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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.