college with a degree in English, and now applies all his critical thinking skills to video games instead of literature. He reviews games and writes a weekly post for the Moving Pixels blog at PopMatters, and can be heard on the weekly Moving Pixels podcast. More of his reviews, previews, and general thoughts on gaming can be found at www.gamehounds.net.


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