Alice's shattered Wonderland a frighteningly good place for an adventure

How is a raven like a writing desk?

I dunno. I doubt the Mad Hatter does anymore either, considering what a ruin Wonderland has become.

Oh, maybe you hadn't heard.

You see, after coming back from that fantastic world in "Through the Looking Glass," things didn't go very well for young Alice Liddell. Her entire family was killed in a tragic house fire, which she had the dubious fortune of surviving, her body burned, her mind wrecked.

Trapped in a catatonic state, her fractured psyche managed to make the journey to Wonderland, but the once charming and bewildering realm was now a thing of nightmares, twisted by Alice's insanity. "American McGee's Alice," a PC game released in 2000, tells the story of that tragedy and how Alice, controlled by the player, managed to slay her madness and return to consciousness.

The story could have ended there ... but it doesn't. Alice is still haunted by memories of the fire, memories she's trying to forget with the help of a psychiatrist. Yet the harder she tries to forget, the more her madness grows.

Welcome to "Alice: Madness Returns," a simply stunning action-platformer that I think will end up on my list of best games of the year.

The game begins in Victorian London, with Alice living at an orphanage in the care of Dr. Bumby. Everything in this world appears drab, limp and lifeless, a palette of browns and grays painting a world of hopelessness and despair.

But soon enough, visions of monsters overwhelm poor Alice and we drop through the floor of this pallid reality into a world overwhelming to the senses.

Never was greener green or bluer blue than in this Wonderland we've entered. Giant dominos and dice lay scattered among glowing flora, toys abandoned by unseen titans. Yet a sense of ruin overlays the magic of it all, a hint that an unspoken disaster awaits just over the horizon.

More than the world has been transformed, however. Gone too is the spiritless, colorless Alice of London's streets. Her bobbed dull hair has grown long, lustrous and black. Her shapeless dress is now sleek and stylish, fun and flirty, attire perfectly befitting a charming young lady. Its brilliant blue hue enhances the allure of her entrancing green eyes.

Yet there's a sense of mayhem about her too, personified in the white, blood-splashed apron she wears over her dress. (In true lady-like fashion, however, Alice is always prepared with a change of clothes as she enters different realms, such as the kimono-influenced dress she wears at left.)

A visitor is already waiting to greet us -- a gaunt, bedraggled creature, with toothy, mocking grin and ruffled fur. The Cheshire Cat is our guide on this journey, a voice of reason, an indirectly helping hand.

With his direction, soon we're in possession of our greatest weapon, the Vorpal Sword, a bloody butcher knife that slices snicker-snack through the doll-masked faces of corruption and ruin personified.

And soon we've bathed in and imbibed a potent purple potion labeled "Drink Me." Forevermore on this journey, Alice can shrink down small enough to thread her way through a keyhole. Yet it's not just an issue of size. The view from down below brings also a new point of view, highlighting signposts is this wilderness and illuminating otherwise invisible pathways through the sky.

As Alice, we've got a great deal of jumping to do on our journey to save Wonderland and, by extension, ourselves. Thankfully, Alice is a great jumper, able to leap about easily and even multiple times in mid-air, her dress belling out at her waist to allow her to glide like a leaf on the breeze.
 

Yet don't take her great ability at leaping to mean we'll have an easy time navigating Wonderland's confusing landscape. We won't. Often our path transforms right in front of our eyes. Some platforms move back and forth or flit in and out of existence; others sink under our weight. It's a matter of timing, pluck and persistence.

The controls, however, behave themselves in brilliant fashion. Alice sticks her landings; she doesn't slide or drift without our say-so, so if our aim is true, we land unerringly on platforms. There's no "oops, you hit the platform and continued to walk straight off the edge" momentum here, as there is in some other games, Mario.

Strictly speaking, of course, some of the platforming is optional -- if you don't want to recover all of Alice's memories, scattered about as collectible fragments all over the landscape. (There's other collectibles, too.)

As evidenced by Alice's possession of the Vorpal Sword, fighting is another big part of her journey. Creatures spawned by the corruption of the realm -- all composed of amorphous black ooze of various shapes and sizes, all adorned with creepy doll masks -- are everywhere.

And they aren't the only monsters to be found.

Madcaps, clad in the Mad Hatter's discarded crockery; honorless Samurai wasps; and cigar-toking crabs also bar the way.

Defeating each creature can be a puzzle unto itself, as few of them stand around waiting to be hit. Some dodge skillfully, while others are vulnerable only in certain hard-to-hit spots. And when you encounter a group of varied monsters covering for each other's vulnerabilities, it's trouble with a capital T.

Still, an alert Alice can overcome any foe, though she needs more than just her knife. Along the journey, she'll also pick up a rapid-fire black pepper grinder, useful as a machine gun of sorts; a weighty hobby horse, great at smashing things; an umbrella to deflect the storm; and a scalding-hot tea pot, which lobs bursts of the drink as devastating as any grenade.

Alice can be hard to hit too, as when she dodges (at the usual touch of a button) she dissolves in a burst of blue butterflies before reforming out of harm's way. And she can even dodge in mid-air.

There's a few other tricks up Alice's sleeve as the journey goes on, but I think you catch my drift. Combat in "Alice: Madness Returns" is an unexpectedly deep experience, one that forces players to think and act strategically. For if you don't prioritize your targets, choose the right tools and look for advantageous positions on the field of battle, Alice will die.

So what about all those colorful characters we've come to expect from Lewis Carroll's story, you ask. The Hatter, March Hare and Dormouse, the Caterpillar, Mock Turtle and others, they're in here too, if a little more dystopian than you might imagine.

In fact, I feel I should say it clearly. Alice's journey is a dark and violent one, disturbing in its gruesome honesty. The truth of what she's repressing is ugly and hateful, and not for young kids -- unless you want them to lose all illusions about the monstrous brutality of the real world.

"Alice: Madness Returns" is a mature game in the best sense of the word.

It has few flaws in my opinion. Really, the only one of real note is that transitions between scenes are done in a jarring, poor fashion. For instance, at the end of one part of Alice's adventure, she's riding precariously on the Hatter, off to confront his enemies. But in the next scene, she's alone again, with no transition explaining how she got that way. Sure, she soon meets up with the Mad Hatter again, but the damage has already been done to the flow of the narrative.

Are you intrigued but worried you'll be lost if you haven't played "American McGee's Alice"? Don't fret. For one thing, the story of "Madness Returns" stands well enough on its own. For another, the first game is included for free in the package. So you can take that journey first if you'd like.

Both adventures are ones I recommend.

"Alice: Madness Returns"
Publisher: EA.
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC. Reviewed on Xbox 360.
Price: $59.99 consoles, $49.99 PC.
Rating: M for mature.
Recommendation: This is a great action-platformer, set in a rich, vibrant yet thoroughly chilling world. I highly recommend purchasing it, as that way you get "American McGee's Alice" for free too.

Images courtesy of Electronic Arts
Second image: Alice menaces an irate teakettle with her Vorpal Sword.
Third image: During her journey, Alice will often find herself jumping from one precarious place to another, amid shockingly beautiful yet tricksome scenery.
Fourth image: Alice peppers a Madcap.

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dw wrote on July 04, 2011 at 12:07 am

*loved* American McGee's Alice... the twistedness of it, the puzzles... might have to splurge and buy a game... last game I bought was Portal...