Alice: Madness Returns review

Poor, poor Alice. It’s not bad enough she lost her family, her home, and has been institutionalized for eleven years – no, now her only escape, Wonderland, is in shambles. To save her mind and her imaginary friends, she must get to the bottom of something – she’s not sure what (and neither were we for most of the game). She equips her Vorpal Blade (aka kitchen knife) and starts cutting through the macabre scenery – with little explanation and far less reservation – as if cutting off heads was the obvious solution to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

As you progress through the lengthy five-act game, tidbits of what’s really going on are exposed through collectible memories scattered within each level. These memories play an audio clip of someone from Alice’s past, be it her sister or psychologist, and reveal why she sees certain things in her ever-changing landscape, and the truth about the fire that claimed her family.

Throughout Alice’s journey, she’ll hit all the familiar videogame locales – the underwater stage, lava, forest, ice stage – all the familiars are here, but there are also a few curveballs – the Queen of Heart’s organs, The Far East, and a sky where bridges of cards are shaped as you walk. Some of these are truly breathtaking, and unlike most games it’s a pleasure to simply survey your surroundings. Unfortunately, all these reskinnings don’t change the repetitive gameplay you’ll have conquered early in the first chapter.

There is an abundance of platforming sections, puzzles, and more combat sequences than you can shake a hobbyhorse at. In earlier stages, the elements are well spaced out, which gives you breaks from fighting hoards of enemies to complete, say, an underwater side-scrolling ship section. Later in the game, the servings get heavy-handed, which means you’ll complete a puzzle – like the awkwardly out-of-place pachinko sections – three times or more in thirty minutes. Meanwhile the platforming ebbs between peaceful air vent sections and Zelda-style mazes: you walk into a room, activate your shrink-o-vision to see if there are any secrets, lay a bomb on a switch, and race to shoot a target – it’s all so second-nature that you never have to stop to think about how you’re progressing through a level.

Combat is the obvious star of the show. A wealth of enemies constantly transforms to match your surroundings, and colossal ruins fight differently than samurai wasps. Disposing of them using your silky smooth combos and weapon changes is a pleasure. Alice parries, glides from side to side, and uses her blade, hobbyhorse, bombs, and teapot to cleanse her mind of evil. It feels remarkably similar to Zelda-style fighting, but due to clever button mapping, there’s never a need to pause the game to switch your weapons. You’ll receive all of your weapons early on, so upgrading your weapons quickly becomes more fun than actually using them – your dust-beaten hobbyhorse (which feels like Link’s Megaton Hammer) transforms into an enormous platinum unicorn with fiery eyes and causes massive damage.

All the trudging, mundane puzzles, and hours spent on air vents are worth it at the end when secrets are revealed and the scattered memories all start to make sense. But through all the revelations, Alice remains strangely one-dimensional, disconnected from the horror and beauty that enfolds her. Only time will tell if the sometimes-repetitive gameplay and schizophrenic story have the same effect on her admirers.

Jun 16, 2011

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