Please note that this Review pertains specifically to the PC version of the game. However, much of the information may be relevant to other versions.
A decade ago, EA published American Mcgee’s Alice. I had my first encounter with this game several years after its initial release and, although the graphics and gameplay mechanics were extremely outdated by that time, I absolutely loved it. American Mcgee had taken a story that we all know and turned it on its head; creating an absolutely twisted, but undeniably fantastic, version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland stories.
Fast forward to the present and the sequel that no one expected has been released. I probably speak for many when I express how excited I was when I first found out that this game was in development, and I had eagerly devoured and digested every bit of media released for it as I awaited the release. Every screenshot and video released seemed more impressive than the last, and it appeared that this was going to be one Hell of an amazing sequel; and it looked like it could even outdo the sheer genius of the original.
Unfortunately, the bad thing about building such anticipation over something is that expectations can become too high to satisfy. Or, even worse, you might get a product that has no chance of pleasing any level of expectation. Sadly, this is the case for Alice: Madness Returns. Not only failing to live up to my hype, this game is actually heartbreaking to play.
Before you read any more, I want you to know that I do think this game has the potential to be amazing, and it may even be salvageable. With some well thought out patching, this game could definitely be saved. However, I am not reviewing the game that this could be, or the game that I want it to be. I am reviewing the game that it is.
So, what went wrong? Well, read on to find out.
Story and Presentation
This is a tough one, as Story and Presentation make up both the best and worst parts of this game. In one hand, you have a very mature, gothic take on a timeless classic. In the other, you have a game that lacks so much polish that you’ll wonder if they even tested it before release.
Let’s start with the positive. The story in this game is very good, and is actually even more fleshed out than the story in the original. It takes place pretty much immediately after the events of the first game and has Alice living in an orphanage in Victorian London under the care of a psychiatrist by the name of Angus Bumby, who uses hypnotism to help patients forget terrible events.
Still haunted by the events that lead to the death of her parents ten years earlier, Alice’s mind continues to be shattered. Throughout the course of the game, she constantly bounces in and out of reality; with her hallucinations taking her to a disturbingly distorted Wonderland. On her first revisiting of her imaginary world, she’s told by the Cheshire Cat that wonderland has become corrupted under a new law that rules it. Like in the original game, Alice believes that the only way she can save herself is to save Wonderland.
Unfortunately, past the story, the rest of the game’s presentation is pretty weak. The only other halfway decent aspect in this category is the stylish 2D cut scenes. I didn’t think I was going to like these at first, but they quickly grew on me, and I suspect that they will grow on everyone else as well. If only the rest of the package could have held up…
The absolute worst part of A:MR is its very unfortunate lack of polish. Then entire time I played this game – from the start of the first chapter, to the closing of the final – I kept asking myself the same question: did Spicy Horse even test this game before releasing it? There are so many environmental bugs that the hardest part of advancing becomes overcoming them. It is extremely frustrating and heartbreaking. The developers have created one of the most captivating worlds I have ever seen in a game, but the technical issues kept me from ever being able to fully absorb the experience for more than a few minutes at a time.
The most prevalent of these issues is the obscene abundance of invisible walls. They are everywhere! You’ll start running into them within the first few moments of being in wonderland, and they’ll plague you for the rest of the experience. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a path, a tunnel, or a platform; you’re never safe from the chance of running into one of these, and sometimes they will lead to you getting killed and having to replay segments of an area. It’s a pain in the ass, and something that should not be seen in a modern AAA title.
The next most common issue that you’ll see is the f***ing up of the game’s camera. At random times, the camera can become completely screwed up and the only way to fix it is to stop moving the mouse (or joystick) for a second. This actually got so bad while using a mouse that I had to use a gamepad for the remainder of the game. This is very unfortunate, and the option of using a gamepad is something that many PC gamers will probably not have.
Speaking of mouse issues, another problem that you’ll quickly encounter is extreme mouse lag. This comes from the fact that the game is initially locked at 30 FPS, a problem that can only be overcome by manually editing the .ini file. This is an absolutely unacceptable problem that should not ever be seen in a PC release, and it’s not the only control issue to plague this port of the game. Note: I use the word port intentionally, as it is utterly apparent that this game was designed with the consoles in mind, and then ported to PC. It’s a smack in the face to all the fans of the original Alice, which was a game that pushed the boundaries of PCs at the time.
On this same topic, the menus were also designed without any thought of the PC platform. It’s not that the menus don’t function; it’s that they are ugly as Hell when viewed in any resolution greater than 1280×720. This is as a result of the menus being designed in 720p, and then being stretched when you view them on PC in a higher resolution. This means that the menu images weren’t even put into consideration when porting this game to PC, which is just another slam to the gamers that helped push the original game to sell over a million copies.
As a final note on the game’s presentation, if you bought the Alice: Madness Returns Complete Collection for PC by the 17th of June via Origin (EA’s Steam-like download service), then you got all of the game’s DLC for free. This is nice for the people who were able to take advantage of it, since the DLC will have to be purchased by console gamers. However, if you missed this June 17th deadline, or purchase through another source, then you have – for now – been screwed out of the DLC. As of this writing, I still don’t think that there is a way for PC gamers to get these extras if they did not meet the initial requirements; which is yet more bullshit that users of the platform have been handed.
Just like the original, graphics are one of the strongest aspects of A:MR. Though it does suffer somewhat from being a console port, the PC version of the game is still often stunning. Even at times when there are noticeably low res textures, the art design is still – typically – breathtaking.
The most beautifully rendered element you’ll see in A:MR is Alice, herself. As of this writing, she is probably the most detailed character I have ever seen in a video game. From her insanely realistically rendered hair, to all the detail packed into her various dresses; the quality is almost unrivalled. Unfortunately, this level of detail does not translate to all of the other characters in the game. Most look decent, and perfectly sell the dark vision of American Mcgee’s Wonderland. However, some of the NPCs are downright ugly. Within the first five minutes of the game, I wondered why Alice was the only character in London who even remotely looked like she could be a real person. The other human NPCs all fit well within the world when they’re standing amongst themselves. However, they look terrible when you compare them to the detail packed into Alice…
Most of the environments are amazingly detailed. This is a very twisted, often extremely disturbing, vision of Wonderland and the level design often depicts it perfectly. However, there are some areas that are strangely bland in comparison to the rest, which will leave you scratching your head. It’s almost as if there were random sections of the game that were quickly thrown in and they didn’t have time to fully detail them. You can sometimes brush these off by remembering that Alice is pretty f’d in the head, and maybe her visions are somewhat distorted. However, it comes up way too often to be able to always use this excuse, and it consistently pulled me out of the experience.
On a final note, one goody that PC gamers do get is the addition of Nvidia PhysX enhancements. Out of every game that has used this, A:MR’s implementation is probably the best I’ve seen. This is one area where having a good gaming PC will really be an advantage over playing the game on a console since playing with PhysX enabled is a much different visual experience than playing it without. Just check out this article for comparison videos, the difference is rather amazing. At least the developers remembered PC gamers in one area of this game’s production…
One of the most memorable aspects of American Mcgee’s Alice was the music, and the sequel does not slouch in this area. In all honesty, the music is not quite as good as the original, but it is still well done. In fact, the sound design is generally very good; making it one of the most successful parts of the game.
I was very impressed with the game’s voice acting. Every actor delivers their lines well, and the acting surpasses that of the original game. The real star, for me, was the voice of the Cheshire Cat. Not only does he have the best lines, but I believe that the voice actor used did an absolutely perfect job at portraying the character. Out of every incarnation the cat has had in various forms of media throughout the years, this vision of the character is by far my favorite. If a movie – which has been talked about for years – is ever created for the property, it would be wise to use the same actor.
Sound effects are sort of hit or miss. Some of them are good, while others are nothing special. I guess I can’t really complain about any that are used, it’s just that they do not hold up as well as the excellent voice acting and music.
The gameplay is probably the hardest aspect of this game to review. When the game’s previously mentioned technical aspects are not holding it back, it can be pretty fun. But when the technical problems kick in, which they often will, the game can become a chore to play. I actually went back and replayed the original game before writing this review and I can honestly say that, despite being outdated in almost every regard, playing through it was insanely smooth in comparison. This is so unfortunate, because almost every other aspect of A:MR is an improvement over the original.
The biggest improvement over the original game is the combat system, which reminded me somewhat of the combat seen in 3D Zelda games. There is a handy lock on system, and switching between weapons is quick and fluent. Every enemy has different ways of defeating them, and you can experiment with your weapons to come up with quicker ways to take them down. Blood and gore is also used much more liberally this time round, which really fits the game’s vision very well.
When not fighting, you’ll be either solving puzzles or platforming. The platforming sections are typically much stronger than the ones seen in the original game which is mostly due to the fact that Alice can now double/triple jump, and can float Princess Peach style. This usually makes platforming a much easier affair, with the exception of when you hit an invisible wall on the edge of the platform you’re trying to jump on. Also, it must be noted, that Alice has for some damned reason forgot how to grab onto edges. This resulted in me often screaming many obscenities at my monitor, as you might imagine.
The game can become repetitive at times, though the developers have made some steps to help fight this. Throughout the game, you will be randomly thrown into different types of gameplay. The best of these being side scrolling sections, with the worst being physic based “ball” puzzles seen later in the game. These help somewhat, but don’t completely cure the problem. The game would have actually been a bit better if it had been a little shorter; not something you’ll see may say very often. The problem is that they reuse the same types of challenges too often to try and stretch out the game length. This was unnecessary, and has done far more damage to the game than what would have been done had it been a bit shorter.
On a final note, there is a currency system in the game that comes in the form of teeth. When you collect these, you can use them to upgrade your various weapons. It’s a cool system, and gives you an incentive to fully explore every area. However, it is actually too easy to gather enough to fully upgrade all of your weapons some time before the game’s finale, making any future teeth you discover pointless to pick up.
Depending on how much of a completionist you are, you’re fist play through of A:MR will take you between 10 and 15 hours. The bad thing is, because of how repetitive parts of the game can be, you’ll actually be reminded of why most games aren’t quite this long these days.
There are plenty of hidden items throughout the world that will give you access to lost bits of Alice’s memory, unlockable artwork, and additional health. There is also a New Game Plus that allows you to replay the game with all of your upgraded weapons. If you enjoyed the game the first time through, then there might be enough incentive to play through again. If not, then this title will definitely be a one and done.
Like I told one of our other editors prior to writing this review, Alice: Madness Returns is an excellent game wrapped in a terrible package. This is very sad for fans of the original, especially since the worst part of this game is a lack of polish that was most likely a side effect of a rushed development. In all honesty, the game is very salvageable; but the developers would have to take the time and devotion to go through the entire game and clean up each and every chapter. If the game was kept exactly as it is now, but had the technical problems cleaned up, then my only complaint would be that it’s a bit repetitive; and my overall review and final score would be much more positive. Unfortunately, games are reviewed as they are, not as they could be. And as it is, A:MR is just not the game that fans had hoped for. Let’s just hope that we do not have to wait another decade to see this IP used again…
For now; despite all of the technical issues, and the bit of repetitiveness, I think that I will have to take at least one more stroll through this twisted vision of Wonderland. I will inevitably curse the game out, once again, from start to finish; but the vision is just too damned good to experience only once.
Thank you for visiting PolyPwn! Here you'll find articles and videos covering today's best games, and yesterday's favorites; all produced by lifelong hardcore gamers, for hardcore gamers.
We hope you enjoy your stay and implore you to actively engage in discussion both here, and at one of our other channels.