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Review: Alice: Madness Returns

Table of Contents

Quick Info

Gore & Brutality Magic Sex Civility Religious Objections
3 1 4 3 2
Additional Notes
This game's soundtrack is available!

Summary of major issues
There is some really serious stuff to be concerned about with this title. Gore and violence are plentiful, but the biggest offender involves one of the worst things a person can do to a child.

Unfortunately, it's a major spoiler for the game's plot, so I won't be more explicit this early in the review.

Screenshots


Even in crisis, Wonderland is beautiful


A not so friendly game of catch


A short minigame

General Information

Genre:Hack 'n Slash / 3D PlatformerAge Rating:Mature audiences only (18+)
License:CommercialQuality Rating:Good
Played on:Thaddeus
Available from: Origin
Soundtrack:Available from Amazon
Save System:Once you reach a checkpoint, the game will automatically save for you. While this is the only way to record your progress, checkpoints are really easy to find.

Game Overview

The adventures of Alice in Wonderland have been adapted in many different ways over the years. While most people would associate Alice and her fantasy world of Wonderland with Disney, this adaptation was developed by American McGee, a game developer notable for his work on various violent, high profile video games, including the original Doom and Doom II: Hell on Earth. As you can guess, this version of Alice is very, very different from the stories by Lewis Carroll, and is also definitely not for younger audiences.

As the use of the word "returns" in the title implies, this is the second game from the Alice franchise. However, due to technical difficulties and a lack of online distribution, it's very hard to get a copy of the first game, and even harder to get it to work on modern systems. Fortunately, Madness Returns stands on its own. Any backstory you need to know is provided by the story itself. There is also a section in the Extra Content menu that provides more detail if you're interested in reading over it.

In this incarnation, Alice Liddel suffers from mental illness developed as a result of losing her parents and sister to a house fire. Every so often, she leaves reality behind for the splendors and magic of Wonderland. But, Wonderland is a reflection of her own mental state, and as she works with her therapist, things are crumbling into madness and ruin. In order to save herself, she must piece together the fragments of her repressed memories and save Wonderland from the corruption plaguing it.

The game itself is a hybrid of 3D Platforming and Hack 'n Slash gameplay. The two are blended very well, as the fight sequences are generally kept out of the platforming areas and vice versa. The combat itself is spectacularly done, as it's honestly one of the best implementations I've seen in ages. You need to plan your blocking, dashing, and attacks with care to defeat Alice's many enemies. Button mashing results in taking longer to defeat enemies and also leaves you very vulnerable. In addition to timing your offensive and defensive moves with the right rhythm, you'll also need to keep in mind that each of your four weapons are very specialized. Different situations call for specific weapons; using the wrong one will waste time as well as increase the likelihood of something going wrong.

And this is just the core of the game. There's also an upgrade system, hidden collectables, and lots of places to explore. All told, this game was a lot of fun.

However, as much as I enjoyed playing through it, potential players should be aware that this game also has some serious issues when it comes to the content of both the story and the level design. There are some profoundly dark subjects shown and discussed, as well as a lot of gore and disturbing imagery. This game is clearly not for everyone. It's definitely a title that should be kept out of the hands of children.

Pros

Excellent combat system
Even though there are moments where the lock-on feature backfires or otherwise gets in your way, this game has truly excellent combat. The main reason for this is that each type of enemy you'll face requires a different tactic to defeat. For example, Bolterflies are easily dispatched with the Pepper Grinder and the lock-on feature, but the Menacing Ruin requires you to reflect its ranged attack back at it before it's vulnerable to more conventional attacks.


Great story
Since the core of the story revolves around Alice trying to piece together her lost memories, you're only given the story in little morsels, many of which contradict each other. This is because Alice is slowly pulling back the curtain on a web of lies, and we're led through the memories as she does so.


Levels are huge and full of secrets
The obvious example of this are the many hidden rooms accessible via a small keyhole in a wall. In order to fit through the small passage, Alice needs to use her shrinking potion, and the rewards are often worth it. Secrets are also exposed by using the Pepper Grinder on randomly placed pig snouts; peppering the snout makes them sneeze. Once they've sneezed, the world around them changes, revealing a hidden secret. This might not make sense out of context, but then again, this is Wonderland we're talking about.

Perhaps one of the best secrets is an unexpected cameo of Razputin, the hero from Psychonauts.


Weapons are specialized and varied
In a lot of games, new weapons are often stronger versions of the weapons you already have, making the older models obsolete or only useful in special situations. However, in Madness Returns, each of the four weapons are unique and fill different roles in and out of combat. Using the wrong weapon tends to leave Alice defenseless momentarily, so plan carefully.


Puzzling minigames
While most of the game has Alice fighting the various monsters that infect her mind, there are a number of places where you play a minigame to unlock the way forward. A common example is a rhythm game where you need to press the directional keys in the correct sequence, like you're playing notes on a piano.


Autosave with frequent checkpoints
There is no way to save the game manually. However, this isn't much of a problem because there are plenty of checkpoints. Generally speaking, there's a checkpoint at the end of each section, before a boss or large battle, and one more after the battle is over. Some of the larger battles are fairly complex and can easily become frustrating before you figure out the right strategy for them, so this is definitely a good thing.


Bonus materials unlock as you progress
The are a lot of bonus materials available in this game. Most of them are unlocked by finding bottles throughout the levels, so keep an ear out for those pesky pig snouts. Some of the bonus features include information about things that didn't make it into the final game, which is an unexpected detail.


Playing the first game is not required
Alice: Madness Returns is the second game in American McGee's Alice series. Unfortunately, the first game in the series is somewhat hard to come by and uses an obsolete method of DRM, so the sequel has to try to stand on its own. As it turns out, it manages to do this just fine, as there aren't many references to the original game and there's a handy overview of the game's backstory in the Extra Content section.


Cons

Slightly unstable
Every so often, things seem to start acting a little weird. My guess is that there's a memory leak somewhere, but I can't say for sure. While playing through the game, it crashed on me twice. Both times occurred after long sessions, so restarting the game now and then might be a viable workaround.


Sometimes seems to drop keypresses
This can be rather annoying during a tense battle. I'm not actually sure if it's a bug or if the game just doesn't allow you to interrupt some arbitrary actions; the problem seems to be more likely to happen when you keep going in and out of bullet time.


No manual saving
To be sure you've saved, you'll need to find a checkpoint. They are all over the place though, so it's pretty easy to find one. Just be sure to watch for the pocket watch icon in the lower right.


Lost DLC
When the game was newer, EA offered some DLC for this title. This additional content included alternate versions of the game's weapons and dresses Alice could wear that would not only change her appearance but also provide various benefits. As interesting as these sound, the DLC isn't available for purchase anymore, though with some file editing you can enable it.


Concerns and Issues

Players be warned: Major spoilers ahead!

Focus on the dark side of society
In real life, Alice has the luxury of living in the slums around London. This means that most of her days are spent being surrounded by local drunks and prostitutes, and many of the men she encounters clearly consider her to be little more than a pretty toy for their amusement. The situation isn't helped by her visiting a friend at the brothel she works at.


Life in an asylum
At one point in the game, Alice's mind has cracked enough that she's committed to an asylum for a while. During this portion of the game, she's shown with her hair shaved off and wearing a straitjacket. Additionally, as she moves around the building, she'll witness various archaic treatments for mental illness. Perhaps the the most unsettling of which is trepanning, also known as trepanation. This is a procedure where a hole is bored into a person's skull, supposedly in an effort to let the bad stuff out.


Blood and gore
In Wonderland, you can come across blood and gore surprisingly easily. The earliest example is a river of blood that flows from the remains of the Jabberwocky. Later on, the scenery frequently features graphic details. Some of these scenes can be predicted, such as what will happen to the fish village once the Walrus and the Carpenter perform their play. The Red Queen's territory takes things to a new extreme, as it's best described as the inside of a giant creature.

The blood isn't restricted to the landscape either. Fleshy enemies bleed when cut, and some can even be decapitated. The various forms of the Ruin spurt black, tar like ooze when struck, and Alice can enter a temporary super powered mode called Hysteria. When she does this, the screen loses its color, her eyes appear to have been removed, and her face and forearms appear to have been doused with blood.

On the other hand, when Alice is killed, she simply poofs into a cloud of blue butterflies.


Body horror
Many of the inhabitants of Wonderland are twisted in some way. Several of them are part machine, and unlike your typical cyborgs, their augmentations have a distinctively unnatural look about them, making it look like they've been experimented on by some tech-happy scientist. The dodos have suffered from this the most, as they resemble cybernetic zombies more than anything.

In contrast to the mechanical nightmares in the early portions of the game, other parts of Wonderland are filled with rot and decay, which leads us to a number of clearly undead and mummified creatures.

From there we turn to the Red Queen's lair, which is basically an organic mess, complete with tendons, blood vessels, teeth and even grotesque eyes. One of the DLC dresses, called the fleshmadien dress, is a similar mess of tissues that seem to cling to or merge with Alice's body.

Completing the spectrum of nightmare fuel, the Ruin are best described as blobs of oozing tar with random assortments of old doll parts. The larger the creature, the more doll heads that stick out of it. And when you discover the reason for all of the doll parts, things just get a LOT more horrifying.


Many characters die
Wonderland is falling apart, and in the chaos many of the people that inhabit it die during the cutscenes. Fortunately, since Wonderland is a world within Alice's mind, many of the characters reappear later in the game as if their death was just an inconvenience.

However, while Wonderland can take shelter in the fact that it's an imaginary world, the people living in London are not so fortunate. Alice does kill someone in the real world, and feels completely justified for doing so. Perhaps the creepiest aspect of this game is that there's a good chance that you'll relish that moment yourself.

Fan theory adds one more person to the growing bodycount. Early on, Alice is talking with one of the nurses on the roof of a building. During this conversation, Alice starts hallucinating, and witnesses the nurse transform into a monster. As the creature begins to come for her, Alice falls into Wonderland for the first time in the game. Since the nurse is never seen again, fans have concluded that in her delusional and confused state, Alice may have pushed the nurse off the building.


Outfits can be a bit revealing
Many of the women in London wear dresses or corsets with very low necklines. This is hardly surprising, considering that many of them are prostitutes.

Within Wonderland itself, there's an area where you'll encounter statues of geishas. While these aren't explicit, their clothing isn't very modest either. Things take a sharp turn for the weird a little bit later on when the geishas start being depicted as seductively posed mantises.

There is also a small amount of nudity, if you want to call it that, with the various living dolls found in Wonderland. Specifically, the Dollgirl enemies become broken and disrobed during combat, which is really more scary than sexual.

On the other hand, what Alice is wearing depends on where she is in Wonderland. Most of these outfits are reasonably modest, but a few also feature a deep neckline, much like the corsets Alice would see on the London streets.


Alchemic and Zodiac symbolism
Throughout the game, you can spot various symbols in the background and on Alice's dresses. As it works out, these were specifically chosen to imply some additional meanings that players familiar with these symbols would recognize. The majority of them simply reflect Alice's current mood and state of mind. An example of this is the appearance of the symbol for Jupiter in areas where its associated trait, Judgement, is being carried out on the corrupt Wonderland inhabitants.


Swearing
Alice herself seems to be a bit of a prude, but some of the other characters can slip in a few swears now and then. Most of the dialogue is actually very refined and formal sounding, so the swearing isn't normal by a long shot.


Alcohol and drug usage
Although Alice is often around a lot of alcohol, angry drunks and bars, she never drinks herself. But, while in the Caterpillar's domain, she smokes from various hookas. If you're not familiar with that term, it's a type of "high class" smoking pipe, and they are surprisingly common in fiction and many cultures. For example, in the classic Disney adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, the Caterpillar puffs on a hooka while talking with Alice.

It's quite possible that there's just a flavored oil being evaporated in these hookas (as this is a popular, family-friendly use for them), but they could also be filled with a form of tobacco. In real life, hookas aren't known for being used for anything more serious than that. However, smoking anything isn't good for you, even if it is just flavored smoke.


Ants worship the Caterpillar
Speaking of the Caterpillar's section of Wonderland, it's inhabited by paper ants that worship the Caterpillar as a deity. They are being attacked by an invasion of samurai wasps, and are shown crying out to figures of the Caterpillar, desperately trying to summon his aid rather than fight for themselves.


Child abuse and prostitution
This is by far the most troubling aspect of this game. The heart of the story is that the psychiatrist isn't trying to help any of the children in his care. Instead, he's grooming them for a life of prostitution in the London streets, setting himself up as the pimp.

Alice could potentially do something about it. As we learn through her nightmares, she witnessed him rape her sister and set the fire that killed her family. If she told the police about this, the therapist could be dealt with, and he knows it. Thus, he's been actively trying to worsen her madness to prevent anybody from thinking her ravings are credible. It almost worked; he nearly had her believing that the fire was caused by her own carelessness or the family cat knocking a lantern over.

Thankfully, you never see a child actually get struck or abused in the game itself. Instead, you'll overhear some unusual comments and see a lot of symbolism involving dolls. The most direct examples are two very suggestively positioned dolls in Wonderland. Both of these are doors; one has you enter through the crotch area, the other through the rear.

The other big examples are the Dollgirl enemies. At first they appear to be neglected baby dolls, but as you fight them their clothing is removed, and as you continue to fight them, their porcelain chest will brake open to reveal a beating heart. During some loading screens, the game suggests using the Hobby Horse to defeat the Dollgirls. This has led some players to speculate that you're symbolically raping the doll when you fight them. After all, the Hobby Horse is the only weapon you have that's also a child's toy, and you're using it to disrobe the doll and then break their heart. Personally, I found that the Pepper Grinder was far more effective at dealing with these horrors, which may or may not change how you interpret the fights.

The crooked psychiatrist does eventually pay for his crimes, courtesy of an angry Alice and an oncoming train, though it's left open to interpretation if any of the children, or even Alice herself, get a better life afterwards.