Oh yes, American Mc Gee’s most well known work, his take on Lewis Carrol’s Alice.
The story is not really that original in retrospect, it’s the usual “let’s give fairy tales an edgy reinterpretation with a grim, depressing tone” applied to Alice In Wonderland, so here Alice is Alice Lindell, a british orphan that by chance survived the house fire that took away her family at the age of 10 (or something), and was basically raised in an asylum, mostly likely treated to a Richard O’ Brian-less brand shock therapy as well.
It’s what you think, as Alice returns to her imaginary world of Wonderland, now twisted and broken, tries to understand what happened to it, who’s responsible and ultimately mounting a resistance unit against the Queen Of Hearts, gone mad with power, as have other familiar characters like Mad Hatter, who is trying to turn any creature into a clockwork automaton, the evil Jabberwocky, etc.
I do like the style, the character designs, and both the dialogues and music manage to set up a very depressing, gloomy and desperate tone to it, at it clearly wants, supported by good voice acting with obvious british actors and old timey terms like “pinny” (had to really google that), but it fits.
I also like how the narrative it’s very upfront about this being a battle happening all in Alice’s mind, as a way to cope with the situation and rebuild her shattered, twisted psyche, confronting her phantoms and restoring Wonderland in the process of getting over the survivor’s guilt, etc.
While the ending is definitive enough, a sequel eventually happened, Alice Madness Returns, and on consoles it would include a port of the original game (the version of the game i’m reviewing here) as DLC given away with new copys of the game, then eventually made the DLC itself “free”.
The problems with American Mc Gee’s Alice start and end with the gameplay, which IS an issue, and i don’t hate the developers…. but i question the choice of trying to make a third person action adventure game with plenty of platforming using a modified version of the Quake III engine.
That already should be a huge red flag, and it is, because you can tell this engine was made for an FPS first, definitely NOT a platformer action game. Knowing this, it’s really no surprise the result is BOTH stiff and slippery controls, and that would be already enough, but then there’s the fact the physics and collision detection can go absolutely bonkers in completely random moments, but more likely it will go insane in moments where you need precise timing for the platforming, already harder than it should be because of the stiff platforming, with Alice having very little control while mid-jump but also an almost untrustworthy importance to momentum when jumping,.
Nothing makes it clearer than one of the jumps at the end of the raft ride level, one of the stupidest things i’ve ever played since it was not clear until after 1 hour of trying when exactly should i have jumped to grab unto a vine and so avoid getting impaled by the spikes in the watery chasm below.
Ignoring the fact that the vine is not clearly visible until it’s too late due to the draw distance, it’s not because i had little to no momentum, quite the opposite, due to speed accumulated while riding the speeding river, and the crappy engine can’t deal with it. So even if you align yourself with the vine you will just not grab it. You have to jump earlier, like way earlier, which is insane and senseless.
It’s so insanely stupid it’s almost unbelievable, but it’s also perfectly indicative of how this title tries to do too way much with an engine clearly not fit for platforming.
But don’t worry, the game is full of situation like these, where the game will ambush you with enemies that are almost 100 % out of sight or placed just out of where you need the camera, or situations where you can’t predict or react in time so you die for something that you didn’t see coming, did see coming but couldn’t act in time due to stiff controls AND/or physics that randomly decide to spaz out, or because previous situations in the game lead you to think you will get damaged, but not die in one hit. Like the boulders in the Vale Of Tears, they one-hit kill you there.
Btw, the jumping could have been more tolerable by just having a double jump ability, simple as that, but i guess the Unreal Engine for Quake III didn’t made that possible, i really am just guessing, to be honest.
Considering all of this, it’s just baffling how the underwater level is not frustrating as you think it would be. I’m officially bamboozled, didn’t see that coming.
The other big part of the game is combat, and to be honest combat in American McGee’s Alice is more an eyesore than a fun thing to do, so you end up fidgeting with the controls and maybe even learning that a weapon has an alternate attack that will help you get rid of enemies in a cheaper but more safe way, because they are cheap arseholes themselves, so fight fire with fire.
Melee combat is sloppy, mindless and clearly designed more for mouse than controllers, but you can work with it without any big issue, and you’ll find better melee weapons (you start with the Vorpal Blade) to deal with the Card Soldiers, and sometime you even find a Rage Box that makes Alice grow demonic horns and up her damage output. This and a decent amount of health pick ups make the game doable, even with these problems and the shitty camera.
The biggest annoyance are the flying enemies, as they often scream at you, damaging AND ruining your platforming at the same time. This is not due to the enemies themselves being that hard to deal with or some ranged weapons sucking, but more that the game highlighting enemies… doesn’t mean you’ve secured lock on, just that you’re have them targeted by the camera, not the weapon, so you still have to move the reticle around to manually aim the shot and have them land more often.
YES, you can’t Z-target these assholes, the quasi lock-on is automatic, iffy and finnicky, there isn’t even a button to change the lock-on’s target. Again, a clear sign of a bad botched port from PC, i find it hard to believe that version it’s worse.
It’s a REALLY finnicky auto-targeting system, so when there are 2 flying enemies or more it makes things harder than they should, and coupled with other strange, baffling (and often inconsistent) design decisions, like falling damage from certain hights, which can mean random instadeath with how the physics can hiccup and make Alice jump with moon gravity for some seconds after being launched or pushed away, make this a game where you will save at every step, as you never know when the game will throw bullshit enemy placements. You just know it will, a lot.
And you better save really OFTEN, as a good chunk of the levels are long, and the game has no checkpoints, so scumsave your way to victory, perfectly reasonable choice here.
I’ll say that at least the game tries to have variety, like how you turn into a chess piece…shame the game also has confusing help given by the Cheshire Cat, like the advice on moving as a chess piece that doesn’t really apply to that level. It does to the very next stage, so my guess it’s that just an accident, not that the hint itself actually hints at anything.
Mind you, this is not a cryptic game to begin with, and aside from interacting with some levers to unlock a door or gate, there’s not much in the way of “puzzles”, it’s mostly figuring out where to go and exploring, i’m not lamenting that, since the game communicates what to do well enough.
Bosses are okay, fairly straightforward but not pushovers, unless you know exactly what to do or what to use, but still, they are ok…. Until the end, where you’re put up some very cheap, unfair bullshit boss fights like the second Jabberwocky’s fight, one of those controller-throwing, rage inducing, frustrating shit bosses that might as well be called “sorry, sonny, you’re not getting to the end of the game, despite being at the last world/chapter, not until you waste HOURS on this”.
In my case, i lucked out and somehow the Jabberwocky glitched itself into being stuck mid-air (no fuckin clue what caused it), otherwise it would have took even more.
You get a lot of weapons or items to use, but some i feel exist because it would have been more work to remove them or to rebalance the game, as you often are pushed in very cheap situation, like in late game you traverse the fittingly name “Land of Fire and Brimstone”, which also includes lava frogs that can spit fire at you or drag you into the lava with their tongues, and they are nearly impossible to spot or even hit, so they are just a pain in the ass on top of everything else.
I feel they gave you a time stop ability for finishing the previous level as a way to cope with the cheapass difficulty without actually tweaking the level designs or fixing the often slippery and bad geometry (sometimes you get stuck even walking on some pieces of terrain), just a cheap band-aid over the wound. And even those doesn’t always work as they should. What a surprise.
As mentioned before, by these issues and the controls you can tell the game wasn’t designed for controllers, and nobody bother to optimize stuff that should have been taken into consideration. Even more since this is the first time the game was made available on consoles, as pre-order DLC (via serial code in new copies) of the sequel, Alice Madness Returns, but apparently not on PC.
I think, Steam doesn’t sell it anymore (keys should work, though), and the version sold on Origin of Alice Madness Returns doesn’t mention the original game being included. The retail PC version on DVD also doesn’t seem to include it. Apparently you can still get both games if you buy a code for Alice Madness The Complete Collection, DRM Origin, but again, apparently.
Speaking of technicals and such, the game runs pretty shoddily too, performance is barely passable, with huge framerate slowdown when “too many” enemies are on screen, leading to even seconds of screen freezing, yeah, not running too well. Not counting random assets popping-in, the game stuttering at random in some sequences that don’t even have “Many” enemies on screen at once, sometimes reloading saves can mute any sound effect, but NOT the level’s music.
Also, the controls can be quite glitchy too, with input lag errors leading to Alice having circlestrafing fits that often resolve themselves after 10 seconds, but can happen at any moment, even during boss battles.
Overall, the style is good, the story is not original but has some pizzaz to the “grim dark fable revision” take on Alice In Wonderland, i just wish American McGee’s Alice didn’t have such bad, frustrating, gameplay that often feels arbitrarly punishing, wasn’t a bad port from PC (i have to assume the PC version was better) with unwieldy controls making for a very bad time actually playing it, but it’s intriguing crap, it’s ambitious for sure, it really tries, so even still i find myself compelled to progress and see what the game has for next, and it’s not a short title. Not too long either, for that.
Judging from reviews of the time, one criticism was about it being a linear experience…. which is kinda hilarious in retrospective, but it has to be pointed out that this one of those games you play once and you’re basically done, because there are no collectables or secrets, nor you’re given any reason to replay it at harder difficulties. This port has trophies, but still, big fuckin woop, especially since they are all tied to just finish the levels, and you know what, i’m okay with this, one playthrough of American McGee’s Alice is quite enough, and i hate having to say it.
So yeah, it would be nice to actually get a proper remake or remaster, makes more senses for titles like these that do need it, like this case of good story and style but decent gameplay mangled by horrible controls and physics.