Sunday, 15 January 2012

Game Review - Alice: Madness Returns

The gaming world is overun with generic shooters, indistinguishable RPGs and countless iterations of fighting games; that isn't to say that a handful of those games are not brilliant, there are just far too many of them cluttering the selection. Every now and again, however, a games publisher will release something out of the ordinary. Over a decade ago games producer, American McGee relased his take on Lewis Carol's Alice in Wonderland: American McGee's Alice. A twisted retelling of the classic children's story boasting gothic art and macabre gameplay. It was a platformer/third-person shooter that ran on a modified version of the Quake 3 engine, suprisingly enough and showcased technically advanced graphics with detailed textures. However it was the gritty, gothic art style which I fell in love with and is perhaps the games strongest attraction. Over 10 years later arrives its direct sequel: Alice Madness Returns.

Alice is an extremely disturbed individual forced to cope with the loss of her family to an arsen attack which she believes she is responsible for. The tale begins with Alice attempting to describe her twisted, fragmented memories to Dr. Bumbey within the confines of a mental asylum. Considered terribly ill, Bumbey is attempting to delve into Alice's mind using psycho-therapy as last attempt before reverting to a lebotomy. However, when any situation proves too stressful for Alice, she finds herself plunging into her psychotic wonderland in order to escape reality. Throughout the game we follow the heroine on her quest to discover her past whilst visiting beautifully designed worlds taken straight out of the novel; with a macabre twist ofcourse.

The narrative to Alice Madness Returns is one of the strongest points. The story telling is done through stylish collage-esque cutscenes which are informative and colourful. The dialogue is also particularly strong with great performaces from the voice actors, the various authentic English accents are a nice touch. Alice herself as a character is very likeable: she's articulate, intelligent and has attitude but also gives away moments of fear and uncertainty. Unfortunately there aren't many of these cutscenes; instead the majority of the voice acting is used when Alice collects one of many personal items throughout the levels.

Another complaint is the gameplay seems to be a seporate entity to the story-telling segments. Instead of a cohesive experience the player is offered large chunks of gameplay and a cutscene between levels.
The graphics in AMR are simply beautfiul. Everything in Wonderland is lavishly detailed, from the lush wonderland woods to the queens castle. The art style is the games strongest asset being a cross between gothic and fantasy. The characters have an almost deformed look; fitting to the games context. Alice herself is nicely detailed and the fact her outfit changes with her location is really nice touch. Particularly strong is Alice's hair, which looks vibrant and flowing and possibly the best example of realistic hair I've seen in a video game.The underwater seaworld looks like something out of Disney's Little Mermaid with vibrant characters and scenery dripping with imagination.
Every level has its own distinctive flavour; the Mad Hatter's domain mixes machinery with gothic architecture. Chimnies are dotted around the level allowing Alice to use the steam they emit to float from platform to platform. Whilst the scenery is possibly the most beautiful I have seen in a game unfortunately it isn't as interactive as I would have liked. It behaves more like wallpaper and damages the emersive experience. Objects that look as if they can be terrained block Alice with invisible walls. Texture pop-in is also fairly common throughout the experience, sometimes failing to load certain textures at all. Whilst Alice moves fluidly she lacks certain animations which stop her from behaving lifelike.

The best way I could possibly describe the music in AMR is like an array of nursery rhymes on crack. There is a child-like lullaby appeal to the tunes mixed in with some twisted noises and accompanied an edgy orchestra. Most importantly, the music perfectly compliments the scenery helping to aid the imersion in to the twisted wonderland. An example of a piece of music I found particularly compelling is the piese which plays when Alice stumbles upon the goblin tribe in the village consisting of large teacups and saucers.

The sound effects are also top-quality. Every slash of Alice's vorpal blade, every maimed grunt of a dismembered enemy is clear and highly adequete. Again, much praise to the voice actors and their top-notch performances.

The gameplay is a mixed bag and probably the weakest element of the game. The game is at heart a platformer but doesnt quite tick the boxes in all the areas it should. sometimes it isnt obvious where one is meant to traverse as there isnt great distinction between areas which Alice can terrain and which she cannot. This can prove problematic on levels with numerous death-traps.

The programmers must also have had a love for invisible walls as the game is packed with them. They can become increasingly annoying when attempting to locate the various collectibles hidden around throughout various levels. Levels also have a tendancy to drag on (level 5 taking in excess of an hour to complete) which is helped by the regular checkpoints dotted throughout the levels.

Combat is tighter than the platforming segments and incorporates an array of weapons at Alice's disposal including a hobby horse axe, teapot-cannon and her trademark vorpal blade. The fighting is intuitive and enemies will adapt to the way Alice fights which will require the player to change their tactics. however as enjoyable as combat is it doesn't help break up the repetition of the level structures.

However there are various mini-games between levels which help break up the monotomy. These can be seen in the form of simple 2D side-scrollers, word puzzles and pinball-esque mazes. They make a nice addition to the game but at the same time seem out of place with the rest of the game. The japanese-art inspired side-scrolling platformer in the Asian-themed world is particularly eye-catching.

Once the game is completed one may wish to begin a new game on a harder difficulty, increase the level of their weapons or try and collect the rest of the relics they may have missed the first time round. This provides decent incentive for replaying AMR a second time. Unfortunately the majority of gamers may not want to repeat the lengthy experience as not much is different on the second playthrough.

In conclusion I believe everyone who has ever played a platformer, appreciates imaginative artwork or even loved the original Lewis Carol novel should give Madness Returns a try. There is plenty of visual stimulation, ambience and a challenging campaign to to play through. If you can look can overlook the numerous technical short-comings and the lack of variety in gameplay then this game is worth the time. For fans of gothic fantasy art this is a must have!

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