If you played American McGee’s Alice you probably know this, but I’ll mention it first since many trailers make the game look like Bayonetta or something similar. Alice: Madness Returns, like the original game, is primarily a platformer with bits of combat.
The sequel begins not in Wonderland, but Victorian London. Inside Rutledge Asylum, a therapist advises Alice to forget the past, but she’s fixated on finding out what happened to her family who were killed in a fire in 1863. Alice (and her stuffed rabbit) were the only ones that made it out alive. I walked through asylum rooms in search of secrets, but found none. The dreary London portions of Alice: Madness Returns aren’t designed for exploration, these just setup her entrance into a now ruined Wonderland. Asian art seen in the home of her lawyer inspires a world with floating Ming vases, grasshoppers in desperate need of her help, and samurai wasps. When Alice gets knocked out in a seedy, sea-themed brothel she dreams of an underwater Wonderland.
Before any of those areas, Alice wanders through an aged factory where the Mad Hatter, a clockwork giant in Madness Returns, lives. He, like most of Wonderland’s whimsical inhabitants, sends her on a fetch quest. Later in Alice: Madness Returns, Alice makes a snarky remark about how everyone in Wonderland is so helpless, but she continues fulfilling their requests. In the Mad Hatter’s mechanized world, Alice needs to soar past gaping pits to retrieve his limbs. Believe it or not, Alice actually gets more air than Mario (minus the cape or raccoon tail). In her memories, one of the kids compares Alice to a toad, which isn’t far from the truth. Alice has a triple jump and can float in between hops to extend her horizontal range. Mastering this is tricky, at first, since platforms move and judging the distance from afar isn’t clear. Alice: Madness Returns is quite forgiving if you fall and merely teleports Alice back a few jumps after she explodes into butterflies.
Mad Hatter’s domain was built with mushrooms to bounce on a steam vents that keep Alice in the air. The second stage, the third, and so on… used the same level design. While the setting changed from a Far East mountain to a demented dollhouse, Alice still searched for red targets to shoot with her pepper grinder (Alice’s take on a machine gun), shrank when there was no "ground" to make invisible platforms appear, and jumped… a lot. It’s like Alice: Madness Returns showed everything in the first level. Well, except for the mini-games. Developer Spicy Horse added variation by sprinkling events like sliding puzzles, a stylized 2D side-scroller, an unnecessary rhythm game, and even a horizontal shooter where you blast crabs with cannon arms.
Combat has a similar roadblock since Alice doesn’t develop much. Her range of attacks increase when she finds the weapon of the level – either a teapot that acts like a grenade launcher or the Hobby Horse, a toy horse Alice uses like a giant mallet. That’s actually her heavy attack, but you won’t get it until the second stage. Even after upgrading weapons Alice doesn’t learn new combos. Since the Vorpal Blade is her primary weapon I maxed out its level first and fights (outside of challenge rooms) ended up being a breeze. Each enemy in Alice: Madness Returns has a specific weakness. Menacing Ruins, for example, are vulnerable after you reflect a fireball using Alice’s umbrella. Eyepots, walking teapots that scald Alice with tea, need to be stunned with the pepper grinder before furiously slashing at them. This makes every weapon in Alice’s arsenal useful, but battles become routine since the same tactics are recycled.
Alice: Madness Returns has environments that beckon players to explore further. Shrink and you may find a tiny keyhole to walk in. Jump off the critical path and there may be a treasure trove of teeth (used to upgrade Alice’s weapons) or a memory. Or a bottle. Or a hidden pig snout to pepper. Like many modern platformers, Alice: Madness Returns is loaded with items to find, but if you move too fast you can miss them. In many points, it isn’t possible to backtrack. Doors close on Alice and collectibles are locked away. Memories are perhaps the most valuable since they complement the story. Yes, Alice: Madness Returns is a story driven title, but the voice acting is often drowned out by the game’s music. I found myself depending on subtitles, which was a bit odd since the reason why I played Madness Returns is to see Alice interacting with warped Wonderland characters. Spicy Horse delivers those in spades.
After a ten hour romp, Alice: Madness Returns is only extended by its predecessor. Every new copy of the game includes a HD version of American McGee’s Alice. Get the game used and you’ll need to purchase an Electronic Arts online pass to unlock it. While the original Alice is over a decade it old, it feels more fleshed out the Madness Returns. Perhaps, the sequel was so off the wall it was rushed out the door?