Monday, September 12, 2011

The Walrus is a metaphor for a walrus. Also, death.: A Spoileriffic Review of Alice: the Madness Returns

*This review, this spoileriffic review, contains **spoilers.** * Shocking, I know.

Once upon a time, a programmer with big ideas started making games. First, he joined up with a bunch of other programmers to make a studio called id, and they made a lot of games about shooting things very quickly. I'm told people found this appealing.(Snide comments aside, Doom and Quake deserve a lot of credit, for bringing the mod community into the spotlight, for being the first games that really encouraged team playing, and for their technological prowess. And they're to blame for a large part of that "FPS" genre thing.) But one day, the programmer left id for an even bigger company, and made a game with his name in the title: "American McGee's Alice." It was a reasonably solid 3D platform game, but its pull was its aesthetics--it was a twisted version of Alice in Wonderland, with the Mad Hatter as a cyberpunk fellow, the Cheshire Cat as a wrangled, emancipated thing, and Alice recast as a brooding, Slightly Goth Girl. If your audience is slightly geeky teenage boys, you can't go wrong with a Slightly Goth Girl.

The game was released in 2001, and became a cult hit. After a string of average and not-very-good games (again, I say that, but keep in mind that unlike many, McGee is still in the game industry, and has been since he was 22--I'm 28 and I'll get a real job someday, honest), McGee and his team created the sequel, Alice: the Madness Returns, and my brother, because he's that great a guy, bought it for me for my birthday. And after the aforementioned stream of not-very-good games, McGee's return to what made him famous is... above average.

I should probably say that I'm not really the audience for this game, as I wasn't terribly fond of the original. Its art was nice enough, but I wasn't sufficiently skilled at PC platform games to progress far enough into the game to really appreciate it. With a decade to grow on, Alice: the Madness Returns is wiser than its sibling--that is, the designers created an easy difficulty so easy that even a plebe like me can play through it. And the platforming is a lot more solid than I remember it, as well; while there were frustrating sequences, there was nothing so bad that I was certain I could never get past it. The combat's a little nonintuitive. One the one hand, it does encourage you to find different combinations to reach the right one, but on the other hand, there's very little indication why a certain attack would be so much more effective on this particular monster but not on this one. The big problem with the platform stuff is that it gets really repetitive. The first time, for example, that you guide a severed doll head down a ramp, it's gruesomely mesmerizing, but by the fourth time, you just wish you could drop the thing. It's too much of a good thing, every time; there's a segment where you grow giant (not really a spoiler--if there's a Wonderland based game that doesn't involve growing bigger, I'd ask for my money back). It's amazingly freeing at first, but by the time you stomp the fifth army into the ground to get to the third tentacle to get behind it in order to hit the fourth cannon, it turns even the simple joy of giantism into a grind.

Storywise, the game's a direct continuation of the first, though you didn't have to know that to play it. (I sure didn't.) The plot of the first is that Alice's family died in a fire and she is left the only survivor. Institutionalized for madness, she retreats into her old fantasy world, Wonderland. However, her madness has corrupted Wonderland, and she must now slay the Queen of Hearts to exorcise herself, as one does. Alice metaphorically confronted her inner demons, and won the day. Her sanity has returned. Sequel: her sanity has not returned. Moving from asylum to orphanage, she's been undergoing continuous treatment, but it's clear Alice is slipping, despite the efforts of her physician, Dr. Bunby, to make her forget all unpleasant memories. And if you think repression is an odd therapy technique, then you've already gone a long way to unraveling the game's sole mystery, who really set the fire that killed Alice's family. (Hey, I said there will be spoilers.) Alice finds Wonderland corrupted again, and goes on a long quest to stab her way to the bottom of it.

My problems with the story are... many. It's generally told in a compelling way, with cardboard cut-out cutscenes that add a nice "storybook" effect, but it can't disguise the fact that it's really not a very strong story. It's pretty much a straight line from Alice getting suspicious to reaching the villain we suspected all along. A bigger problem is Alice's story is much stronger if you pretend that it ends at the conclusion of the first game; fighting madness over the guilt of accidentally killing your family is poignant. Fighting madness over the guilt of forgetting who you actually witnessed kill them seems like misplaced effort. The biggest problem, for me, is that the use of Wonderland characters felt like it hampered the story rather than helped it. Because of the "twisted" nature of McGee's Wonderland, the characters had to be twisted--it's not just the March Hare, it's the cyborg March Hare! He's not just the Carpenter, he's also a dramaturge theatre director. If you dropped the Wonderland characters entirely, and let the settings of the levels tell the story, you'd still have the stylized 19th century Victorian pieces and the aesthetic of the themed levels, but without having to shoehorn in characters that weren't designed for this anyway.

And that brings me to the aesthetics, which is the game's selling point. This, to put it simply, is a very pretty game. The enemies are sufficiently weird and disturbing, the innocent creatures wretchedly miserable, and even Alice herself doesn't really die--once your health bar (represented by red roses, of course) is extinguished, or you fall (that'll happen a lot), you turn into a flock of butterflies, and fly away. Really. Honestly, it's the most appealing video game death I've seen since Arkham Asylum, where Mark Hamill yells at you. Actually, it might be one of the things I like best about the game--death is frequent, but by making it so tranquil, it removes the sting and makes it easier to progress.

Each level has its own unique aesthetic (though certain elements are pretty obviously reskinned versions of earlier things). The London sequences are clearly the highlight, with its Victorian setting

and stylized characters:

I also have a lot of fondness for the origami ant men, even if they're clearly Oriental stereotypes:

The problem, however, is the same as with gameplay: it all gets repetitive. Every level, from industrial to deep sea to house of cards to dollhouse follows the same basic pattern: it starts off idyllic, grows slightly tainted, and by the end, you're fighting various ruins in a war-torn area. Repeat four times. If the game really wanted to mess with our heads, it would have a level that started chaotic and grew increasingly pristine.

Anyway, I'm afraid I don't have any deeper insight for this one. It sounds like the first game was an interesting psychological exploration, tied to an engine that wasn't really built for platform gaming. The second, in contrast, is good at platforming, struggles a bit storywise, and goes on a little longer than it should. With all the story consisting of either cutscenes or slight movement with only one possible outcome, it seems almost archaic compared to your modern Deus Exes and Mass Effects. You can't fault it for replay value, though--in addition to the time you can spend hunting the secrets of Madness Returns, if you have access to Xbox Live, you can use the code that comes with Madness to unlock the entire original game. (I don't have access, so I didn't. But I appreciate the thought.) Bottom line, fans of the original have something to look forward to. Otherwise... well, I've had worse. At least it's not Kung Fu Panda.

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