It’s been more than a decade since we were first presented with American McGee’s grim revision of Alice in Wonderland. Then, McGee proposed that Alice Liddell’s family were burned in a mysterious fire at the their home in Oxford. Driven mad, Alice was institutionalised at Rutledge Asylum.
Alice’s deepening psychosis corrupted her fantasy Wonderland and twisted its inhabitants. But retreating deeper into her imagination led Alice to an ultimate confrontation with her insanity, manifested as the Queen of Hearts. Finally freed from her guilt and anger, Alice was released from Rutledge.
This year, McGee has revisited his adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s works. A destitute orphan in Victorian London, Alice has come under the care of Dr. Bumby at the Houndsditch Home. But in spite of the psychiatrist’s best efforts, Alice’s past continues to haunt her. As her condition worsens, the hallucinations begin to return and Alice must once again defeat madness materialised.
Alice’s addled psyche has perverted Wonderland into a nightmarish wasteland. Taupe skies loom over gnarled and neglected structures strangled by creeping ivy. A gargantuan train with the appearance of a cathedral is tearing through Wonderland, leaving a void in its wake. Its populace has become similarly twisted and depraved. The Walrus and the Carpenter are the architects of a macabre stage performance at the bottom of the sea while Dormouse and the March Hare have become ruthless industrialists.
The opposition of industry and nature, and themes of innocence and exploitation suggest that McGee’s editions of William Blake are probably every bit as dog-eared as his collections of Carroll.
Subtle, tone-perfect musical compositions complement Spicy Horse’s misshapen re-imagining of Wonderland. Understated and sombre xylophone motifs play over brooding string instruments. The result is a score that sounds like a mournful lullaby played by a music box.
Interspersed between Alice’s misadventures in Wonderland are sojourns to reality in Victorian London. If the sparse city is long on immorality and inhabited by vile caricatures, it lacks bustle and vibrancy. Nonetheless, the setting is put to good effect. Details from Alice’s travels in London, such as seeing a horned anglerfish trapped in a block of ice at the docks, are transposed into Wonderland.
Most significantly, a visit to the residence of Alice’s former solicitor – a man with a penchant for trinkets from the far east – inspires an oriental level in Wonderland, a bold addition to Lewis’ works that Spicy Horse delivers with aplomb.
Much of the difficulty with London, however, is that Madness Returns has a linear narrative. With only one hand to play, the game necessarily withholds plot advancements. As a result, there’s not enough intrigue to grip the player in early levels.
Mechanically, Madness Returns is a pastiche of concepts from the last decade of action gaming. As our heroine explores her foul and distorted Wonderland, she will gather various collectibles, some with tangible benefits, others of more dubious merit. Bottles, for example, are often the most cunning and difficult items to collect and yet their only function is to unlock concept art and character biographies accessed from the game’s main menu. Similarly, memories are short sound bites that do little to add interest to the plot. More practicably, roses replenish Alice’s health while teeth are reinvested to upgrade her arsenal of four weapons.
The combat itself has enough facets to remain engaging throughout if only somewhat challenging. Alice can dodge by dispersing into a flight of butterflies, or block and deflect aerial attacks by twirling her lace parasol. While each type of enemy is encumbered with a particular weakness, there’s simply not enough variety. The ubiquitous Ruin – china doll masks suspended in amorphous tar – are joined by contextually appropriate foes on each level. But in spite of their aesthetic differences, Alice needs only break through or to wait for enemies to lower their defences before attacking. What challenge there is comes by the composition of enemy units in any scenario, and in dispatching them in the most efficient order.
It provides welcome punctuation to the longer passages of platforming. There’s nothing fundamentally lacking in Spicy Horse’s implementation here, Alice negotiates one set piece before moving onto the next, but the game doesn’t have enough different ideas. Much like enemies, each level introduces perhaps only one or two new platforming mechanics and these are usually repeated ad nauseam until the level’s frequently inconclusive curtain call.
Throughout each level, Alice will also need to solve puzzles or complete mini-games that range from the pleasantly surprising to the wholly monotonous. Their inclusion can seem arbitrary, and similar puzzle types sporadically reappear diluting them into little more than an inconvenient barrier to progression. But if sliding puzzle games and a rhythm mini-game are unwelcome inclusions, two-dimensional platforming through Japanese woodblock prints is a genuine pleasure.
The full suite of Unreal Engine defects can be found in Alice, from pop-in textures to freezing in-game loads. But the fact that Madness Returns is a game seems more or less incidental next to its vision. The platforming, puzzle-solving and combat elements of Alice are a vehicle to propel the player through Spicy Horse's lovingly grotesque interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland.
None will deny the developer’s wholehearted passion for the visual concept, but that zeal means the player is frequently left to linger on each level for too long. Too often the awe and charm of each new region becomes stale before McGee and the team at Spicy Horse seem ready to gingerly set it aside and present the next. When the wondrous becomes the familiar and we begin to peek behind the warped Victorian-Gothic façade, we discover an action platformer that lacks strong differentiation.
Even so, when McGee’s haunting and uncomfortable adaptation comes together harmoniously, Madness Returns' shortcomings fade away and we’re swept up in a concept worthy of praise. Madness Returns will be dissected and judged on its constituent pieces today, but will ultimately remembered for its vision.