by Hannah Aliposa
Suspension of disbelief is a term that is often associated with fictional works, like in movies. It is when a writer or story-teller is able to infuse “human interest and a semblance of truth” into a fantastic tale, wherein the reader or viewer suspends judgment concerning the improbability of the narrative.
Nowadays, the same level of immersion is required in games in order to succeed. The best games are able to let gamers immerse themselves in a different world, not bringing themselves up to breathe until the credits start rolling. However, when some elements fall apart, that suspension shatters with it, screaming “It’s just a game!”
Good thing there’s one such game that manages to keep everything in perfect balance: American McGee’s Alice Madness Returns.
Alice: Madness Returns is a psychological horror action-adventure video game developed by Chinese studio Spicy Horse. It was released by Electronic Arts and is available for the Microsoft Windows, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360 platforms. The game is a sequel to the 2000 video game American McGee’s Alice. The game was released worldwide back in 2011.
In American McGee’s Alice, young Alice Lidell had seemingly overcome her insanity. Suffering from emotional trauma caused by the death of her parents and sister, she is now left with both her mind and her imagined Wonderland in complete disarray. Alice eventually emerged victorious over the Red Queen and her own madness, but it seems that victory was short-lived.
Alice: Madness Returns begins with Alice being discharged from a psychiatric clinic after her medication. After struggling to recall the circumstances that led to her family’s horrific end, she now lives in a gloomy Victorian orphanage for mentally traumatized children, under the care of Dr. Angus Bumby, a psychiatrist. Dr. Bumby urges Alice to forget her past, insisting that getting rid of the trauma and learning the truth about her past is the only path to wellness.
But forgetting her past proves to be a difficult task, and Alice soon finds herself lost once again in her own fantasyworld where Wonderland lies in shambles. Determined to save herself, she once again falls into Wonderland, where a new evil being has corrupted it.
In Alice: Madness Returns, Wonderland isn’t the “curioser and curioser” world we’ve all come to know in author Lewis Carroll’s novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Rather, it’s a place where nightmares come to life, toys and benign objects become atrocious monstrosities, and hobbyhorses and pepper grinders become deadly weapons. What was once Alice’s sanctuary has now become a series of haunting, phantasmagoric prisons that she must traverse to find its source: Her own unstable psyche.
Alice: Madness Returns plays from a third-person perspective. And like its predecessor, the game mainly focuses on its platforming, which is featured in spades. You’ll bounce off of moving platforms and mushroom platforms, glide off of platforms as you descend towards another platform, or ride steam vents that will keep Alice afloat. The game manages to do all of these quite well, with a fairly solid control set that lends itself to some of the world’s trickier navigational dangers. However, there are some spots wherein the game’s camera shifts to an undesirable angle, but worry not because these instances are few and far between.
While in combat, Alice will gain an arsenal of weapons that can be used in various ways. Her main weapon and trademark is the legendary Vorpal Blade (like in the novel), in the form of a decorated kitchen knife. The remainder of her weapons appear like everyday items that take on deadly qualities in Alice’s corrupted Wonderland. The Hobby Horse is used as a sledgehammer that inflicts heavy damage and breaks barriers and defenses. The Pepper Grinder turns into a crank-operated gattling gun that’s used as a ranged weapon to attack distant objects and pepper pig snouts. The Teapon Cannon, on the other hand, fires tea sieves that explode, causing heavy damage and breaking barriers, much like the Hobby Horse.
By collecting teeth dropped by enemies or found scattered in Wonderland, the player can upgrade Alice’s weapons to make them transform and become even more powerful. There are two other weapons, however, that you can’t upgrade because they are more defensive than directly offensive. The Parasol serves as a shield that is used to deflect and reflect incoming projectiles, while the Clockwork Bomb is a time-delayed, remote-controlled rabbit alarm clock that does minimal damage to enemies. However, it’s more useful as a decoy, as well as a weight to keep switches temporarily depressed.
Players can keep track of Alice’s health by the number of rose petals found on top of the screen. When Alice’s health falls to zero during the course of the game, the player will be forced to start at the last checkpoint. Falling off platforms into bottomless pits or traps don’t damage Alice, but prompts the player to restart at the nearest platform. The game also introduces Hysteria mode, which you can activate when Alice’s health is very low. However, it can only be used for a short period of time.
The game is comprised of five chapters overall. They’re fairly linear, with Spicy Horse opening up little room to explore some nooks and crannies of the beautifully deranged Wonderland. Alice: Madness Returns features a roster of hidden collectibles, from memories that piece together Alice’s past to other curiosities that will unlock concept art and more. Collectors will have plenty to hunt for, but almost all of these items are only there to side-track players from the main objective.
Once you complete the game for the first time, you can start a New Game Plus that allows you to play through the game again but this time, you get to keep all the weapons and upgrades from the previous attempt. From the menu, players can also review memories that they’ve found within Wonderland, as well as Alice’s wardrobe of bizarre costumes.
Each of the domains Alice visits in Wonderland has a specific visual style, and without exception, they’re stunning and unique. For instance, the Hatter’s world is a combination of a crockery of a mad tea party and the dank, polluted, monolithic architecture of industrial London, while Alice’s quest to find the Caterpillar takes her to a misty mountaintop where origami ant-like humanoids and samurai wasps are guarding the domain. These, and more, are a clear departure of Carroll’s original version, but one that’s rendered with incredible detail.
While sinister foes of corrupting black tar and creepy doll parts continue to pursue Alice throughout the game, the enemies specific to each domain feels as at home in these strange places as Alice’s ever-changing wardrobe. Personally, the game is at its best when Alice’s muddled reality rubs up against the toadstools and fairytales of Wonderland, something the game manages to hold on to for a more dramatic effect.
The game may occasionally deviate from its prime gameplay tenets, presenting players with sliding puzzles, deadly downhill slides, and thankfully, entirely optional rhythm mini-games. The quality of these elements are significantly different, and the game has rough edges both literal and figurative. Perhaps the biggest fundamental problem with the game is that it lingers a little too long in each of its domains.
As stunning as the visuals are, with gloomy music that matches the moody and haunting atmosphere perfectly, players will always feel like they’re ready to move on to the next level, and some new feast for the senses, well before the game deems it so. This doesn’t mean the quality of the gameplay worsens over time, but rather, that the production quality stokes the players’ anticipation for some sense of progress beyond just making it to the next bit of platforming or combat sequence.
Carving a few hours out of Alice: Madness Returns’ fifteen-or-so hours of runtime would have alleviated Alice’s only real negative indulgence, but even as it is, the game remains to be a highly engaging slice of dark and disturbed fantasy, one that places American McGee firmly in command of both the unhinged and the fantastical.