In Alice: Madness Returns, the heroine of American McGee's Alice has not escaped the demons she worked so hard to banish. The Wonderland of her imagination has been mangled into a dark and demonic caricature, filled with even more torturous hallucinations than she last encountered. Alice's mind is a dark place indeed, and in this long-awaited sequel, we discover that the real world isn't any sunnier. Creative and creepy visuals give this action platformer a twisted and surreal vibe, drawing you into a land inhabited by fire-breathing doll babies and squirming leeches. The action doesn't display the same kind of creativity, unfortunately. The game recycles the same basic ideas over and again, and its failure to grow and challenge leads to occasional tedium. Nevertheless, leaping and floating through an eerie oversized dollhouse and a Japanese-inspired dreamland is a joy, and there are enough hidden secrets to make it worth inspecting Madness Returns' grotesque nooks. Alice: Madness Returns is a fun but thoroughly ordinary game that takes place in an extraordinary setting.
Wonderland is a dangerous and freaky place to escape to...
In American McGee's Alice, the titular dreamer had seemingly overcome her insanity. A fire at her home had killed her parents and sister, leaving both her mind and her imagined Wonderland in shambles. She eventually triumphed over the Red Queen and her own madness, but it seems that this victory was a temporary one. Alice is still under medical care, struggling to remember the circumstances that led to her family's horrific end. Her psychiatrist urges her to forget her past, insisting that doing so is the only way to wellness. Yet forgetting proves a formidable task, and soon Alice finds herself once again lost in her imagination, where Wonderland lies in ruin. To save herself, she must save Wonderland, and vice versa. But this is not the curioser and curioser world author Lewis Carroll dreamed up when he wrote Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Rather, it is a place of nightmares, where the card guards that once protected the Red Queen are now undead monstrosities, and hobbyhorses are not playthings, but deadly weapons.
Wonderland itself is Madness Returns' finest attribute. Each chapter explores a different visual theme, some of them impossible to describe in a few simple words. Rusted platforms float against a cloudy yellow backdrop, next to clock towers from which giant forks and teapots dangle. Gnarled vines twist into an off-kilter heart above a giant castle whose spires lean in all directions. Alice's clothing changes from chapter to chapter, and her flowery prints and blood-red fabrics subtly match the level art. Wonderland is not the only place you explore, however. At the start of each chapter, you wander about an increasingly morose London. This vision of that city is more grubby and industrial than even Carroll's contemporary Charles Dickens conjured, drained of color and inhabited by impossibly wrinkled old crones and filthy fishermen. This world is not flawlessly rendered, however. The game pauses at bizarre times, sometimes at surprising length, to load data. Audio is an occasional issue as well: characters might talk over their own lines and are sometimes drowned out by the ambient music. At least that music is evocative, if not as excellent as the original Alice's score. The occasional tinkling of a toy piano and the buzz of low double basses provide fine contrast to the pounding drumbeats that accompany battle.
...but it's preferable to this bleak city.
Alice is generally a dream to control due to the effortless way you can string multiple jumps together and float gently downward. When you drift or perform midair leaps, flower petals blossom in your wake, emphasizing Alice's grace in a graceless land. The smoothness of motion makes bouncing from springy mushrooms and catching drafts of air a delight, and rarely is timing or landing a leap a struggle. All this is possible with the mouse and keyboard, but the oversensitive mouselook will have you reaching for a controller, which offers the best experience. Either way, you get caught up in freewheeling around this unusual place for a while, scanning for secrets and admiring the view. You can shrink yourself to minute size and enter keyholes, where you might find lost memories, Madness Returns' equivalent of audio logs. You come across floating pig snouts and can shoot them full of pepper from your pepper grinder to uncover new pathways. Hidden treasures are scattered all over, and hearing the telltale snort from a nearby snout elicits a pleasant Pavlovian response: you hear the oink and immediately move into scouting mode.