Suspension of disbelief is a common term in film, but games require a similar level of immersion to succeed. The best games dunk your head into the waters of their worlds, and don't bring you up to breathe until the credits roll. But when some elements don't work, that suspension shatters and screams: it's just a game. Alice: Madness Returns is an uneven journey of immersion that hits a lot of high points but constantly shows off its cracks.
At its heart, Alice: Madness returns combines the weapon-based fighting of third-person action games with more conventional platforming. Combat is fluid – it animates smoothly, it's responsive, and Alice flows from one move to the next without stutter or stop. Dodging is fast, adding to the feel of Alice as a lethal character. The variety of weapons encourages an organic construction of combos, based on each item's strengths. Knocking over an armored enemy with the Hobby Horse, slashing it open with the Vorpal Blade, and then finishing them with the Pepper Grinder is a seamless barrage. Alice's acrobatics are also a lot of fun to apply. Navigating Wonderland via jumps (and double-jumps and triple-jumps), floating, and shrinking makes things more interesting, and viewing secret messages using Shrink Sense to find hidden paths and items adds to Alice: Madness Returns' exploratory experience.
Alice: Madness Returns takes bits and pieces from Lewis Carroll's original vision and filters them through a gritty, new light to great effect. Set after the events of American McGee's Alice, Madness Returns finds Alice outside the insane asylum. But her madness hasn't been cured, and she sets out to discover exactly who, or what, started the fire that killed her entire family, and triggered her insanity. Alice: Madness Returns jumps between an eerie London and the ruined depths of Wonderland, with a story full of interesting riddles and surprising reveals. Characters from the original American McGee's Alice return, and are a great addition – especially when their motives have changed and fit into American McGee's world in new ways.
Video review coming soon.
Alice: Madness Returns' Wonderland is enormous, beautiful, and imaginative. During its best moments, Alice: Madness Returns is a memorable portrait of a fantastical world. Soaring through the clouds of the Cardbridge is inspired, and walking the streets of a gloomy London is an excellent counterpoint to the brighter light of Wonderland. The two-dimensional, newsprint-style cut-scenes between chapters are stylish and interesting.
Wonderland isn't all scenic magic. While the majority of Alice: Madness Returns is set amidst imaginative beauty, exploring Wonderland also reveals graphical inconsistencies. With ugly textures coating the Mad Hatter's domain, or the pixilated blue explosions of pig snouts and other graphic weirdness, Madness Returns has a hidden backside of blocky blandness.
In comparison to the bizarre and vibrant world of Wonderland, Alice: Madness Returns' performances are somewhat mundane. Supporting characters help flesh out Wonderland with interesting performances, but Alice barely reacts to the ups and downs of the dramatic arc. The music grows tiresome during longer sections, but sets an appropriately haunting tone otherwise.
Speak softly and carry a big horse head.
The cracks in Alice: Madness Returns' immersion show most in its exploration, though. Invisible walls block the flow of exploration. Fallen logs can't be traversed, despite a map that continues on their other side. What's worse, though Alice can shrink to a size where she should fit into certain areas, she won't – the level won't let her. This is frustrating, an archaic reminder that Alice: Madness Returns is just a game.
In small chunks these elements remain fun, but set against lengthy gameplay sessions they grow repetitive. As Alice: Madness Returns' bizarre mystery unfolded, the limits of the experience showed themselves. There are dozens of levers to pull, countless slides to jump on, and a plethora of similar battles to conquer. But Alice: Madness Returns is content to step on its own foot.