Alice: Madness Returns rolling review

Posted: July 6, 2011 by ryanlecocq in Reviews

Hey, this part is almost like the Disney film.

I’m trying a new concept where I review a game as I’m playing it, rather than writing it all on my final impression.  Not that novel, as other sites have done this, but I really think it helps to show the emotional progress you go through playing a game.  A lot of times a game will get a bad rep just because everyone got pissed at the ending and wrote their reviews immediately afterwards.  Since this game has gotten such mixed reviews and my anticipation is so high, I want to show the process of the Christmas morning feeling to that abject betrayal you get when it turns out to be “Tickle Me Elmo” 5 years too late.  Anywho, onwards.

Hours 1-2

This game is fucking ridiculous awesome.  Visually stunning, well written, great voice acting and music.  Unfortunately like the first game, the gameplay is extremely simple.  It’s almost as if the developers wanted some poor parent to buy this for their kids based on the ease of gameplay and then stab said parents to death.  Yes, it’s really that disturbing.  So the good news is that it’s exactly the deep, dark, Unreal 3 powered Alice you dreamed of but never hoped for.  The bad news is it’s still basically a much more simple game design wrapped in a fancy grown up game engine.  This time it’s Kingdom Hearts, where last time it was Crash Bandicoot/Soul Reaver, but the effect is the same.  You are basically playing a gameplay copy of the most popular kids platformer of the day, with a heaping helping of macabre slathered over top.

Did I mention this game is effing gorgeous?

Hours 3-5

This game is perfect.  The Vorpal blade does indeed go snicker-snack and the snarks are serious business.  Yes I’m coming to see the reason for this game’s mixed reviews.  There are two kinds of people in this world, people who read books and people who watch the Disney versions.  Much like the Disney Black Cauldron is a slap in the face to anyone who grew up on Lloyd Alexander, if you’ve only seen Disney’s Alice, you’ve only seen 10% of the story and that 10% was wrong.  One of my favorite things about this series is that it doesn’t only refer to parts of the main two books.  The games reference every scrap ever written by Lewis Carroll including his poems and even his diaries.  The character of Alice is based at least visually on the real Alice Liddell who is credited as inspiration for the stories (the resemblance is disturbing, look it up).  On top of this deep level of fan service is a thick coat of dark and Gothic.

The gameplay is fairly standard platforming and borrows heavily from genre champs Kingdom Hearts and Ratchet and Clank.  Don’t let that dissuade you in any way from playing this game.  The real star here is the incredible and visually stunning world you explore and the original take on the work of a legendary author.  It’s easy to see how the level of in-jokes and references would just make an unread person feel stupid and cause them to knock the game based solely on it’s unoriginal gameplay design.  My question would be ‘how could someone like that even pick this game up and want to play it?’  It might as well say “For the learned only” on the cover.  Unless there are some huge blunders towards the end, this game is headed for a perfect 10 from me and likely the first recipient of our new “Cult Game of the Year” award.

One thing I almost forgot to mention is how well the psychology aspect of the game is implemented.  One of the first things you’ll notice is that your appearance changes mid-level.  In every level you start out as Alice’s basic self image.  After you see what threats your mind has created, you alter that image to armor yourself (ie becoming fish-like rather than drowning).  It’s similar to the way we don’t often allow ourselves to die in dreams.  In a dream you won’t often fall of a cliff and die, but rather fall off the cliff and then realize you’re in an airplane.  The self preservation aspect being part of the dress up show is just one way the game masterfully incorporates both archaic and modern psychology.

Hours 5-10: Conclusion

I got stuck for a bit and took a few days to get back to finishing this game.  Viewing it as a whole and having the benefit of having read a dozen other reviews, I feel pretty content that I’m being objective.  This game is too good for gamers.  If you read my “Calling a Spade a Spade” article, I’m going to repeat myself a bit.  The industry and especially journalists try to defend games as art.  When a game comes along that actually is, it goes straight over their heads.

One thing I noticed about every professional review, was that they tried to sound like they ‘got’ the source material while making it obvious they didn’t. The Gamespot review claims that the sequel goes much farther from the books and cites this as done better in the first game.  I don’t want to sound elitist here, but you would have to miss half the dialogue in this game to have this view.  True, the first game is related primarily to the children’s stories “Alice’s Adventures Underground” (known to most as Alice in Wonderland) and “Through the Looking Glass.”  I’m a bit of a freak for the deep depths of literature, but I definitely know enough about the work of Lewis Carroll to have gotten a bit more out of this game.

Here are a few examples:

Every single scrap ever written by Carroll is referenced in this game, from his personal diaries to his short poems (the Vorpal Blade and Barrelbottom’s Snarks come from these for starters).

Alice herself is not the character from the novels, but the actual Alice Liddell whom Carroll wrote the stories for (quite different actually).  Her family members even bear the names and likenesses of the real individuals excepting her father who is notably Carroll himself.

In one of the hidden memories Alice’s older sister references how “Mr. Dodgson was such a poor boatman that we would have washed away on the Isis if I had not taken an oar.”  Charles Lutwidge Dodgson is the legal name of Lewis Carroll.  “Alice’s Adventures Underground” was originally a story made up by Dodgson while boating with the girls on the Isis one afternoon.

I could go on, but I don’t need to beat a dead horse.  There’s a reason I call these cult games.  They’re aimed at a very small audience who will get every reference and every joke.  As one of those lucky few, I absolutely loved this game.

The second thing I saw in professional reviews was critique of the gameplay mechanics and design from a traditional standpoint.  I have a huge problem with this, because it’s like breaking down Star Wars to it’s little technical pieces and saying “Star Wars is really just a lot of good ideas you’ve already seen, with some flashy effects.”  How anyone who hasn’t changed the lives of millions and inspired a religion can even begin to say such about Star Wars blows my mind.

This game is very much like that.  For a literature nut, this game is the Mona Lisa.  True it functions fairly similarly to many successful older platformers and it funnels you through it’s world with little environmental exploration.  It’s very much like a book or a movie that way; you don’t get to stop it every 2 seconds like Fred fucking Savage in The Princess Bride to be annoying and ask stupid questions.  You are actually expected to have the focus and attention span to follow the remarkable story in a logical path without wanting to climb all of the mushrooms.  I’m sorry, if you want art, you get art.  You don’t get to play on the fucking sculptures in the art museum and why anyone would expect anything else is a mystery to me.

After completing the game, I felt something I don’t often feel: Moved.  More and more these days, I feel this deep, creeping fear that I’m outgrowing video games.  I wonder if I’m just becoming an old curmudgeon when I feel that games used to be better than they are now.  Then a game like this comes along and burns my doubts away.  It proves that this is art and someone does get what I’m feeling and want to make me feel moved.  I hope you’re reading this American McGee, because I get it.  I felt it.  If none of the people who made this game ever profit one dime from it and it’s instead used against them in every future proposal they make to a publisher, I hope they read these words.  Your game gave me hope that gaming still means something.  My opinion may only be read by a few dozen people and not even affect the metacritic score, but I’m giving my best praise and the highest honor we can humbly offer.

10/10  Cult Game of the Year

  1. lagunawsu2 says:

    It’s good to see that this game didn’t deserve the reviews it got. I’ll have to feel the gameplay, but for me the first one was all about Enviroments and Puzzles. If its still got that in spades, I’m fairly cool with it.

    Also call me crazy but wasn’t the gameplay for the first Alice total crap? I seem to remember dying from falls I didn’t commit a LOT.

    • ryanlecocq says:

      The gameplay in the first one was okay, but it definitely suffered from being heavily inspired by Crash Bandicoot when it came to it’s platforming. Same problems. The control scheme was often your most formidable enemy.

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