Set a decade after American McGee’s Alice, Madness Returns reunites us with the titular heroine, who was released from Rutledge Asylum at the end of the original game and is now living in a bleak Victorian orphanage under the care of Doctor Angus Bumby. Doctor Bumby uses hypnotism to rid children of traumatic memories, and is endeavouring to help Alice forget the horrific fire that killed her family ten years ago. Still plagued by hallucinations, Alice is on the way to fill a prescription when she encounters and follows a white cat, ultimately leading to a trip to Wonderland, which turns out to be more macabre than ever…
This time Wonderland is being corrupted by external forces, including Alice’s fractured psyche, which directly impacts on her surroundings and fellow characters. Insanity abounds as we learn that the Dormouse and the March Hare have constructed an Infernal Train, which is using the Looking Glass Railway to spread madness and destruction. This is typical American McGee, and represents a welcome return to form following the dire Bad Day LA, reinstating the ghoulish game designer on Tim Burton’s Christmas card list.
Like the original Alice, Madness Returns is a third person platform action adventure with a heavy reliance on combat. The combat is particularly well done, with tight controls and weapons off-kilter enough to fit nicely with the world’s skewed aesthetic. During close combat Alice uses theVopalBlade to slice through her enemies, switching to the Pepper Grinder (Gatling gun) and The Teapot Cannon to destroy enemies farther away. While they suffer from repetitive combat tactics, the enemies are well designed and are often grotesque enough to bring a smile to Clive Barker’s face. It’s just a shame that despite their radically overhauled skins, the attack patterns for Alice and her enemies remain the same for the duration of the game. This, coupled with the occasional cumbersome boss fight, makes you wish for a little more polish. The main puzzles also feel recycled, relying on Alice to endlessly shrink/grow/jump and pull leavers. It still works, however, and isn’t as uninspired as it could have been.
The game sees Alice traverse six domains within Wonderland, each of which starts out dreamlike but soon descends into nightmare. Graphically the game is competent, with environments as varied as the Mad Hatter’s steampunk clock factory, 12thcentury Japan-inspired mountains, and a nightmarish doll factory in a terrifying toy land. Each realm brings its own unique puzzles and enemies, along with some inspired set pieces. One moment you’ll be grooving with the cast and crew of The Carpenters stage play, the next solving chess puzzles. There’s even the opportunity to step inside paintings, turning the game into a detailed and well-crafted 2D platformer. All welcome additions, as the campaign is lengthy (around 10 hours), and endless platformingwould have become very old, very fast.
Wonderland’s more famous inhabitants are brought to life with all the deranged gusto you’d expect. Alice, while playing second fiddle to Wonderland itself, is also expertly realised, and it isn’t long before you’re thoroughly engaged with her cause. But be warned, her adventure is one for mature audiences only. The narrative explores the idea of madness, exposing Alice to horrors both real and imagined. Her guilt-induced hallucinations lead to her being locked in an asylum, staffed by doctors only too happy to lobotomise innocent children. The brief time we spend in the “real” London is equally unsettling. As depraved and corrupt as Wonderland is becoming, inhabited by drunks, rapists and child abusers, it’s still tempting to leap down the rabbit hole at every opportunity.
Two aspects of the game deserve special mention. The first is the story, which is compelling enough to hold your interest and to inspire you to carry on in the hope of uncovering the cause of Alice’s madness and the truth surrounding her family’s deaths. The second is the musical score. While subtle and unobtrusive, the music perfectly complements the game’s unsettling atmosphere. While the idea of a 10 hour platform romp through Wonderland may not appeal to all, it’s to the game’s credit that it holds your interest throughout. Inspired touches, such as Wonderland slowly impinging on Alice’s real world environments and the puppet-faced Londoners who swear like troopers, ensure the game is never less than entertaining. Anything can happen in Wonderland, and it often does. You never quite know where the game is heading, which is rare these days and to be celebrated. While it does have its flaws (repetitive combat/AI/enemies), you’d have to be completely insane not to embrace Madness Returns.