In a lot of ways, the experience of playing Alice: Madness Returns mirrors Alice’s first trip down the rabbit hole to Wonderland in Lewis Carroll’s original novel. Like Alice, you’re supposed to go through the motions set before you without raising any concerns. Or at least that’s how American McGee and Spicy Horse want you to approach their new game; they want you to accept everything laid out in front of you without stopping to question the game’s odd design choices. But I refuse to accept that this is the best they could come up with as a sequel to their 2000 original, American McGee’s Alice.
It doesn’t help that Alice: Madness Returns really goes out of its way to turn you off immediately. After a spooky introductory cinematic done in a neat 2D animation style, the game kicks in with textures taking far longer than they should to properly load. What you’re left with is a muddy mess of pixels that made my mind instantly jump to my system being on the fritz. But that was not the case. Even after a console reboot, the problem repeated itself. Before I ever had a chance to put my thumb on the control stick and push Alice forward an inch, I was already sucked out of the experience and put in a rather poor mood.
It’s no secret that the majority of Unreal engine-powered games suffer from texture load-in issues. But it seems Alice: Madness Returns is affected worse than any game I’ve seen in recent memory. Sadly, the problem never irons itself out. The entire game is hampered by muddy textures and environmental details that fail to load until you’re standing right next to them. And that’s a shame, because the characters and worlds Spicy Horse created for this title are rather inspiring. It was the thought of meeting more of Lewis Carroll’s creations through the twisted lens of American McGee that propelled me through the game.
Maybe it would be easy to overlook the mountain-high pile of technical issues that plague Alice: Madness Returns if the gameplay satisfied. But as you can probably ascertain from that lead in, I wasn’t too keen on the gameplay either. From every angle, Alice: Madness Returns is a lesson in monotony.
Combat plays out roughly the same throughout the entire game. You’ll hammer on the “X” button to use your Vorpal Blade, while occasionally using your Pepper Gun to pick off enemies from a distance. The formula gets tiring quickly, with new enemy types failing to add any diversity to combat as you progress deeper into Wonderland. For perspective, you don’t even get a heavy attack until you start Chapter 2, roughly two hours into the game.
There are occasional sections that switch up the combat of Alice: Madness Returns. One particular instance has you manning the cannons of a battle ship for a side-scrolling 2D shooter, but its implementation is so simplistic that you can’t help but wonder if its inclusion is just meant as an easy “fix” to expand the repetitive combat. It sure feels that way.
Unfortunately, the levels also suffer from a sense of been there, done that. Every new “world” you travel to follows the same general structure. You drop in and push forward, occasionally traversing a platforming section (which isn’t challenging with Alice’s triple jump/hover combo), or deviating ever so slightly from the beaten path to pepper snouts and find hidden collectibles, such as bottles, memories and teeth (which I still don’t understand their purpose).
There is a faux sense of choice and open-worldness to Alice: Madness Returns. Every zone has a mission objective, which is usually to find three things and deliver them back to the realm’s host. For the Mad Hatter’s zone, you’ll be locating his body parts, for example. The game lets you tackle finding these items in any order you want. Yet, after you choose which path to travel down first, the levels once again narrow and become incredibly linear and downright boring to play in.
I hate to admit it, but Alice: Madness Returns is a substantial letdown. I was really excited for this game because, to me, it was what Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland could have been if it wasn’t aimed for children and shot for Disney. But it seems apparent that Spicy Horse’s focus was on the world and characters they were creating, not on the game they were designing, because they clearly just slapped it together. There’s a lot of inspiration to be found in the character design and art direction of Alice: Madness Returns, but the actual gameplay is about as interesting as a piece of wood, and about as lifeless as it too.