Sunday, February 24, 2013

Alice: Madness Returns (Spicy Horse/Electronic Arts, 2011)

I spent a lot of the past decade working in video production. For my job I needed to be mobile, so I made the switch from a lifetime of desktop computing, to a less powerful yet more flexible laptop existence. Every three years or so I'd buy a new one to try to keep up with my growing needs, but none of them were really up to playing the most recent PC games. So, I mostly stuck to either console/cloud games, or older PC titles that my machines could handle. Now that I've changed industries, I don't need a laptop as much anymore, so when it came time to look for a new one I decided on getting both a Windows tablet PC, and a high end tower system (both together were still less than half the cost of a decent laptop!)

As I mentioned in my Darksiders II review, I finally got my new PC last November, and I was eager to try it out. I started digging through my Steam library looking at all of the games I picked up on sale that I haven't been able to play yet. I tried out Dead Space for a little while, because as I mentioned in my Space Quest review, I'm a sci-fi nut. For some reason or other I put Dead Space aside a little ways into it, and instead decided to play Alice: Madness Returns.

Recently, there's been a trend in pop culture of taking classic fairy tales and making them, for lack of a better word, badass. You can barely turn on a TV without seeing ads for shows such as Once Upon a Time and Grimm, or movies such as Jack the Giant Slayer, and Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. It wasn't always like this though. Fairy tales used to be presented mostly as candy coated stories for children, despite the gruesome origins of several of them. Over a decade before Snow White and the Huntsman, and half a decade before The Brothers Grimm, there was a game called American McGee's Alice. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to play it when it was out, and even in this day of digital distribution, the game is no longer available. Fortunately, about a decade later American McGee got back to work and created a sequel.

Alice: Madness Returns is a gothic psychological thriller re-imagining of Lewis Carroll's 1865 Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and 1871 Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. In this version, Wonderland and all of its inhabitants are the hallucinations of a mentally disturbed Allice Liddell, a teenage orphan raised in the insane asylums of a dirty sepia toned Victorian England. Mental illness is a topic rarely touched by video games, outside of the occasional character described as "crazy", but this title actually tackles the subject in a respectful way.

You spend the game trying to uncover Alice's past which her subconscious mind has locked away from her, a blurry memory of the night her family died in a suspicious house fire. Since the mental health practices of the time focused on trying to forget painful memories rather than dealing with them, it is a difficult task to say the least. It's important to note that in this game, Alice is still mentally unstable. She's prone to blackouts and random hallucinations that can intrude into and distort her reality, and sometimes pull her out of it completely. When things get out of hand, she retreats into her internal fantasy world of Wonderland.

Wonderland has always been described as a world driven by nonsense that ranges from pleasant to terrifying, but its presentation here is taken to a new level. I would describe it as a Tim Burton style take on it, if it weren't for the actual Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland movie that came out the previous year. Still, it could almost be described as a more Burtony version. The characters are all presented in horrifying form, while staying true to their origins. The Walrus and the Carpenter are still trying to lure the trusting Oysters to their delicious doom. The Mad Hatter, this time a mechanized clockwork monstrosity, tries to help Alice, but is easily distracted and overall of little use.

An interesting aspect of the presentation is that the whole time Alice is in Wonderland, she knows that she's actually not. She knows that it is all part of her mental disorder, but she uses it as a coping mechanism. By helping to solve Wonderland's problems, she is dealing with her own mental issues and coming to grips with what actually happened to her family, and realizing that she's been raised believing a web of lies covering up a dark secret. This also has implications on the real world. The entire time she's off adventuring through Wonderland, she's actually wandering the streets of London, and having to deal with the consequences of her actions upon her return to reality. As her ultimate quest is not to save the imaginary Wonderland but to save herself, this makes her actions in the real world more important, even if they're less entertaining.

The great thing about having a game set in Wonderland is that it's a world based on pure nonsense. Because of this, design decisions could be made based on how to make the game more fun, without having to worry about breaking reality. This is in much the same way that a Mario game can get away with things that you just couldn't do in a Splinter Cell or Assassin's Creed game. Having a world of nonsense lets the game be what it wants to be, and the more absurd the explanation the better! The basic gameplay is based around the standard 3D platformer tropes. Where some games give you an ability to double jump, Alice can jump and twirl and glide up to four times allowing you to explore some elaborate platforming levels with ease. No explanation needed for her ability, it's simply nonsense.

The combat follows a modern flowing action game style. It doesn't innovate, but it feels solid and thought out. Alice has never really been depicted as a violent girl, so obvious care and creativity was taken in choosing her weapons and attacks. Her primary weapon is the Vorpal Blade, an obscure weapon mentioned briefly in the Jabberwocky poem. This weapon is swung like a typical hack n' slash sword and offers a good variety of attacks. The next weapon you get is a pepper grinder from the Duchess's Cook which fires like a machine gun, and was by far my favorite weapon of the game. Next up is a wooden toy horse that Alice swings like a war hammer. And lastly, a tea kettle that charges up to shoot out tea like a grenade launcher. All of these can be upgraded along the way for a price of teeth which are collected from slain enemies or by shattering various containers. Alice also collects some abilities along the way in a Metroid/Zelda fashion such as being able to shrink on cue, see hidden clues, and place clockwork time bombs made out of top hats.

Level design throughout Wonderland is primarily linear with only a few short side paths leading to collectibles. Among these collectibles are Alice's lost memories. The more of these you find throughout the game, the more you start to unravel the story of what actually happened that fateful night. As linear as the levels are, don't expect to be handheld through them. These levels sometimes weave and wrap around themselves in fascinating ways leaving the player trying to puzzle out how to proceed. There are also the occasional detours as the inhabitants of Wonderland will demand you help them to solve their own dilemmas before allowing you to proceed. These segments provide a refreshing change of pace with sometimes a minimal amount of exploration and backtracking. I personally would have preferred more of an open world design overall, but the end results work out so well that I can't complain. The biggest surprise for me was the inclusion of a handful of 2D platformer levels. These use a hand drawn storybook art style similar to the game's cutscenes.

The London segments have a much different overall feel to them. There's no jumping or attacking, simply wandering around and talking to people, most of whom would rather have nothing to do with the orphaned mental patient with the bad reputation. It is in these segments that you investigate Alice's past and the people in her sad life in an attempt to get to the bottom of things. Bits of Wonderland sometimes slip through as well. Alice has a loose grip on reality, and can never be sure if what she's seeing is real or part of her delusions. This haziness reminded me a lot of the Scarecrow segments from the Batman Arkham games, or more precisely, the sections leading into those segments. This is especially fitting considering that the Scarecrow section of Arkham City led to an encounter with Gotham's own Mad Hatter.

The music throughout the game fits the mood perfectly. The haunting violin solo on the main title screen especially was stuck in my head for weeks. The sound effects aren't anything ground breaking, but they do a good job of making the world believable. The voice cast also manages to bring the many fanciful characters to life.

I've heard a lot of complaints about the controls in the game. There's one review in particular that blasted the PC release of the game for playing better with a gamepad than with a mouse and keyboard. To me, that's just a rediculous complaint, like complaining that a PS3 game plays better with a Move controller than a Six-Axis. I played the game with a gamepad, and yes, I think it plays better with a gamepad, but I think all platformer games play better with a gamepad because it's a genre that was born on consoles and plays to the strengths of gamepads. Just because a game is released on PC, doesn't mean it has to work amazingly with a mouse and keyboard. Neither of those devices were created for gaming, and while they work great for some types of games, they don't work as well for others. The great thing about gaming on a PC is that you can use whatever controller fits the game the best.

Overall I thought the controls felt tight and intuitive, but with one exception. The lock-on logic always seemed to want to pick the absolute worst enemy to lock on to. Many of the battles I fought completely without locking on. In others, I would fight off the smaller enemies first, so I could then lock onto the larger enemy I wanted to shoot at. If I did manage to lock on to the strongest enemy early in a fight, I would be afraid to let go of the lock, so I would fight the smaller enemies by positioning myself so I could shoot them in the crossfire of shooting at the larger enemy. So yes, the lock-on logic could have been much better, but other than that I had no complaints with the controls.

The difficulty of the game is well balanced and increases gradually as you progress through the story. As would be expected, the later levels have the most difficult combat. Towards the end of playing Alice: Madness Returns, the basement where I keep my PC started to get pretty cold (it was late December at that point). Luckily, my wonderful wife got me a PS3 for an Xmas gift, and I could use the lure of gaming in a nice warm living room as motivation to get through the final challenges of the game. I found the ending of the game to be extremely satisfying both from a storytelling perspective, and from a game design angle. I'm not going to spoil anything for you here, but let's just say that it left me with a deviously satisfied grin on my face.

No comments:

Post a Comment