Alice: Madness Returns is no Disney fairytale.  Forget the Alice of a beautiful, magical wonderland with no real dangers and ditch the notions of an innocent little girl exploring the creations of her imagination.  This Alice is a girl who is lost and tormented in both her reality and imagination,  who is frantically trying to keep hold of herself while both realms of consciousness are fighting against her.  I adore Disney, (I would be totally suited to princess impersonation in any theme park) but even I have to admit that Disney’s rendition of Alice is nowhere near as fun!  How could I possibly pass up a title that combined the madness of imagination with the magic and mystery of a good fairy tale?  I gladly took the plunge down the rabbit hole and into the wonderful world of Alice: Madness Returns, hoping that the game could hold my attention as much as the concept did.

Alice's Mental State Seen in the Scenery

Wonderland certainly seemed wonderful when I saw just how vividly the surreal place of Alice’s creation was presented.  The graphics are stunning and the camera is almost entirely under player control, so all the hard work of  Spicy Horse could be enjoyed.  EA’s support in the project is definitely felt in its graphical quality.  That said, I know of titles that are even more aesthetically-pleasing, and expect great graphics these days.  Solid graphics are now the norm, so when I see pretty scenery, I always think about what else the artwork offers.  This is exactly what pushed Alice’s world into a league of its own; there was symbolism reflected in the twisted depiction of Wonderland around every corner.  I was never left in the dark about Alice’s deteriorating mental state as I explored Wonderland, and this made me connect to her in a way I didn’t imagine I would.

I eventually was able to stop spinning my camera around for long enough to get on with the game.  I was very impressed by how ludicrous the characterisation was, and it was simply perfect in terms of presenting the demons in Alice’s broken Wonderland.  Right from the beginning, Alice’s Wonderland friends were horrifically depicted in exploding, gory scenes that genuinely shocked you.  The scripting was fantastically surreal, just as you’d expect if you had any previous experience of Alice in Wonderland.

I was impressed by how little the game’s mechanics to improve your character interfered with gameplay.  Rather than having a complex level or skill-based system, which would invariably break up the storyline too much, Alice: Madness Returns has you collect teeth to purchase upgrades for your unlikely weaponry – teeth buy us the best things, huh?  Collecting teeth gave me good reason to smash up the strange items that were dotted around the world and upgrading was a very quick way to make precious Alice more beefy.  Health is regained in much the same way- you occasionally find red roses inside some of the game’s smashables, which regenerate your health pool.  The ease of both mechanisms allowed me to never miss out on the storyline or forget what my objectives were due to being too busy fixing up my character.

Navigation and combat go hand in hand in Alice. She jumps and glides around wonderland, and zooms and darts in a blaze of butterflies to get the advantage in combat.  All this does get rather repetitive, though, since most objectives are very much the same.  If you take away the scenery, there is little to distinguish one mission from another.  Combat feels samey and lacks much in the way of challenging gameplay; I find that zoom, whack, repeat pretty much covers most encounters.  The ideas behind Alice’s weapon arsenal are much better than their in-game application.  I loved the idea of shooting pepper at flying piggy noses as much as anyone, but it lost its appeal in no time and the pepper grinder wasn’t the most intuitive weapon ever created.

Platform-finding was the main test of skill, and the way you do this doesn’t change throughout the whole game.  The jumps required to get from A to B do not get much harder either, so there is no real challenge to Alice: Madness Returns. If not for the occasional puzzle to provide a diversion, I doubt that I would have kept playing, even with the beautiful scenery and haunting story.  The gameplay certainly lets down the title, and I feel as though the developers tried to hide this by making the story and visualisations carry a certain shock factor.  This fails to cover up the disappointing play style for everyone but the most novice gamer.

Unfortunately, Alice‘s gameplay brings down what could – and should – have been a wonderful addition to my gaming collection.  I am totally the target audience for such a title, and feel that I’ve been let down.  If I don’t enjoy the gameplay, and only continue because I adore the dark depictions of Wonderland and the gruesome plot, then I don’t expect that many gamers who are not within the same demographic as I am to really enjoy this game at all.  It is for this reason that Alice fails to score as highly as it should have from a girly reviewer with a passion for the macabre as a stark contrast to the cute and innocent.  I really do carry a bias for games like this, but just cannot justify giving this game the glowing review I wish I could give it.

I give Alice: Madness Returns an Ironhammers 2.5 out of 5, since I fail to see how anyone who is not a crazed fan of similar titles would carry this game through to the end.  If not for a great story and some impressive, symbolic artwork, this game would have scored much lower.  That’s all this rather disappointed reviewer can say, really – the game didn’t give me much more to go on.

Review copy kindly donated by GamersGate