Bold imagination collides with an antiquated past
Do you like to jump in games? Not just jump—because in Alice: Madness Returns, you can’t jump in the somewhat restrictive combat structure—but do you like to jump on moving, disappearing, deviously placed platforms that remind you of games from a bygone era? Your answer is paramount to your enjoyment of this purebred action-platformer sequel to 2000’s American McGee’s Alice.
This is a game as regressive as it is teasingly modern. It’s a Mario-fueled platformer that could easily exist in 2000 or pre-3D 1990, sticking unflinchingly to what works while pairing narrative with a consistently transfixing visual style. Alice: Madness Returns is at its best as a thrilling art gallery, pulling you through one phantasmagoric setting after another—all of which spring from the tortured mind of our protagonist, Alice.
The lyrically poetic-yet-fragmented story pieces together from the collected memories Alice stitches from the pickups scattered around her dreamworld. She’s been stuck in a mental asylum for a torturous stretch of time, struggling to heal from the memories of her parents’ death in a fire she may or may not have caused. The plot details are largely irrelevant, and—come on, guys!— without the yearning payoff. The game space you explore is what matters—a bold, imaginative world powered by the metaphorical extension of Alice’s demons.
I can’t stress enough the satisfaction of playing a game that pushes so far into the surreal; it gets the language of ethereal design, the idea that games can transport us to completely unrecognizable worlds and instill a tactile interaction to the nuts and bolts. Our games today look and feel tonally the same, and Alice is a wonderful trip—a bizarro Wonderland trip—into ideas that don’t rely on the gravity of convention.
And yet it frustrates around a number of corners, the sharpest turns extending from distended, paint-by-numbers gameplay setups and clunky technology. A pepper grinder becomes a Gatling gun, an umbrella becomes your parry weapon, and a hookah toke replaces the rote switch to ignite the next challenge—these are visual cues that make the typical feel more alive. But the game still sinks in a lack of assured craft. A teapot with a menacing red eye is cool the first time—but after encountering it over and over hours into the game, not so much. The minigames are a great distraction—roll a doll head as a wrecking ball through a maze or guide a ship along a 2D plane as a classic shooter—but slight and underutilized.
Developer Spicy Horse flirted with greatness here, and I’m praising the better moments while lamenting the truth that it takes a forgiving gamer to immerse themselves into Alice: Madness Returns. Some of my favorite moments were simply walking around a creepy, twisted Victorian London—no action, no traditional mechanics. Only admiring artists who will no doubt make a something special on their next trip down the trying gaming rabbit hole.
SUMMARY: While Alice: Madness Returns lags behind its contemporaries in the technology department, the artistry and atmosphere conveyed in this platforming throwback are an inspiring example of what you should be playing.
- THE GOOD: Rare, wildly imaginative setting
- THE BAD: Design and visual inconsistencies abound
- THE UGLY: Packed with artificial game-extending padding