The idea behind EA’s new Alice game is that the little girl who had the adventures in Wonderland has grown up and things have gone very badly for her. Her family have died in a fire and she is in an asylum in Victorian London plagued by terrible nightmares and with her memories in tatters. If she can piece together what happened to her in the past she can solve the mystery of what happened to her family and hopefully find all her marbles again. And so begins a return visit to Wonderland which is now a twisted nightmare version of itself. Alice has a brief wander around dirty old London town before following a stray cat (not a rabbit this time) back to Wonderland.
The first thing you notice about the game is how beautiful it is. The London scenes that open the adventure have the hand-drawn sepia tone of old book illustrations and photographs and there are cut-scenes that look like a paper puppet show. Once back in Wonderland the many levels are gorgeously vibrant, bright and colourful. Environments are many and varied with darkly twisted versions of all the places from the original Alice story.
On route we visit the expected Caterpillar’s garden, the Castle of Cards and the Carpenter’s theatre complete with Walrus and burlesque oysters. There are also pleasant surprises like a steampunk clockwork section and a very creepy Dollhouse area. In the background is the ever present sound of a runaway train which you know you’re going to end up on eventually.
Using a control system which is easy to learn and very intuitive to use we follow Alice third person through set routes which are usually clearly flagged. There’s no clueless floundering about what to do next here, and if you do get stuck there’s always the Cheshire cat nearby to help out with a cryptic clue or two. However, it does sometimes feel a little too on-rails and some alternative routes would have been welcome. At its heart Alice Madness Returns is an old-school platformer and progression depends on the usual running and jumping on platforms, avoiding spiky death, lever pulling, button pressing and puzzle solving. There’s also a healthy stream of nightmarish monsters that need to be defeated before you can move on. These start small, as you would expect, but before long they get a lot more challenging. Fortunately Alice is armed with an appropriately barmy arsenal of weapons. You get the Vorpal blade to stab them with but it won’t be too long before you’re battering them with a hobby horse, shooting them with a pepper grinder or boiling them alive with the teapot cannon. As you progress you’ll collect teeth and these grisly little souvenirs can be used to buy upgrades for your weaponry.
Of course, this wouldn’t be Alice without a bit of shrinking and growing. Once you’ve found the ‘Drink Me’ bottle you can shrink Alice. This opens up whole new areas in the environments for Alice to explore. Also, in her shrunken form Alice can see things that her full grown self can’t. These might be clues scrawled on the walls or invisible platforms to new areas. Worth remembering when you’re a bit stuck. It takes a while to find the ‘Eat Me’ cake but it’s well worth the wait because stomping around as giant Alice, battering down walls and flattening tiny playing card guards, is one of the highlights of the game.
To vary the gameplay several little mini games are included along the way. There are chess games and logic puzzles and some fun side-scrolling games reminiscent of old arcade classics like Defender. Another sees Alice making her way through a rather lovely Japanese painting. Completing some of these challenges increases your life metre. Life is measured in red roses here. The more you’ve got the more damage you can take. When things get tough later in the game you’ll need all the roses you can get.
Alice Madness Returns might well be based on characters from a children’s book but this certainly isn’t a game for little kids. This is a very grown up Alice with very dark psychological themes and imagery which is scary and often disturbing. The Dollhouse levels are particularly nightmarish with psychotic empty eyed dolls coming at you with nasty looking medical equipment. As the truth about Alice is gradually exposed by fragments of memory she picks up along the way things begin to look very grim indeed. Even the loveable characters from the book are given a dark new twist in this corrupted version of Wonderland.
So, how good is it then? Well, when it’s good it’s very good. The difficulty curve is perfectly judged and the auto-save system is fair, never expecting you to replay enormous chunks over and over again. The puzzles are fun and the design is so quirky and original that it’s hard not to like it. However, on the downside it does suffer from the perennial problems of all platform games. Some of the monster battles become a little tedious and repetitive. Some sections are completely dependent on perfectly judged leaps and dodges and these become ever more finely judged as the game progresses leading to frustrating periods of dying over and over again. Repetitive death syndrome is fine when you’re learning how to take down a swarm of angry enemies but it does seem a bit pointless when all you’re trying to do is get onto a ledge. There is some glitching and sometimes the camera ends up in a place where it is more hindrance than help. This is rare but it did occasionally happen at the point of a crucial jump or in the middle of some tooth and nail monster fighting. As for the mini games some are brilliantly fun distractions from the main action but one or two are merely irritating and just make you want to get back to the main game.
These niggles aside Alice Madness Returns is a large, colourful and, above all, fun adventure. It looks gorgeous and is both challenging and rewarding with a quirky and engaging take on familiar characters. This Wonderland is definitely worth a visit.