Personal tragedies are the stories that touch us the most, because of how closely they relate to us physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. Often these tales are tragic not because of events that take place, but because they shed light on a larger downfall. Such is the case of Alice: Madness Returns, not for developer Spicy Horse, but for designer American McGee.
Nearly eleven years prior the famed id Games designer, famous for his level design on games like Doom 2 and Quake, set off on his own and built a wondrous game based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and was made famous by pithy developers solemnly annoyed at the title (American McGee’s Alice) and by the widespread acclaim at the wonderfully dark portrayal of what most of us only know as a Disney film.
While McGee may have learned to tone down his egotism in this latest installment (though he failed to do so with American McGee’s Grimm), this sequel seems to take no note of the last 11 years of videogame development and improvement, instead relying on the simplest and most rudimentary foundations of gaming principles. Combat focuses so much on button mashing that there are achievements for performing certain mind-numbing combinations. Puzzle solving focuses on what four year olds are expected to solve after a few minutes of struggle. Finding hidden items is a matter of platforming, timing, and pressing one button to show the way. Vastly different from each other and with variations on their traits, the current concoction is repetitive, to the point of madness. How fitting.
Color is a big part of Alice: Madness Returns, and it’s refreshing to see the full color spectrum
That’s not to say Alice: Madness Returns is a bad game, far from it. The level design is expectantly brilliant, as McGee shows his audacious imagination through highly-stylized and colorful levels, fitting the fiction of Wonderland all while maintaining a dark, eerie focus so expected from a world bent on killing the reasonable, frail, albeit plain Alice. Even the liveliness of the characters, from dialog rarely heard except on old British television to the psychotic yet stunningly accurate depictions of these characters makes it so easy for players to dive into the world and bathe in it gloriously.
What’s clear is that this bath is not meant to be enjoyed continuously. Story-driven sections of the game – not partaking in story, simply platforming from one area to the next or fighting off savage black-ooze demons or the like – are fun, exciting, and above all else entertaining. The rest clogs the drains and faucet, and is more of a burden to get through than to experience and enjoy. This occurs and reoccurs…and continues on and on, for two main reasons.
The Asian-themed level, among many a thing, really has no place in the Lewis-Carroll remake
First, the game insinuates that players are idiots. Madness Returns is built section upon section, where players go almost from room to room, where each little box has its own objective. One may be to fight monsters, another to traverse up or down to the next box, and still others to find hidden treasures or teeth (which act as currency for weapon upgrades). There is some crossover, but only in the slightest sense. Enemies may be on a higher ledge, but rarely will attack until Alice is on the same geometry as the AI. This simple design must have inspired Spicy Horse to make sure players don’t get confused, because at each junction between boxes there is some hint. Sometimes the camera pans to show what path has been opened, or where the new enemies are coming from. Other times a pop-up appears to show what weapons do, how to use them in various situations, or how to use them in collaboration with one another. There is no room for self-exploration…as if the rabbit and McGee both whisper in the player’s ear “don’t dawdle Alice.”
Dawdling, however, is a big catch for players. Exploration in the giant, looming world is a treat, but the game rarely treats it like one. Bottles and “memories”, among other collectables, flood the five massive levels but provide minimal benefit to players whatsoever. There are no rewards except for achievements for finding these items, and there are so many that it prolongs gameplay so tremendously that it becomes tiresome. Story-driven games with so much platforming and item-driven gameplay wash the story out…and frankly, finding and attaining all these items is an absolute bore.
This may be how you feel after playing Madness Returns after a few hours
Frightfully who would want to neglect these items? Each new path opens up another new area to explore, but there is no limit to it. Spicy Horse gives, gives and gives, but never holds back, never baits players to follow a certain course. Were Madness Returns a sandbox game, that would be fine. Instead, I feel drained from 2-3 hour long chapters (with no proper checkpoints, or even save notifications), successively dull hopscotch through Wonderland, and tedious combat using up to four weapons, but more likely just one or two.
The utter simplicity in gameplay design shows the complete immaturity of the development team, not because they don’t know what they’re doing – far from it, they do what they do quite well – but because their strategies for gameplay stem from the 90’s era of gameplay. Combat is one-dimensional, to the point where Alice has no aerial attacks, nor can she do anything besides one main combination per weapon. Platforming is just the same: see a path, follow a path. There is no thinking required, no puzzle an infant couldn’t solve, no real soul to getting from the beginning to the end of the game.
That’s why, no matter how entertaining the language and characters and level design may be, Alice: Madness Returns feels like a true successor to the original American McGee’s Alice…except that it is 10 years too late. Like Duke Nukem Forever, this title missed a generation and should not have come back so empty-handed. Likewise, it’s time for designer American McGee to rid himself of the silly notion that level design and strong characters are all that’s needed to make a great game. Otherwise, he’ll never leave Wonderland and join us in the real world…where then something truly great can happen.