Alice: Madness Returns takes place in two very different worlds, and it’s difficult to decide which side of that coin is the more extraordinary. Set more-or-less immediately after the climax of the first game, this sequel constantly flits between two contrasting environments; the grim, smog-tarnished hell of Victorian London, all hookers, drunks, broiling chimneys and stray children; and the spectacular (but almost always foreboding) subconscious Wonderland that Alice periodically escapes to from her makeshift home in a run-down insane asylum.
Although the core gameplay is instantly familiar – it’s a third-person action game with some strong puzzle elements – the two conflicting worlds are anything but. Nobody is more aware of this than its creators, and you’re constantly given the opportunity to take pause and marvel at these environments; and marvel you will. It’s never anything less than vividly imaginative, and both worlds are populated by a colourful assemblage of attention-grabbing grotesques. Voice acting is absolutely top notch across the board too, predictably.
Newcomers have no need to worry either, as the story is very much a self-contained unit, with the only vital piece of old information – that Alice’s entire family were killed in a suspicious house fire – being succinctly delivered in the opening cinematic. The cutscenes are as stylistically varied as the rest of the game, and the barbed, unfussy script is accentuated beautifully by them. Countless videogames struggle with the nebulous concept of ‘weird’, but Madness Returns absolutely nails it; and several pivotal moments in the story are genuinely unsettling.
Despite the odd finicky moment (precision jumping is prevalent) for the most part the gameplay is fluid, straightforward and enjoyable, and appropriately enough for such a mature title, the learning curve is steep but never oppressively so. One of the most taxing bosses in the whole thing appears after about two hours, with the game consequently demanding that you utilise all of your learned skills in order to defeat him. Checkpointing is generous (and restarts are instantaneous) and although platforming and combat are the primary order of business, a series of small mini-games (including some terrific 2D sections) are thrown in to spice things up a bit.
One of the real joys of the game involves perusing the vast number of secret areas. Two techniques are used to open these up; you can either shrink to fit through veiled keyholes, or you can shoot pepper at craftily concealed floating pig snouts. Both of these procedures are initially mandatory – so as to leave nobody in the dark – but as the story progresses they become less and less easy to find. They usually only net you small bundles of additional collectibles – like teeth, which can be used to purchase upgrades – so those who like to rush things can choose to do so, but health boosts can also be found on occasion; and those definitely come in handy later on.
A concise and very readable synopsis of the the first game is available on the disc under a sub-menu entitled “Past Matters” and if you buy the game new, you’re rewarded with a free HD remake of that original game. It still holds up well – and is probably superior to the sequel, but only just – though Madness Returns is every bit as distinctive and involving as its predecessor, and the completely whacked-out atmosphere and ubiquity of reflective adult themes make it stand inexorably apart from everything else that you’ll play this year.
Alice: Madness Returns is released on PC, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 on Friday 17th June 2011.
Watch the Alice: Madness Returns trailer here: