It isn't a huge secret that Lewis Carroll's Wonderland books, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, have a dark subtext of insanity and violence. Since 1907, the year the copyright lapsed, various artists have freely retold Carroll's fable while elaborating on the story's intrinsic darkness. Now, thanks to Rogue Entertainment, Electronic Arts, and lead designer American McGee, gaming has its very own entry in this time-honored practice that suggests, "Alice in Wonderland is actually kind of creepy!" The resulting game is polished and often looks really great, but American McGee's Alice is undermined by straightforward, uninspired gameplay sequences that detract from its overall appeal.
In the game, Alice has lost her mind due to a traumatizing childhood experience. To reclaim her sanity, she must fight for it through the perverse Wonderland of her imagination. In this way, the game basically has the same plot as in games such as Sanitarium, as well as this year's disappointing Earthworm Jim 3D - but in Alice, of course, you play as a girl instead of a worm.
Powered by id Software's impressive Quake III Arena engine, the game's fully 3D depiction of Wonderland is definitely its best feature. Many of the levels, especially in the game's first half, are remarkably well rendered. Though the art direction relies less on anything very shocking and a little too much on depicting what's essentially a dimly lit version of the conventional surrealism found in most platform games, the results are undeniably slick. A few of the levels - most notably the White Queen's black-and-white kingdom and an environment that features a realistic, normal-looking house perched atop a hellish mountain of lava and rock - are great looking and very original. However, some of the other scenarios, like a sequence of giant, rotating gear levels, settle for just being great looking. It seems that the designers' inspiration dissipated a little by the later levels, as many of these are mostly made up of traditional castle corridors that are simply tricked out with the occasional cockeyed door frame.
The character design in Alice is even better than its environments. From the effectively flat-looking card guards (whom Alice can rend into two bloody halves with her trusty dagger) to the ugly, baby-tossing Duchess and the giant monster you'll face at the end of the game, every character in Alice is unreal; yet, thanks to the incredibly fluid animation, every single one is believable. The skilled animators who created the characters even managed to bring chess pieces to life. Alice herself doesn't even look much like you'd expect her to. She's a sullen, doe-eyed, realistically proportioned teenage girl. It can be fun watching this relatively plain-looking character running through the game's strange environments. Since you'll be staring at her throughout the entire game, you'll be glad to know that she's as fluidly animated as the rest of the characters.