"Alice: Madness Returns"
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Spicy Horse/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, sexual
themes, strong language, violence)
By Billy O'Keefe
In the land of video game characters who have recently returned from extended leave, all the headlines belong to Duke Nukem.
But if you want to read the real success story, you'd best train your eyes on Alice, whose comeback validates not only her place in today's gaming climate, but the legitimacy of a genre — family-friendly platforming wrapped inside a bloody, deranged, M-rated shell — that hasn't had much representation in the 10-plus years since "American McGee's Alice" came, left its mark and went.
At its core, "Alice: Madness Returns" plays by many of the same rules that governed its predecessor, splitting platforming and combat roughly down the middle and spreading it out across a lengthy (15 hours, give or take) journey through some large, diverse and creatively sovereign interpretations of Lewis Carroll's imagination.
Also like its predecessor, "Returns" doesn't exactly conceal its developer's weaknesses. Its graphics are, purely technically speaking, dated in spots. Alice occasionally moves awkwardly and sometimes gets stuck on something for a brief moment. The combat is a bit unwieldy, the camera occasionally squirrelly.
Some players doubtlessly will take issue with the length of "Returns" as well. Considering it takes roughly three hours to clear each area and how much of that time is spent doing different mixes of the same things, a request for more environments and less time in each certainly isn't unreasonable.
But these gripes look awful small in the face of everything "Returns" does so much differently than just about every game in existence that isn't its own predecessor.
The unwieldy combat, for instance, is forgivable in light of Alice's one-of-a-kind arsenal. Her bloody blade returns as her default weapon of choice, but how does using a hobby horse for more thunderous attacks sound? How about a pepper grinder that fires grains of pepper like bullets, or the Clockwork Rabbit, an adorable time bomb that distracts some enemies while Alice multitasks against others? The controls aren't perfect, but they're good enough, and the imaginative weapons design paves the way for similarly imaginative attack styles.
The rest of "Returns" — which overwhelmingly keeps players in Wonderland but also provides glimpses into Alice's dreary real-world life — benefits from similarly uncaged levels of imagination and confidence. Beyond simply being large enough to hide numerous optional secrets and accommodate more ambitious platforming segments than its predecessor could handle, the worlds Alice visits provide a magnificently colorful departure from the same old bleak real-world environments while still outclassing those bland locales on the macabre scale.
"Returns" gives each world its own visual voice despite keeping the game play fundamentally similar throughout, and the disparate designs give the game guidance while also keeping things stylistically unpredictable. Bridges made from playing cards form as you cross them. A ship captain who is a cross between a turtle, camel and cow offers a ride while flying shark skeletons give chase. Wasps made of ink wield samurai swords, trains with cars made of cathedrals soar like planes around you, living paintings briefly turn the game into a 2D sidescroller, and even the "normal" people in Alice's real world look like living caricatures.
The continuous stream of detail and surprise works in concert with some excellent voice acting to tell a terrifically original tale of a girl gone mad living in a world gone madder. "Returns" repeats a lot of tricks across its existence, and to a point, it repeats tricks it first played 11 years ago. But when no one else is doing what this one does so strikingly well, the misgivings don't stand a chance at mattering.
(c) 2011, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.