A decade is a long time between drinks. Released in 2000, American McGee’s Alice was a conceptually avant-garde product for an entertainment industry that was still maturing.
American McGee’s Alice painted a bleak future for Lewis Carroll’s character. McGee and the team at Rogue Entertainment proposed that Alice’s house was burned down after the events of Carroll’s novel, Through the Looking Glass, and Alice’s family was killed. Institutionalised at Rutledge asylum, Alice regressed deeper into her imagination but her withering grasp on reality and her increasingly psychotic condition had twisted Wonderland into a place of nightmare.
At the time, it was something of a radical premise for a videogame; Alice was the first M-rated game ever to be released by publisher Electronic Arts. Inevitably, it saw both critical and financial success, and deservedly achieved cult status with many gamers.
Today, videogames court M-ratings with abandon. Indeed, Electronic Arts executive Frank Gibeau freely admits that in 2011, the company flirts with controversy as a marketing strategy.
Alice wasn’t designed to be controversial but the added publicity certainly increased the game’s profile. All the same, underneath its intriguing supposition and praiseworthy art direction was a game with agreeable if not particularly noteworthy puzzle and platform mechanics.
All of which throws up many questions regarding the game’s imminent sequel, Alice: Madness Returns. Does the concept have wings enough to warrant another trip down the rabbit hole after ten years?
In the final stages of development at American McGee’s new Shanghai-based studio, Spicy Horse, Alice: Madness Returns places the protagonist on a psychiatrist’s sofa as the two explore her memories, brought to life in a corrupt Wonderland, and try to piece together the events surrounding her family’s death.
The game dresses puzzle solving, platforming and third-person combat in McGee’s unique vision of a warped, steampunk Wonderland. In combat, Alice faces grim mutations of Wonderland’s inhabitants, from the grinning skulls of the Red Queen’s playing card minions, to teapots carrying a single malevolent eye.
At her disposal is an array of weapons. Alice carries her vorpal blade for elementary slashing attacks, a pepper grinder repurposed as a kind of machine gun, a teapot that launches explosive rounds, a wind-up bunny that can be remotely detonated, and a hobbyhorse for a heavy hammer. Alice can twirl her parasol to block incoming attacks, or evade them altogether by transforming into a cloud of blue butterflies.
Many kinds of enemy also present a small puzzle in themselves. The teapots, for example, must be stunned and then shot in the eye.
The combat is fluid and players will discover they’re able to switch between weapons to create a variety of entertaining non-prescribed combinations. Nonetheless, it appears for now to lack some of the combat depth seen in other third-person titles.
The platforming, too, is largely self-evident. Alice is able to jump, double-jump or triple-jump, and must do so to negotiate a variety of moving parts throughout Wonderland. She can also drink a shrinking potion that, aside from allowing her to move through crevices, also highlights invisible platforms and walkways.
It seems that players won’t find any radical innovation in how platforming has been implemented here, but it’s a playstyle that’s almost as old as gaming itself and that charge could be levelled at almost all games that include platforming mechanics. Nonetheless, the platforming elements in Madness Returns are robust and appear to have an agreeable difficulty scale.
While our time with Madness Returns didn’t offer any puzzling sections of note, it’s safe to say that if it feeds into the combat and platforming elements (just as the latter two feed into one another), then taken as a whole, the game should prove mechanically sound.
But the fate of Madness Returns hinges on Spicy Horse’s portrayal of Wonderland. Our time with the game took place under the taupe skies of Queensland, the realm of the Red Queen. We scaled a gargantuan steam powered façade and scrambled around decaying ruins throttled by creeping vines. Other more verdant areas in Wonderland presumably reflect the more peaceful corners of Alice’s mind.
And of course, how Spicy Horse integrates the psychiatric plot and Alice’s occasional sojourns to the reality of Victorian England remain to be seen. Should these remaining pieces come together, Spicy Horse will have a game every bit as worthy of praise as the original. Only time will tell, but you’d be mad as a March hare not to follow this title closely up to its release in June.