It’s just too bad the gameplay and narrative can’t match the criminally charming art direction. For as much visual imagination as game contains, the levels themselves are sparse and boring, overstaying their welcomes with drawn-out objectives.
Alice's pacing is so irregular that I never knew when a level would end. In one sequence, I had to reassemble The Mad Hatter from several parts, each strewn about separate areas that took me around twenty soul-sucking minutes to complete, apiece. Elsewhere, you’ll be listening acutely for the sound of a pig snout to fill full of pepper to unlock new platforms that let you access an otherwise unreachable area, or you’ll find yourself timing jumps over mobile obstacles and catching wind gusts to reach new heights. But there really isn’t any pay-off at the end of each area, and too many tasks and puzzles are carbon copies of the ones you’ve just finished. Regrettably, there just isn’t much challenge or personality to any of it.
The simplistic platforming gives way to facile combat that works well enough with solo enemy encounters, but running into a group brings some of the game’s biggest flaws to light. Yes, the Vorpal Blade sings as you thrust it through the air at mechanical hornets or maniacal teapots, but it just isn’t terribly satisfying to jam the attack button over and over without any variation of the output. God forbid you need to target a single enemy out of a group, either. Instead of locking on to the giant tank enemy whose energy projectiles have to be reflected back at him with a well-timed swing of Alice’s umbrella, I often targeted someone else entirely even though I was looking right at the greatest threat. Awesome.
The paper-doll cutscenes bookending each chapter barely serve their purpose of moving the story from one disjointedly associated level to the next, and have as much personality as a wet newspaper. What could have been a gripping story about the search for the arsonist who burned down Alice’s home with her parents were trapped inside ends up as yawn-inducing drivel, doled out at a snail’s pace.
Purchasing Madness Returns new nets you the ability to download a gussied up version of its prequel, and doing so reveals just how much the games have in common. Alice definitely feels like an 11-year-old game — and art direction aside, so does its sequel. Madness Returns might have been awesome on the PS2, but game design has moved ahead by leaps and bounds since — there’s no room for antiquated ideas like this anymore.
Alice: Madness Returns (Spicy Horse/Electronic Arts): Xbox 360; also available for PC, PS3
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