Living Next Door to Alice

I’ve had a few games queued up when my monitor died me, one of which was Alice: Madness Returns. I have only played the demo of American McGee’s Alice back in the day, to which this new Alice game is a sequel, but I enjoyed it immensely and would probably have bought the full game had I the means to do so. At this point I should confess that I have an affinity for anything sufficiently nutty (classy and intelligently nutty, not just crazy shit Postal style) and that anything that has to do with Lewis Carol’s novels about Wonderland is no exception. Knowing all of this it shouldn’t come as a surprise if I say that I fell in love after seeing a trailer for Madness Returns.

I’ve finally gotten around to playing it and thought I’d write down a few impressions of what I’ve seen so far.

I don’t like reading detailed reviews of games before I’ve had a chance to play them, since I like to start playing with a blank mind. But I couldn’t help reading a few for Alice: Madness Returns and the general consensus seems to be that one major flaw of the game is its length. Since this is an area I can’t really comment on, due to the fact that I’m only a couple of hours into the game, I will have to leave commenting on that aspect of the game until I actually complete it.

With that out of the way, I have to say that the game’s visuals are the first and strongest imprint it left on my brain. I don’t want to give too much away, because discovering and marvelling at the scenery and creatures (including people) is a big part of the gameplay, but suffice it to say that the game has some of the most imaginative and unique visual and art design I’ve ever seen.

The story revolves, as expected, around Alice trying to unravel the memories in her head and trying to get rid of the miserable ones that are making her, well, mad. She somehow doesn’t seem mad enough to make it as a psychologically insane person. Apart from having an extremely vivid imagination and suffering from schizophrenia, she doesn’t seem all that crazy. Nothing a few visits to a psychologist and a few pills couldn’t fix. I’m not trying trivialise her condition here, it’s just feels like she’s one of the more subdued versions of Alice. But then again, she doesn’t have a knack for murdering things…

The story is told through shards of memories you collect, the ramblings of Cheshire cat and the occasional cutscene. Something seems to have gone terribly wrong in Wonderland and Alice needs to get to the bottom of it, all while fixing her memories. The narrative is nothing to write home about, considering the fact that the theme has been thoroughly chewed up and regurgitated time and time again, but it’s still intriguing enough to make you pay attention to it.

Combat is another area A:MR (yeah, I know, acronyms…) shines. Standard hack and slash combat is made interesting by way of introducing enemies that need to be fought carefully. There are only a few things you can just stab to death with the Vorpal Blade, with special tactics needing to be deployed to defeat most of the foes. Creatures will block your attacks and you’ll need to find ways to get around their defenses by hitting them in a vulnerable spot, dodging or blocking their attacks. It might not sound like much, but when there’s a multitude of different kinds of enemies attacking you it can get quite a bit hectic, in a good way. Although I’m at the point where the game hasn’t introduced any new enemies or weapons in a while and it feels like the combat has gotten a bit stale as a result. Maybe this is the first sign of the game being stretched out, which seems to be Alice’s downfall according to most critics.

Apart from combating the baddies you make your way around by jumping and solving puzzles, none of which is done exceptionally well, but well enough. I haven’t had much difficulty with dealing with them so far, which I think is a shame. I’m notoriously bad at solving puzzles which probably means that everyone else will find them trivial. A bit of a ramp up on the puzzle difficulty wouldn’t go amiss.

The game also has a few annoying things about it that it really shouldn’t have in this day and age. We are at a point where platformers getting the system of autosaving wrong (saving before a cutscene or putting the save points too far apart) are to be shunned. It’s a thing of the past and a game opting for the autosave system over the usual player save one needs to get it perfect. I’m guessing that going for the latter is a result of the game being developed for the consoles and ported to the PC. And while there aren’t any other complaints connected with the port, as the main one of not being able to remap controls or have detailed video settings is handily dealt with, the camera does tend to be a bit quirky in some cases. Nothing too serious though.

All in all, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Madness Returns so far and I’m looking forward to more. Stunning visuals, a decent story, fun combat and the occasional puzzle all keep me glued to the screen.

I’ll hopefully be able to write more about the game after I’ve finished it. It’s a shame that it doesn’t have a demo, but the good news is that if you decide to buy a copy, every copy of Alice: Madness Returns comes with a copy of the updated version of the original American McGee’s Alice. Which I still need to delve into. So many games, so little time!

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