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Maddening For the Wrong Reasons- An Analysis of Alice: Madness Returns
by Josh Bycer on 01/30/12 03:22:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Alice: Madness Returns' title is apt for several reasons. It is the sequel to American Mcgee's Alice that came out in 2000. Since then, designer: American Mcgee has not had any other major successes. With the game: Bad Day in LA, one of the most universally reviled games to be released. With Alice, it is his return to his most successful brand. While Madness Returns is fortunately not as bad as previous endeavors, it could have been better.

The story takes place shortly after the end of the first game: Alice has been released from the insane asylum and now lives in an orphanage. She is trying to forget about Wonderland and is seeing a psychiatrist. However she starts hallucinating and returns to Wonderland to see it being corrupted by a strange force. Over the course of the game Alice has to figure out what is happening to Wonderland and try to keep a hold of her sanity and what's real and what's not.

Helping to pull the player in would have to be the visuals. As far as art design goes, Madness Returns is one of the best looking games I've seen in 2011. The environments in Wonderland look amazing and do a lot to showcase the damage and beauty of the world. The plot of Alice trying to regain her sanity in an insane world is an interesting one. With all that said however, the gameplay is not as inventive as the world.

Alice's gameplay is split between combat and plat forming with light puzzle solving, which is the same split seen in the first game. If you remembered the first game, the plat forming was very loose, and it was easy to misjudge jumping distances. For Madness, it feels like the designers over compensated when trying to fix that complaint. While jumping is still loose, now Alice can hover and basically do 3 mini jumps in mid air.

Combat has become more third person action based and overall is better than the first game. Alice has 4 weapons to use along with a dodge and a block. Enemy types are split between small, medium and large which the larger enemies are more along the lines of mini bosses. While Combat is a step up from the first game, it is several steps down from recent action games which I'll be coming back to very shortly.

Puzzle solving revolves around opening up doors and paths using Alice's "shrink vision". While shrunk she can see invisible platforms, clues on walls and hidden paths. Each chapter features a puzzle or scenario type unique to it which is the best parts of the game. However, probably coming second in strange complaints to my problem with Saints Row The Third, Alice suffers for being too long.

The main problem with the game is that the game is very repetitive. Puzzles, obstacles, and enemy fights repeat a lot. For example, every chapter has a section where Alice has to go down a slide avoiding obstacles, with the slide appears to be the same one each time. Alice's entire move-set with exception to weapons, is all introduced within the first chapter, leaving the designers with 5 more chapters to fill.

I lost count of the # of times where I had to use gusts of wind to navigate across a big room. Sections where Alice must navigate invisible platforms in shrink vision must pop up at least 10 or more times per chapter. Except that there is no discernible difference in testing the player.

All the huge environments, while pretty to look at, leave the game space very wide. It gets to the point of being a chore to navigate with so much of the content recycled. The developers tried to give the player reasons to explore with collectibles scattered around, but none of them do anything to serve the game play. Challenge rooms which can increase the player's health are unneeded, as I had more than enough health to beat the game without going through them.

With so many repeating sections, the game feels bloated. Especially if you were to compare Alice to Mario Galaxy or other current gen action adventure games. Mario's move-set is also limited, but the designers were able to come up with all sorts of challenges and mechanics around them. Whereas Alice just repeats the same areas over and over again. A similar complaint can also be said about the combat system.

Combat also suffers several issues. Battling small enemies isn't a big deal, but mid and large enemies require spending several minutes dodging their attacks and repeating the same process each time. Alice's defensive moves are a dodge and block ability, with certain enemy attacks are best avoided using one or the other. The strange issue is that the designers made it so that you can only block attacks when you use the lock on targeting. The problem is that locking on zooms the camera in making it impossible to track enemies to the side or behind Alice.

The challenge rooms which have Alice fighting enemy groups larger than the regular game are just an exercise in frustration because of the combat system. Since locking on exposes your back to constant attacks, it makes fighting larger enemies a major hassle. Alice can upgrade her weapons over the course of the game, but upgrades only affect damage potential and nothing else.

Alice is not a bad game by any means, but it feels over done. After the credits rolled, I saw that my total play time was just less than 10 hours. Looking back, if I were to just count the unique areas and obstacles, my play time could have been half that. Another disappointing area is the lack of boss fights, each chapter hints at a battle with one of Wonderland's residents, but nothing happens. There is only one boss fight in the game and even that doesn't feel like anything more than just another regular battle.

It feels like the art team and story writers wrote a check that the designers couldn't cash which is a shame. A more focused title dealing with exploring Wonderland and the line between fantasy and reality could have been interesting. In the end, Alice: Madness Returns is about 4 hours of great gameplay, all wrapped around filler.

Josh Bycer

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Joshua Sterns
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Nice write up. I went through three levels of Alice and had my fill. Loved the art design. Enjoyed the clever weapons. Hated most of the gameplay.

Josh Bycer
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It definitely became a slog for me and it got to the point that I could only play a few hours each day due to the repetitive nature.

Dev Jana
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There were some control issues for sure and it was certainly repetitive, but the 2D levels were plain broken. They really pulled me out of the world. One other thing of note is that the sound design was as great as the art design. Great atmosphere in the game. More fun to watch than to play.

Josh Bycer
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The first 2D level was ok for the first few minutes, then it kept on going and repeated 2 more times. Personally chapter 5 (Queen's Castle) was my overall favorite. As there was a little more variety in it compared to previous chapters. Chapter 6 however, seemed to go on forever though.

Michael Cosner
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I'm going to have to disagree with the quality of this write up. The grammar and thought process for a number of the ideas presented read as inconsistent, incomplete or simply awkward.

Take the very first sentence: "Alice: Madness Returns' title is apt for several reasons." Nothing wrong with this statement in and of itself BUT it is stating a claim. If there really are several reasons why Madness Returns is an "apt title", then it's reasonable to expect a clear and immediate summation as to why this is the case (which will be further explained within the greater article). How then, does a threadbare recap of McGee's releases between Madness and the original Alice sufficiently support the "apt title" claim? Sure, he's had some misses (few developers can claim otherwise), but how does picking on Bad Day L.A. connect to the point you're trying to make?

You also make the claim that Madness Returns is better than previous endeavors. With the possible exception of the original Alice, it doesn't sound like you've played any of McGee's other "endeavors". To use the Bad Day L.A. example again, you state that it was universally reviled. Nothing about this claim tells me you've actually played it and formed an opinion for yourself. If anything, you've simply declared, "other people said it sucked, so that's what I'll go with..." How am I to trust your journalistic integrity with such a superficial dissertation? One other thing -- at the end of the last sentence in your first paragraph, "it could have better", you're missing a word between "have" and "better". I'll leave it to you (and your editor) to figure out what that is.

Up to this point, I've just been focusing on the first paragraph; I haven't even jumped into the article at-large. I can argue against a lot more regarding the structure of the "analysis" contained herein but I'd rather open the floor to counterpoints or further discussions.

Personally, I found the entire write-up to be lacking in true critical analysis. Your thoughts?

Josh Bycer
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No I did not play Bad Day in LA, but on your claim of refuting the term "universally reviled", let me point you to the wikipedia page that has some of the reviews for it: . I don't see any positive reviews there, do you?

I would love to give some thoughts on your issues, except you haven't given me anything to talk about. Do you have any arguments about the repetitive nature of the design or the awkward combat? Next time, try talking about the analysis at large instead of getting hung up on the intro. Also to help you sleep better at night. I've fixed the typo that has gotten you so worked up , now you can move on to the actual analysis.

shayne oneill
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Dude. Bad day in L.A. was actually really bad. Like, cringeworthily so. Its not even immediately obviously how illconcieved the game is UNTIL you play it. I like American McGee, he's a smart operator and comes up with some clever stuff, but hubris can only take someone so far.

But his grimm games where great little distractions so hey, dudes still got some ideas left. Hell I'd hire the guy if I had the money to, just to scrape some of the ideas out of his head, but I'd filter them through someone with a more recent track record of tight-ass level design.

Michael Cosner
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At what point in my comment did I ever refute that Bad Day L.A. wasn't universally reviled? I didn't. I was arguing that you took the view of other critics WHO HAVE PLAYED IT to justify your stance of McGee's track record instead of coming to that conclusion yourself. It is entirely my opinion, but this lack of first-hand experience causes me to doubt your authority on the matter; moreso the missed opportunity to rationally demonstrate how McGee's prior game designs decisions may have led up to the positive or negative play experiences you had with Madness Returns. Additionally, the mere fact that you point me to a wikipedia article further reinforces your over-reliance on the experience of others instead of your own. How can a web page of collated opinions increase the trust I'm suppose to have for your authority on the matter? It doesn't, it simply says that the opinion you hold is merely combined opinions generated by others.

It's odd that you say I haven't given you any issues to discuss. There's quite a few unanswered questions in my original post that haven't been responded to. How about those? It also wasn't addressed to you alone but as an open-forum discussion for other commenters, too.

And why shouldn't I (or anyone else) get hung up on the intro? It's suppose to be the lead-in, upon which everything else in your analysis further explores. If you don't make a good case at the start, why should anyone take your view seriously or bother themselves to read the rest?

My issues with your opening paragraph IS about your analysis at large. To say otherwise, as you have, is missing that very point.

Perhaps I should just simply ask this - do you sincerely believe that this analysis is a well-constructed, thoroughly researched and objective dissertation on the gameplay qualities of Alice: Madness Returns?

If so, then I've learned everything I need to know.

Ardney Carter
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Your attempts to cast him as a 'journalist' and your references to his 'editor' tell the rest of us all we need to know too.

This is the blog section of the site. Not everyone posting things here claims to be a journalist or writing major or anything of the kind. The technical quality of the writing varies. But we don't come here for that, we come here for the opinions and the discussion regarding the content and intent of those opinions that follows.

Josh Bycer
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You've yet to actually comment on any part of the analysis. Nor did you answer my question regarding any positive reviews of Bad Day In LA. It doesn't matter if I said that Bad Day was the greatest game ever made or the worse game. If every professional review on the planet calls it crap, that would still define it as universally reviled no matter what you or I would say. You also did refute my claim with this:

" If anything, you've simply declared, "other people said it sucked, so that's what I'll go with..." How am I to trust your journalistic integrity with such a superficial dissertation?"

I'll say it again, do you have any questions, arguments or information regarding Alice: Madness Returns?

My analysis is from start to finish on Madness Returns, playing the game on hard the entire time while finding as many collectibles as I could. I've wrote ten hours of experiencing the game, so far you have wrote 0 seconds of information regarding the game. I'll be happy to answer any questions regarding the game elements mentioned or not in the analysis. But if you have nothing productive to contribute then I'm just going to ignore your postings from this point forward.

Michael Cosner
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Ardney: Yeah, you're right. Totally agree that the blog section of Gamasutra is considerably more "wild west" so-to-speak when it comes to gaming opinion and writing quality. Honestly, though, it seems like a disservice to generalize (or excuse) the quality of content on a blog simply because it is "a blog", especially when there are other Gamastura bloggers out there who discuss matters on par or better than Gamasutra's own editorial content.

Is it too much to desire an elevated quality of writing, consideration and discourse, blog or not? Perhaps, and if that's the case, that's kind of a shame...

Darcy Nelson
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"Alice's defensive moves are a dodge and block ability, with certain enemy attacks are best avoided using one or the other. The strange issue is that the designers made it so that you can only block attacks when you use the lock on targeting. The problem is that locking on zooms the camera in making it impossible to track enemies to the side or behind Alice."

I haven't picked this game up yet, but you could've replaced "Alice" with "Link" in the previous statement and it would've made complete sense. (RE: Ocarina of Time) Weird.

Josh Bycer
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Heh that is true, to be fair to Link, it is rare in a 3D Zelda game for the player to have multi-enemy encounters. In Alice there are plenty of situations where you have to fight a large enemy while smaller or mid enemies are hanging outside of view pelting you with projectiles.

Joshua Sterns
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Josh don't feed the trolls. :)