Preview: Alice: Madness Returns

A twisted take on the classic English tale Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, EA and Spicy Horse’s Alice: Madness Returns sees Wonderland in its darkest form. The game is a sequel to the 2000 cult hit, American McGee’s Alice — a title whose following has embraced fans with tattoos and a new-found love for a land they hadn’t dared thought of prior.

Madness Returns is set ten years after the events of the first game. Wonderland, a location which only exists in Alice’s mind, is her place of refuge — a place to escape the horrors of her unfortunate reality. She is, in fact, in a very oppressive London, where her only home is the insane asylum she’s been placed. Ten years prior to the events of Madness Returns, a fire took the lives of Alice’s entire family. The last remnant, Alice’s mind is plagued with survivor’s guilt. Wonderland acts as Alice’s aid in putting together the pieces of the puzzle, trying to figure out the mysteries of her past and exactly who/what caused the fire that killed her family. Notable Wonderland fame will assist in doing so, like the all-knowing Cheshire Cat!

Alice’s latest feat isn’t based solely in Wonderland, however. It’s also set in London. In Wonderland, Alice is very much like a superhero, with access to various guns, items, and abilities that she otherwise wouldn’t have access to in London. In London, as mentioned earlier, Alice is very oppressed, and while she’s not a victim, she is very passive. Wonderland allows Alice to fight back and puts her at the head of controls. London, not so much.

Alice, kicking off our showing

Starting off in Wonderland, I’m introduced to the first of Alice’s classic abilities: the shrink flower. At the edge of a cliff, Alice stood staring at what at first appeared to be a series of floating teeth (the game’s currency). After using the power of the shrink flower to miniaturize her size, the platforms that housed the floating teeth became visible, and Alice could now see where to jump. Using her double jump, the second of which wraps her legs in a swerved green swirl, she’s able to make it to each platform. Alice’s shrinking ability is sort of her own version of Assassin’s Creed‘s eagle eye. It allows her to see things that she otherwise wouldn’t be able to. On the third platform, Alice sees hidden message above the cliff wall on the side. These are messages left for Alice by the other children in the insane asylum — following their clues will lead her to collectibles like bottles, which is only ‘one of the game’s many collectibles’.

The game, it essence, is a mix of platformer, puzzler, and combat. When faced against enemies, Alice has an assortment of weapons at her disposal, all inspired from the classic English tale. Going into combat, we witnessed Alice pull out a teapot gun, which shoots out significantly big balls of explosive green goop. Then there’s the pepper grinder, which has been transformed into this sort of machine gun, shooting rounds of red pellets. The Vorpal Blade, which we should all be familiar with by now (trailers, people), is Alice’s signature weapon. Finally, there’s the hobbyhorse, which basically becomes a giant sledgehammer. In regards to grenade-like weapons, Alice also has a clockwork bomb, shaped like a white rabbit, which attracts and stun enemies; she has a detonator for it, too, which she can trigger at any time. All of Alice’s weapons can be upgraded throughout the course of the game. Of course, she doesn’t start with access to all of the mentioned offense, and we’re not sure whether or not this is the full list.

Even with a unique arsenal of weapons, combat is never complete without defense. Like her weaponry, Alice’s defensive techniques stay true to the classic. To reflect enemy projectiles, Alice has a spinning umbrella, which she’ll put out in front of her. To dodge those close-range hits, Alice can turn into a flock of blue butterflies, which will pull her away from the hit.

Each enemy has their own unique attacks and method of being defeated. One of the creatures, for example, is only vulnerable to attacks after his shield’s been broken. Alice’s weapons do not damage his shield, though. So what she needs to do is use her umbrella to reflect his fireballs back at him. Once the reflected fireballs break his shield, Alice can slice him up with her Vorpal Blade. Another enemy, the Armored Card Guard, cannot be hit from the front. Alice has to wait for him to swing, so she can then take him on from behind. Another thing to note, each Card Guard has a different suite embedded into their center; each suite has a different ability. The variety of enemies and weaknesses in the game requires Alice to use her stock of weapons in conjunction with each other. Apparently, there’s a good variety, too. The game has six domains, each with a different set of enemies, all unique in their own way.

Alice, fighting an Armored Card Guard

After Alice defeated the enemies, she recovered one of her memories. A voice is heard on-screen: “Food looms large in your dreams, Alice. But cake occupies a special place. Never rejected desert, I suspect. Nor tea, if cake was on offer.” These memories help Alice piece together the story of her reality in London. Throughout the entire game, Alice will try and solve the mystery behind the house fire, which is pretty much a murder mystery. To tell the story to its fullest, there will be actual levels set in London where she’ll play. As Alice cannot possibly play the fighter in London, the real-world levels are more about meeting the characters who know the bits and pieces surrounding this mystery. After each London level, Alice experiences some sort of psychotic break that brings her back to Wonderland.

The entire level I was demoed is actually one big chase. Alice was being followed and tormented by an ‘executioner’ card guard. At the end of the level, in a garden maze, we see him appear through the bushes and attempt to attack her. At that particular moment, the executioner is an unstoppable force — Alice’s weapons cannot harm him. The only option is to run. Sprinting for her life, Alice bumps into a cake, sitting nice-n-neat on a table, that, when eaten, causes her to grow to huge proportions. Now gigantic, Alice steps on the executioner, blood splattering all about. With that, our salivating look at the game ended.

I was left more than impressed — I wanted more. Not only does Alice boast plenty of unique gameplay elements, but its art style alone stands on its own. I’m a sucker for dark fantasy, and I know something good when I see it. Alice is brutally smashing.

“The art team has done and amazing job with the art and animation,” an EA rep told me. “They’re going very much for this painting where you just feel like you’re entering this mad, mad world. It’s not so much photo-realistic as letting the art speak for itself.

“It really looks like nothing else out there. It’s completely different from the Disney and Tim Burton [Alice adaptions].”

Alice: Madness Returns launches for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, and PC on June 14, 2011. A new set of screenshots can be seen at the gallery.

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