Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Video Game Review | Alice: Madness Returns, dev. Spicy Horse

In the year of our overlord 2000, video game name American McGee let loose what is remembered today as his greatest creation - American McGee's Alice - pioneering in some senses the darker take on Lewis Carroll's stir-crazy cutie-pie that has come to proliferate since. With Alice: Madness Returns, McGee aims to take his profoundly disturbed idea of Alice back.

But reality bites - even those characters to whom reality matters not one whit - and it's been eleven years since American McGee's Alice. Truth be told, I think those of us who've returned to that fondly-recalled PC platformer have found, on reflection, our memories of McGee's weird and wonderful Wonderland rather rose-tinted. Perhaps the original game was an eye-opening experience in its day - certainly its unconventional use of the Quake engine set a standard for today's more flexible game tech - but I dare say it's day has come and gone and gone again. The very idea that more than a decade on there would be a sequel to American McGee's Alice quite boggles the mind, in fact, so the question one has to ask is: is Alice in any way relevant today?

Well, yes and no. Alice: Madness Returns makes a confused case for either answer. It has its moments - I'd even argue it has too many moments - but there is nevertheless an overwhelming air of the average about it. McGee's Shanghai-based studio Spicy Horse didn't make the best first impression with their work on the execrable episodic Grimm games, and though Alice: Madness Returns is more competent by and large, more acceptable in technical terms, still it feels a long way from the standards of the industry today. This would have been a brilliant PlayStation 2 game; unfortunately, on current-gen consoles it looks cheap and sharp where it should be clean and preened.

In design terms, however, it's superb. Alice: Madness Returns has the "princess" Disney co-opted venture deeper and deeper into her ruined psyche, by way of five long chapters encompassing a Wonderland progressively infected. From the vibrancy of Wonderland proper through the elaborate steampunk mechanisms of the Mad Hatter's Domain; from the aquatic delights of the Deluded Depths through the Okami-esque finery of the Oriental Grove, and on to the Dollhouse with its abused-looking babies by way of Queensland, where the world is fashioned from spades and diamonds and clubs and - yes - hearts, every stage of Alice: Madness Returns has its own distinct aesthetic, each of which seems a delicious, even nutritious treat.

At least they do to begin with. Alas, Alice overstays her welcome in every iteration of Wonderland, and we with her. One begins to see how a precious few graphical assets have been duplicated ad nauseam through each environment... how landscapes and layouts are repurposed from one room to the next... and just as the look of Alice: Madness Returns bends back on itself, like the Cheshire Cat chasing his own tail, so too do limited and moreover limiting play mechanics become, because of nigh-on endless repetition, their own worst enemy, for the moment-to-moment experience of Alice: Madness Returns can be boiled down to two scant pursuits: combat and platforming.

For a time, you will use Alice's triple-jump (and float) to make your way through the environments, across impossible chasms and along narrow ledges. You're also able to shrink in size at any point, which mechanic is largely employed in the pursuit of meaningless collectibles, of which there an insufferable number. So you jump and float and shrink and smash your way through Wonderland, destroying as much of it as you go as you rebuild, and when that begins to seem interminable - or indeed long since it has - you are deposited in a suspiciously arena-esque room where a handful of admittedly imaginative minions boil up out of the ground like Angelina Jolie in Beowulf to pick on our pool li'l princess, bearing hammers and axes and breath a la acid reflux. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to use the Vorpal Blade, a mean-looking Hobby Horse, a Pepper Mill and a Tea-kettle Cannon to fend off all comers. You can also dodge, which momentarily turns Alice into a lovely gust of butterflies, and deflect projectiles using her umbrella.

The combat in Alice: Madness Returns is actually pretty solid: complex, if far from nuanced, and challenging, though only till certain patterns are made plain. There are too a fair assortment of enemies - a few unique beasts and creatures to face off against in every stage - but you have to figure out their particular weaknesses the first time you fight them, and thereafter, once you've nailed the specific dance of dodge and thrust or shoot and strafe such-an-such a challenger demands, it feels rather rote. Ordinary and altogether functional -- like the padding of a Victorian lunatic's room, I would say if I were prone to impropriety... but then his Madness the Hatter wouldn't approve of that, so we'll stick with rote.

Traversal, too, sometimes comes a cropper of ill-advised implementation. I mean, sure, I'll take your punishingly precise platforming sections - I ain't too cool for Zool, no Sir! - but when you present them thus, with finicky twitch controls and some cruel and unusual checkpointing, in this day and age I am, I think, entitled to take issue. Even then, this and these are not issues I would give a great deal credence to, were it not for the fact that Alice: Madness Returns goes on for far, far, far, far - perhaps you start to see what I mean - just far too long. In time both the platforming and the combat come to be absurdly magnified, so that every last little issue has become an incredible annoyance when Spicy Horse finally gives the player leave to return to the relieving dreariness of reality.

In the fullness of time, the single most problematic aspect of Alice: Madness Returns is revealed to be not its questionable legacy, or the currency (or not) of its contemporary relevancy, nor even its archaic technology, but its boundless protractedness. If it were half the game it is, I'd give it... if not a free pass exactly, then no more than a yellow card. Alice: Madness Returns only has a few tricks up its sleeve, but I'll give it this: they're good tricks. Shame American McGee and his studio thought they could play the very same tricks over and over again, and promptly call it a day. Fool me once and all that. Fool me a hundred hundred times, on the other hand, and you'll find my patience thinner than thinner.

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