Steamed – Alice: Madness Returns
Another edition of Steamed, where I work through my extensive Steam library to actually put some time into all the games there. This time it is the twisted version of Lewis Carol’s Wonderland stories, with Alice: Madness Returns.
Trauma, mental illness and psychological damage. Those classic touchstones for many a horror video game or film. Representation of these has a history of being trite and poorly researched. Demonised or victimised, there is rarely little hope that you will likely find an interesting or insightful take on the subject when any fictional medium decides to stroll down that path.
Alice: Madness Returns isn’t much of an exception to this rule, although it doesn’t give a bad stab at it. Veering more towards an overblown camp depiction of the damage to this Alice’s mind, there are still signs of a sympathetic portrayal here, at least in the first couple of hours.
Madness Returns is a sequel to American McGee’s Alice; a sequel that ditches the wannabe Sid Meier tag line, likely due to him being pretty much unknown to anyone but the well versed Id fans. Madness Returns doesn’t bother too much with getting the player up to speed in case they missed the game from 11 years previous, with only minimal information given about the characters and their relationships with each other. We will be familiar with many of the characters if we have flicked through the classic novel or seen the Disney adaptation, but these are not quite how we would remember them. The Cheshire cat is some skeletal, gangly creature that is more teeth than fur and the Madhatter is initially found with his head lying on the ground and his neck replaced with a screw to go back into his body that looks to be combination of metal and a straitjacket. The opening cinematic aptly sets the tone by showing us a nice scene of Alice floating along a river with the White Rabbit, before the Rabbit’s eyes pop, his head falls off and a gush of blood sprays out from the stub that remains, before the blood turns black and fills the world around them with darkness.
Having not played the original game, as best I can tell the basic plot goes something like this. We find Alice Liddel as an orphan. Her parents and sister died in a fire when she was younger, which some people believed she caused. She spent some time in an insane asylum, but now lives with a psychiatrist that has a home for other orphaned children. The world she exists in is not that much of an improvement on the twisted Wonderland we spend most of the game running through, being a cartoonish version of a smog filled Victorian London. We don’t spend long there, but it is a rather impressive sequence of cobble stoned streets and strange characters that really manages to get under your skin from the off. There is nothing overly nasty going on here, but the oppressive nature instantly makes you have no wonder as to why Alice might feel the need to conjure up an imaginary land to escape to. An imaginary land that can’t avoid being infected by the traumas of her past and her current existence.
Although your arrival in Wonderland is initially a colourful and rather idyllic scene, it soon transforms with oily enemies and flying bolts. By the second area, you are in a metallic industrial factory of a place, leaping from steam vents to floating cogs. Yes, leaping from platform to platform is the main challenge and it fortunately feels quite satisfying. Alice can jump and double jump multiple times, giving a pleasingly graceful momentum to her movement. There is also a glide to help you cross even further. Lastly, and probably leastly, you can use your dodge in mid air too. Rather than getting you further though, it regularly seemed to send me plummeting quicker than I otherwise would have and normally resulted in me banging Alice’s head into the side of a platform that I wanted to land on. Once, it even sent me backwards for no real reason. Besides that, navigating the areas was mostly enjoyable and never frustrating, something that many games of this kind fail with.
There is also some combat to partake in. Your main damage dealer is a big knife. At the early stages, this feels rather button hammering. Some of the harder enemies do require you to mix in some dodges, but for the most part I was able to just spam the attack button until an enemy fell. For some enemies though, particularly the flying ones, the pepper shaker was really required. This acts as your ranged weapon and can also be used to stun some enemies. This helps make the combat feel a little bit more dynamic than just the knife would, although it never felt particularly necessary unless an enemy specifically required its use.
The pepper shaker can also be used to shoot at pig snouts that are dotted around levels to open up new paths, normally secret ones. The levels have quite a few little side areas to find, with plenty of memories, bottles and other collectables to find. The memories will give you a small snippet of dialogue that is linked to Alice’s past, normally connecting with the particular area of the level you are in, for example one tells of a vent doing a Marilyn Monroe to Alice, right before you encounter your first steam vent that sends you flying up into the air. It is all rather unsubtle, at least in the early game, but still a nice touch for those that are interested in doing a little exploration and to give them a bit of further information about her past. There are also lots of teeth to be found around the place, which serve as your resources for upgrading your weapons. All this provides nice incentive to explore the environment of what are otherwise rather linear levels.
An element that has particularly surprised me is how well the game actually tells its story through the game. As alluded to, the environment you explore is very much symbolic of Alice’s real world existence. Although we only briefly see her existence there, this vision of Wonderland is clearly inspired by the industrial, grey landscapes of the streets around her orphanage. The characters we see also are exaggerations of the already cartoon-like humans that exist on those streets. There are factories filled with metallic stamping pistons shaped like boots or pipes spewing out red hot lava, as Alice recalls the fires that claimed her family. All the while, you have voices like the Doormouse telling workers would will happen to them if they do not comply and posters slapped on walls to warn people of who is charge of these monolithic factories. The echos of the Industrial Revolution, the treatment of workers and the past traumas of Alice are screamed in your face that makes difficult to take too seriously, but it is a surprising direction for a game that I initially expect to tell most of its story through cutscenes (which, the odd few there are, have a really beautiful cardboard cut out look to them).
We often have a category of games referred to as the 7/10 games. These are far from bad games, but they are not the best in class. They may have some interesting ideas, but won’t really excel at any of them. Alice: Madness Returns is the quintessential 7/10 game. It has an interesting enough setting and some novel characters. The combat is just about engaging enough, never being too complicated, but offering enough of a challenge to keep you mostly focused and invested. The platforming feels good and never is unfair, whilst the environments you jump around are pleasing to explore, although I would expect that by the end they could be rather samey. I’ve enjoyed the 2-3 hours that I’ve put into it so far. Yes, I pointedly say “so far”, as I expect I will continue to play it some more and may even see it through to the end, having found myself pleasantly surprised to have been won over by its over the top wacky happenings. I will happily spend another few hours in this Wonderland.