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Nerdeux Reviews: Alice: Madness Returns

Welcome to another edition of Nerdeux Reviews! This time we’ll be switching gears and doing a game review instead of the usual film review (because I didn’t see anything this weekend). I was a huge fan of the original American McGee’s Alice, so I was extremely excited when the sequel was announced. I will also admit I had very high expectations for the sequel; one of my favorite things about the original was the level design and overall tone, it was a very new take on the tale for its time and I certainly expected them to kick it up a few notches with all the new technology available. Thankfully, developers Spicy Horse did not disappoint. Hit the jump for the full review!

Unlike the first title, there are sequences set in the real world as well.

Alice: Madness Returns takes place right after the end of the first title, which saw Alice being released from the asylum after her adventures repairing Wonderland. This time around she’s living in an orphanage owned and operated by psychiatrist Dr. Angus Bumby, who is also helping her come to terms with her parents’ death. One day while heading to a chemist, she encounters a horrific half-human half-Jabberwock creature momentarily. After the encounter she is found by one of the nurses from the asylum, Nurse Witless, who believes Alice is still unstable and implies that Alice revealed repressed secrets about her parents’ death while in the asylum. Alice is once again transported to Wonderland, this time to try and recover her lost and repressed memories of the incident in an attempt to come to terms with what happened. It’s an interesting take on the story and a very fitting continuation of the previous title, which was nice to see as opposed to a simple remake or rehash of the first title. The little hints about what may have really happened keep you intrigued and make you want to continue.

Cinematics are told in a moving storybook style, reminiscent of the Fable series.

Though the game begins in the real world and looks decent, it truly shines once you arrive in Wonderland. The cinematics alternate between a moving storybook style that is very reminiscent of the Fable series and fitting of the game’s tone, and your standard in-game event cinematics. The aforementioned storybook sequences are truly a sight to behold; the art team put a lot of effort into them and it shows, they’re full of detail and extremely unsettling at times. Where the visuals and style shine however, is Wonderland itself.

The settings of the game are extremely detailed, with little nods to the previous title everywhere.

One of my big hopes was that the developers would take the visuals and tone of the first title and crank it up to 11, really utilizing the technology available. They did not disappoint. I’ve read some reviews which complain that the game looks very “2007,” but I would have to disagree. The animation is fluid and smooth, and I think the misconception might be based on the stylistic choices made. I don’t think the title would look good at all with massive polycounts ala Oblivion or the upcoming Skyrim; the visuals go for more of an interactive storybook style and less of a photorealistic approach. If you really stop and look around an area, you’ll notice there’s actually a staggering amount of detail there and it’s truly a sight to behold. Though it doesn’t resemble the hyper-real titles currently on the market, it makes its visual limitations work.

The infamous Vorpal Blade makes its return amongst a slew of new weapons.

Another upgrade I was happy to see was the revising made to the combat system. Alice has a slew of new weapons to choose from, and once again you can have a melee and ranged weapon equipped at the same time. However, on the PC version at least, swapping between weapons is MUCH easier to do on the fly which allows for multiple styles of attack for each enemy encounter. The battle controls are mapped out very nicely, making it easy to lock on, attack, dodge, shoot, and block in a few keystrokes. Combat was something I was worried about going into this title, as its predecessor’s system used to irritate me to death at times, but I’m happy to report that it’s much easier to control and actually rather enjoyable. The Hysteria system also makes its return, allowing you to completely tear the place up when you’re near death.

There is a wide variety of both familiar and brand new enemies to slay.

Speaking of combat, Wonderland is once again populated by a vast amount of familiar and new creatures out to finish Alice off. A nice touch is the variety of tactics required to defeat each monster type, as opposed to just going for a simple hack-and-slash style, which forces you to use your brain in battle and plan a strategy appropriately. The creature design is fantastic as well; the monsters are designed practically, going for functionality over flair. The Madcaps use their teacup hats as helmets, the Insidious Ruins throw pieces of their mucky selves, etc. This allows you to study the creature for clues on how to defeat them. Madcap has a teacup on its head as a helmet? Switch to a heavy melee weapon and smash his head in.

The Pepper Grinder can be utilized outside of combat to find secrets via Pig Snouts.

The combat system seems extremely geared toward player comfort, and seems to go more for enjoyment rather than challenge. It’s extremely easy to avoid being hit through the entire game if you have fast reflexes; the game enters slow-mo when a mob is about to hit you so you have time to hit dodge and get out of the way. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as sometimes you’d rather just coast through a game enjoying it rather than tearing your hair out over a certain encounter. Certain weapons are useful outside of combat as well, helping you explore the world and uncover more secrets such as hidden memories.

Much of the backstory is told through the discovery of repressed memories.

These memories are the most intriguing aspect of the gameplay, as they are where most of the actual game’s story is told. Each time you pick up a memory, you hear a snippet of dialogue from a character from the real world, and over time if you follow these chains of dialogue you can get an idea of what really happened in Alice’s past. It’s an interesting way to tell a story, letting the player piece together clues and develop their own theories, and makes you yearn to finish the game to see if you were right about your ideas (I won’t spoil anything by listing my theory here).

Alice herself goes through a number of costume changes to fit whichever area she's in.

Overall, Alice’s second foray into Wonderland overcomes the expectations placed upon it by fans. We waited a long time for this sequel and our wait paid off, as the developers have delivered a true sequel in more than just name. The title doesn’t just rehash the first game, as is likely to occur when the titles are over a decade apart, it continues the story and evolves it. It takes the mechanics of its predecessor and evolves them as well, adding more depth and fixing its flaws. Most importantly the long development time was worth the wait because, unlike FAR too many titles being released today, the game isn’t buggy. I’m about a fourth of the way through and I haven’t hit a single bug. No weird graphical glitches, no combat bugs, no getting stuck in the world…they made sure the game was done before the released it, which may account for why it took so long for them to even announce that it was in development at all. If more developers would wait until a title was nearly complete to announce it, and not be afraid to push the release back if it was still buggy, maybe we wouldn’t be so exasperated with the industry. But enough about that, I got sidetracked a bit. Whether you’re playing on PC, Xbox 360, or PS3, Alice: Madness Returns is definitely worth picking up thanks to its wonderful visual style, enjoyable combat system, and the utter depth of story and world immersion that is rare in a sequel these days.

Final score: 8/10

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