Saturday, 19 May 2012

Review- Alice: Madness Returns

Alice: Madness returns, is a platformer/hack and slash for 360 and PS3, developed by Spicy Horse (possibly the best named studio ever), which was founded by American McGee (possibly the worst named game designer ever). It's a sequel to the cult classic that most people didn't actually play and only heard of, American McGee's Alice (the least imaginatively titled game since Space Invaders).

 Again poor Alice is totally bananas and must venture back through a somewhat corrupted Wonderland in a journey to save her own mind or something that doesn't become at all clear until four fifths of the game has elapsed. With the help of some characters who have decent dialogue but almost no relevance to the story progression, it's up to you to pilot Alice as she hacks and slashes and jumps and collects all over the least interestingly designed iteration of Wonderland yet.

 That may sound a bit harsh. Admittedly, Wonderland looks pretty spectacular for the most part (frequent broken lightmaps aside), and has certainly got some great scenery at times. However it's sadly the case that in order to get to the more intriguing bits of the game you are forced to play through seemingly endless abstract obstacle courses which in fact are very bland indeed. Navigating them in fairness works pretty well but that fact that around forty percent of Wonderland is floating platforms and steam vents indicates that Alice is less living in an escapist fantasy than trapped in an administrative problem.

 In between obstacle courses sections and perhaps as a reward once you reach the more interesting second half of each episode, you get to have fights with enemies either themed around mad creatures from Wonderland, or blob monsters with doll's faces, which don't really relate to anything but pop up all over the bloody place. The fighting itself in fairness is very solid, meaty in fact, and aside from the visual direction (when it's not wrapped up in floating platforms) is probably the most enjoyable part of the game. You have basic fast slashing attacks, and later expand your arsenal to accommodate a machine gun, a grenade launcher, a bomb, and a hammer. You can even lock on like in Ocarina of Time, and a border appears to focus you into the fight. Additionally you can block and dash, although dashing is so overpowered you only ever need to block to deflect enemy attacks. Likewise, the hammer is almost entirely useless in a fight, and firearms turn out to be by far the most powerful weapons in the game as only three or four enemies have a chance of fighting you at range. Not that it matters which you upgrade, as by the end of the game you'll be able to stop collecting teeth (which are currency for some bizarre reason) in order to upgrade your weapons because you've already maxed them all out needlessly. Although unbalanced, as I mentioned before the combat is more than solid and mostly enjoyable, and it's a shame the game is so focused on jumping around empty worlds rather than stabbing Wonderland's denizens.

 The game never really increases in complexity or raises the stakes, in fact the only thing it tends to threaten you with is more bloody obstacle courses, as the bland puzzling continues in lieu of further combat, distributing it sparingly. Combat never progresses beyond the basic moves you get when you gain each weapon, platforming spends the entire game based on double jumps, glides, and shrinking in order to get through holes and see invisible walls (because somehow being small makes you super perceptive?). Enemies themselves do increase in complexity, however it's really needlessly so as the advent of the teapot cannon halfway through the game obviates most of the requirement for strategic play by blowing the shit out of everybody. Even after building tension through a combination of mystery and frustration, every chapter but the last ends with a brief conversation and then a return to normality. No boss battle, no big reveal. Nothing.
My main issue with the game is not that the obstacle courses exist. No, that's fine, it makes sense to have abstract landscapes to navigate in the IP of all things, and it would help with pacing to have a few breaking up combat sections. It's that there are dozens of them. You complete four and think you might get to the next area and then you end up doing another three of them, all the while being led around for collectibles that for the most part have no practical use. In terms of these collectibles there are memories, which are kind of like audio logs in most other games and fill in bits of narrative. Or at least they would if they weren't just people giving meaningless anecdotes ninety percent of the time. Additional to these are teeth, which as mentioned before are used to get weapon upgrades, Radula room entrances (which pose challenges to be rewarded by largely superflous health upgrades) and bottles. Yes, bottles. Bottles that don't do anything. They literally only exist to give you something to collect. There's not even an achievement for getting them all. You just pick them up and think "Hey, a bottle!" and then that's that. It's like they made too much content and had to populate it with pointless crap in order to justify it's presence.

 And that is the real problem with Alice: Madness Returns- filler. The game feels like it could be done with in half the time it actually takes if you weren't pissing around on floating rocks and collecting bottles that do nothing for hours on end. In fact you'd not get bored as much and it would probably be far more enjoyable for it. The game is artificially long, to it's great detriment. Which is a shame, because aside from the mostly incomprehensible plot and glitchy visuals, it's really a solid effort and greatly enjoyable when you're allowed to get on with it. There are some great level designs and environments to explore, punctuated by enjoyable and engaging combat, and propped up by a score that is good when the time comes but sadly seems to be as bored as I was during the endless platforming segments.

 Overall I'd say this game was a missed opportunity. Cut the shit and you'd have a short but highly enjoyable action adventure. As it stands it's series of great levels with huge droning intermissions that soon become a chore. And that is not what a game about a young woman's over-active imagination should be about at all. 

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