11 years later, American MacGee brought back his flawed cult game for a direct sequel with Alice: Madness Returns, and as EA (and other publishers) were big on fighting the used game market with the “online passes”, this time they wanted to discourage from buying the game used by inserting in new copies a code to redeem the original American McGee’s Alice, basically treated as DLC.
Thankfully now the older game is free DLC on both PSN and the X-Box store, you still need a copy of Madness Returns to access it, but still, better than on PC, now available only through Origin (it was on Steam as well but got delisted), it doesn’t seem to include the original American MacGee’s Alice game. At least not anymore. I’m not throwing cash away to find out for sure.
A re-release of both titles might be in order, i guess as soon as MacGee can buy back the rights from EA or when we’ll have some news about that hypotetical Alice: Asylum, who had a tentative date of 31 October 2021… but in 3 years we didn’t hear anything aside from the fact that the title is in pre-production, meaning clearly that release date is not gonna be final, so for the meantime these are the options to visit (or revisit) the series.
Alice: Madness Returns follows directly from the ending of the first game, with Alice being released from the Ruthledge Asylum, and now living at an orphanotrophium helmed and owned by Dr. Augustus Bumby, where she also works, as a compromise to avoid becoming a victorian prostitute. But despite being release as sane, she’s still haunted by the death of her family and her past, meets characters that make her question her guilt, and she starts slipping in and out of reality, eventually coming back to a newly destroyed Wonderland in her psyche….
The story shows improvement, because now we also get to see a bit more of the real world and the nasty characters Alice happens to know or have to interact with, with even some first person walking bits in a very filthy and depressing victorian London, as where the first game didn’t show anything outside of Wonderland, it was just described and implied (like from the main menu showing Alice in restrain garb looking dead eyed and soulless) but never shown directly,
So it’s more interesting to see how reality affects her dreamworld and viceversa, and the twists are actually nice, bleak but interesting, we do get around learning a lot more about the fire incident that scarred Alice and killed her family, and it end with a definite resolution, but also leaves space open for a third game, which was contemplated and actually was supposed to be a prequel, narrating Alice’s period spent into the asylum, but as i said before, it’s still in limbo.
This definitely isn’t an unnecessary sequel even regarding story, it’s clear McGee had more to tell, and i’m glad he did, for sure the style isn’t lacking, still plenty of weird, warped takes on Wonderland characters, some bleak edgy visuals of decay and corruption, and honestly from a technical standpoint it still looks pretty good.
This time developer duties were handled by the chinese company Spice Horse, and in many ways, there are a lot of improvements. Aside from the fact this time they didn’t just use a FPS engine and tried to build an action adventure game on it, but that helps.
Controls are FAR better and actually good now, the combat system now is basically Devil May Cry/God Of War lite, decent little, fun system, don’t expect much depth (such as long combos or the ability to chain light attacks with heavy ones), but mechanically it’s good, works perfectly, even at the standard difficulty it’s not piss easy, and there’s even a decent parry/deflect ability, at low energy you can enter a rage mode of sorts, you have both ranged and melee weapons.
You can spend the collected currency left by enemies or found in crates, in this case teeth (because it’s creepier this way), to power up the weapons, like the Vorpal Blade used for the basic quick attacks, and the weapons and items they’re given at a good pace to you, they feel earned… actually, here i wish the game either had more weapons/tools OR handed them out at a better pace, after the first chapter they feel very distanced from each other, the game gives you a bit too much stuff in the first, so it’s the opposite problem of the older game, where you had an excess of often useless items that were just kinda unloaded unto Alice in random spouts to make them exist in the title.
Among the new abilities Alice gets there is one important and given almost immediatly, the shrinking, which is used for the obvious purpose of passing through small passages, but also find hints to secrets or collectables nearby, or make visible invisible platforms.
Now there’s a bit more emphasis on puzzles, as the rabbit bomb device used to break open frail walls can also be used as a counterweight in some fairly basic pressure plate “puzzles”, nothing fancy but now there are some, and they help a bit in spicing up the variety, alongside the occasional mini-game sidescrolling shooter section, a basic rhythm game, even a game of 15.
I’ll give to the game that it tries to have some variety, it does.
But sadly even before the second chapter (of 5/6) you kinda feel you’re going through the motions because the game doesn’t know how to properly escalate both combat or platforming: there’s not tools that add to both for most of the “middle” part of the game… actually even after the starting “period”, no new important gimmicks that help keep the gameplay interesting in the long run.
It starts on a good note, but it never truly moves from that, this is the big problem here.
Mind you, it’s not to say the ALL levels are identical or copy pasted, but for the most past they definitely feel like they just changed the graphical style for the platforms and locations, but not much else, and it becomes pretty obvious as you progress further and see that even in new different, outlandish locations there’s no new twists or substantial additions to the familiar gameplay beats.
So repetition inevitably creeps in, not ruining the gameplay totally, but frustrating as it stops the experience from feeling better and/or less tiresome, stretched far beyond the actual offering of content most likely to satisfy some arbitrary expectations of longevity and avoiding the stigma of being “short for a AAA game” and bullshit like that.
Once again, there’s more style than good substance, i do like the touches of giving Alice a different bow for her skirt, so – for example – in the orient level she has an Hannya mask pin/bow, but i wish they spent more time on the level design instead, as it quickly starts to feel basic and nothing really changes or evolves as the game progresses, as the puzzles keep repeating, the minigames as well, it becomes even more rare to see new enemy types, the platform challenges, etc.
It’s a problem when it’s hard to tell at a glance (and more than that) early from mid or end game sections because of how much they stretch the game out, so everything inevitably mushes together. It just does.
There are some exceptions, like the underwater side scroller shoot em up segment, or the “orient level” introducing 2D sidescroller platforming sections make in faux-paper theater cutouts, which have better platforming than most of the 3D parts, and kinda reminded me – stylistically – of Black Knight Sword, which came out a year later. But they keep getting reused over and over again.
Sometimes there are new elements to keep in mind, but it’s so sporadic and often they almost blindside you as they are odd and cheap, like the “scrolls platforms” that… well, scroll and emits fire from the “fire” kanji, which kills you on the second draft regardless.
Then, there are difficulty spikes, oddly in the puzzle department, biggest example is the card bridge section at the beginning of chapter 4, which isn’t easy to do even when you figure out what exactly to do and in what order, since the practical time windows for some of the pressure plate “puzzles” can be way harsher than necessary, but this is the only thing that the game manages to escalate.
It must be said that Alice Madness Returns does have its moments, like Alice growing giant and going on a kaiju rampage over the Queen of Hearts corrupted land, squashing soldiers, stripping tentacles and squashing her hearts, that was quite satisfying and NOT repeated 3 times in a row.
This is really an uneven game, just uneven, one of two halves (one platforming, one hack n slash)… but none are done very well on their own, even if they try, they do try, but the continuos self-recycling undermines that big time, and it clashes with the inspired or intriguing coat of stylistic paint thrown over the repurposed level designs. Yeah, this time the wind currents are done by birdhouses with human eyes in the middle and you destroy cakes instead of snail shells, big whoop.
Also, this time there are no boss fights… just the final one, kinda disappointing too, a bit limp and short for a final boss, come on. Then again, i was glad to be done with it, since this game trudges on and on in a way that i wouldn’t be surprised if most people got bored or gave up halfway.
I can’t quantify exactly how much it took me to finish it, i’m guessing 10 hours or something (more likely 12), but put down the calculator, it just longer than it needs to be, it would be FAR more tolerable and better if it was half as long, to be brutally honest it would improve things a lot.
At times the collisions can be iffy, oddly NOT when jumping, but when using the shrinking ability to just do that and pass through keyholes or such, and performance at times chugs, kinda randomly to be honest, rarely because of too many enemies on screen. Shame, because otherwise it’s a pretty darn solid and good looking game for the time, it was definitely a medium-high budget production.
But sometimes it has to load or save… mid-jump or abruptly, theres some pop-in, and often the geometry seems to very slightly fight against you, as in sometimes you can get stuck mid-falling animation on the floor, or not being able to move because you grazed a specific piece of ground in a certain way from a certain angle, you can spot some destructible piles of stuff floating 3 cm over the ground. Or sometimes the game inverts the control if you move during a “fixed camera” pan. Odd.
Another feature that does show how McGee took the criticisms to heart is that now there are collectables to find, be it memories from Alice’s past that play a small “audio tape dialogue” (yeah, it’s a game from early 2010s), memoirs in bottle, often tied to the other main collectable and way to access hidden “pig snouts”. Also in DMC or Bayonetta fashion, you have a handful of optional combat rooms… that or you have to answer a trivia quiz or play a sidescroller section.
Even if most of the “hidden” stuff can be “snuffed” easily by more navigated players, there’s still some satisfaction to find the secrets… initially, then it becomes very mundane to snuff out how to get the bonus stuff.
There is New Game Plus, you can select a costume, with the extra ones giving some bonus (more health left by enemies, more teeth left by enemies, shrinking recovers health, you can’t have more than 4 health roses, etc.), and you can replay levels to mop up the collectables, there’s the extra difficulty modes and trophies if you want… i really don’t care that much, to be frank.
I have a love-hate relationship with this one, because it could have been great, but i will admit that – like with the original American Mc Gee’s Alice – i’m glad i stuck with the game till the end and gave it another chance after being stuck years ago at the card bridge puzzle and downright selling it altogether before the final parts.
Shame it’s a decent game thrown into quasi-mediocrity by excessive repetition, but still, it’s not bad, and while the third game didn’t happen, something else taking place in the world of Mc Gee’s Alice did appear….