Every so often, Madness Returns' level layouts displays a glimmer of creativity, such as when playing cards flip and slide into view, extending your path. However, reaching your destination is a usually predictable affair. You spend a lot of time jumping onto floating surfaces and into gusts of air so that you can flip a switch that creates another set of surfaces and gusts. Sometimes you need to drop bombs to weigh down pressure plates, shrink to miniscule size to bring invisible platforms into view, or run under a spiked ceiling threatening to slam down on you. But Alice: Madness Returns has a limited bag of tricks, and so you frequently perform the same actions in the same context. Monotony too often results, particularly when your objectives are simple fetch quests. (Some residents of Wonderland are unwilling to divulge information unless you do them petty favors.) Levels have no sense of momentum: were it not for the unique environments, you could replace one sequence with any other and not even notice, and navigation is barely more challenging in the penultimate chapter than it is in the first .
If pepper is this deadly, just think of what Alice could pull off with a little coriander.
Luckily, combat freshens things up, due in part to the horrific enemies you face. Hideous monsters dripping with black ooze fling projectiles from above, and goblins wielding dinnerware threaten to stab you. Each enemy requires a slightly different technique to bring down, and Alice is fortunate enough to have the right tools for the job. First up is the returning vorpal blade, Madness Returns' version of a light attack. The hobbyhorse does strong attack duty, while the pepper grinder is your basic ranged assault weapon. Then there's the teapot, which you can think of as a grenade launcher, as well as your parasol, which you use to block incoming attacks. Once you get accustomed to the patterns and weaknesses, the vile fiends aren't difficult to fell. But while fights aren't often challenging, facing multiple enemy types at once is still fun, because you must use your entire arsenal in a single battle. Many battles are too easy to feel like anything but filler, and the sticky target lock can push the camera into awkward positions. But the sound of porcelain shattering when you slam your hobbyhorse into a wretched freak crusted with dolls' heads is worthwhile compensation.
Alice: Madness Returns occasionally tries to enhance the proceedings by wandering outside its comfort zone. You slide down ramps, solve some puzzles on a chessboard, jump about in a two-dimensional version of Wonderland, and so forth. The attempts to vary the pace are admirable, but in most cases, the execution is less than ideal. For instance, there are sequences in which you take control of a rolling doll's head and navigate in 2D and 3D alike. It's a neat idea, but the too-close camera and some awkward transitions in and out of third-person and side views frustrate. Running from a gigantic executioner should have led to pulse-pounding chases, but these sequences have you running toward the camera. It takes a special game to make it fun to run toward the unknown, and Alice is not such a game. An underwater shoot-em-up, a musical minigame--you might welcome the change of tempo at first, only to discover that these sections whistle a boring tune.
Lava? You'd think the Dormouse would be more at home in treacle.
It's disappointing that while the console versions include a code to download a port of the original Alice, the PC release does not include a copy of the game that introduced players to this distorted world. Madness Returns is not a lesser value without the inclusion of the original, however. It's fun to move through Wonderland as if carried by a summer breeze, bringing a touch of beauty to its contorted imagery. It's a shame that the game never expands its fundamentals. Looking back on time spent with Alice: Madness Returns is like remembering a vacation from your childhood: you remember where you went, but not what you did. Yet Alice's broken psyche is so tortured, her waking nightmare so vivid, that you're tempted to push forward to see what deliciously morbid sights yet await.