I fall in love again every time I play this game, I really do.
Alice: Madness Returns was released back in 2011. It’s an action/adventure 3D platformer based on a dark version of the Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass stories. (Fans of the original books will find plenty of callbacks and references ingame.) It’s also a sequel to American McGee’s Alice, which was released in 2000 for PC. The Steam page begins its description with:
Eleven years ago a horrific fire took Alice’s family from her and left her mind horrifically scarred. Afterwards she was confined to Rutledge Asylum, where she struggled to confront her demons by slipping further into her fantasy world of Wonderland. Now, after ten years, she has finally secured her release—yet she still bears the heavy psychological burden of that tragic event.
I’ve been a fan of the Alice games since American McGee’s Alice back in the day, and I remember being vaguely nervous when the new one came out. I wasn’t convinced a sequel could avoid being either nothing more than a repeat, or changing things up enough to ruin the magic. Luckily, the game managed that balance quite nicely.
Before I write this love letter, I should mention I’m well aware some players were put off by bugs or felt the game lacked polish. I’ve never had issues with bugs, and a few invisible walls weren’t enough to distract me from the game, but that’s me. I also found the minigames charming enough for what they were. I swear I remember reading somewhere that the minigames were a rushed addition, but I can’t find the source to back that up.
I remember the moment I first really fell in love with this game. I was still in the house where Alice begins. I’ve never managed to get a screenshot that does it justice, but as I stood by a window I could see dust motes in a beam of sunlight and thought, “Omg. This is gorgeous.” Considering that’s while the game is still in the regular world and almost in black and white, that’s pretty impressive. This attention to detail in the surroundings continues throughout the game. I wanted to explore every corner not just for collectibles, but to see what surprises were hiding in the corners.
It doesn’t take too incredibly long for the game to get rolling into Wonderland, and not long for Wonderland to become sinister. Still, in those first few areas, the beauty of the world always gets me. I don’t rush through, even on replays, because I’m enjoying just being in the world.
The look of the game, and the feel of the combat (which I’ll get to later) are probably my two favorite parts of Alice: Madness Returns, and the biggest reasons I enjoy the game even on replays. Screenshots really aren’t sufficient to experience the artwork anyway, but I could spend all day taking screenshots and not show a fraction of what’s there.
The sound design is also excellent; I can leave the game running just to listen and not get tired of the music. The sound effects are also well done, making actions feel like they have weight. The sound of collecting teeth (the game’s currency) was especially well chosen, giving my brain the quick shot of pleasure that collecting currency should give.
The combat is another area where this game shines. There is something ridiculously satisfying about how it feels, especially the Vorpal Blade and the Pepper Grinder. The speed and the hits *feel* right, in that hard-to-describe way. The combat feels fast and smooth without being overwhelming, and the dodge mechanic becomes automatic with just a bit of practice. (I also love the form a dodge takes, turning Alice temporarily into a cloud of blue and purple butterflies.)
The jumping and platforming are mostly just as good. The actual jump and float mechanics always feel very intuitive to me, but I’ll admit it’s usually jumping puzzles that block my progress for a bit. While this makes it very satisfying to finally get past one, it can make the surroundings feel a bit dull as you repeat the area. I’ve definitely needed to take a break for a while before continuing a jumping puzzle I was struggling with.
Another interesting mechanic in this game is Alice’s Shrink Sense. Early into the game, Alice gains the ability to shrink at will, allowing her to get through small doorways. This also allows you to see hidden messages, platforms, and doorways which are otherwise invisible. Though it could have gotten tiresome, the change has always been very fast for me, allowing a quick look when that’s all I need.
I should mention I only use a gamepad with this game. Platforming and jumping that feels awesome on a gamepad is not always quite so great on a keyboard.
While I usually don’t much care about outfits in games, I do like the themed dresses Alice gets as she progresses through the story. I enjoy the creative design, and it’s nice to sometimes see an attractive outfit that doesn’t show a whole bunch of skin. (Those can also be fun, I’m only saying I like a change sometimes.)
If it doesn’t go without saying, I also enjoy being able to play as a female main character. When that’s combined with combat that feels so good, the game becomes a lot more fun for me. You don’t want to mess with this version of Alice, I can guarantee it.
I suppose dark versions of Alice aren’t for everyone. As I mentioned in my Fran Bow post, I feel a special affinity for games like this. I’m going to finish this post with a few more screenshots, because I can’t help myself, and likely continue my replay after Beyond the Veil tonight.