The semi-sequel to American McGee's Alice arrived last week. A timely return to a gothic wonderland, or is too late, too late for a very important date with our hard drives? Come on, down the rabbit hole with you and let's find out...
Alice 2 is, I think, pretty much what an only casual observer of videogames believes almost all videogames are like. Mad monsters, lurid colours, cartoonish characters, slightly unconvincing voicework, a steady diet of jumping and thumping… Alice could be The Videogame incarnate, evoking so many of the tried and tested values and mechanics that have come, gone and repeatedly come back again over the last couple of decades, and in theory polishing them into a fantastical sheen you could see your own distorted face in. If someone showed me this game out of context, I’d have a very hard time guessing when it was released. 2011? Maybe. 2007? Quite possibly. 2001? Turn those visuals down low and yeah, this could have been a launch title for the original Xbox or Dreamcast or something. This is not necessarily a criticism.
Given mainstream gaming is so resolutely charging towards grim, painfully po-faced military shooters, there’s a whole lot of room for a determinedly colourful throwback like Alice: Madness Returns. This action adventure is nominally a sequel to 90s PC game American McGee’s Alice, a Tim Burtony reimagining of Alice In Wonderland (but one that predates Burton’s actual, rather more sugary take) but there is absolutely zero requirement to have played the first game. You know what Alice in Wonderland is about, right? There you go.
This Alice is grown-up and half-mad following her adventures in Wonderland and a childhood accident that killed her parents. From there, the game’s a series of encounters with Wonderland’s most famed denizens, redesigned as deformed, leering and sinister. Some familiar characters have turned to active evil, but even the helpful ones are menacing and obsessed with their own self-serving agendas, as well as getting their creepy faces all up in yours. The weapons, too, blend the familiar with the outlandish: a pepper-grinding cannon, a rocking horse head performing the warhammer role... You know what they do perfectly well, but it all adds to the sense of being somewhere appropriately unhinged.
It’s a wonderful world to look at, rich in visual imagination and unsettling strangeness. The artists are clearly steering Alice’s dark ship, switching between different styles and palettes every few hours, and able to make even the feyest of technicolour fairylands palpably unnerving. Oddly, richest of all is the ‘real’ world, a grimy Victorian London which a down’n’out Alice roams between her mental downward spirals into Wonderland. Washed out and grey, it might only be occupied by humans, but they’re the game’s most fearsome-looking creatures. Bloated and monstrous, they first draw and then repel the eye with equal strength. These London scenes are an absolute treat to look at - but almost entirely devoid of interaction, instead being essentially cutscenes you can run through. Despite being so devoutly different to the game proper, this speaks to the same downfall: the world seems to have been designed first, then a game squeezed often inelegantly into it.
For its first couple of hours, Alice successfully hides its major faults. It’s like visiting a house you’re thinking of buying - every time you start to notice a suspicious stain on the ceiling or get a whiff of something rotting behind a cupboard door, it distracts you with something new and wonderful. “And look at these delightful bathroom fittings! No, no, there’s nothing behind the skirting board - but aren’t these designer radiators just darling?”
Early Alice is a carnival of imagination. Arachnid, cyclopean teapots; doll-faced tar-hulks with beefy porcelain arms; winged pig-snouts which reveal secrets when peppered with, well, your giant pepper-grinder cannon; invisible roads and keyhole doors only discovered by shrinking Alice grasshopper-high. It aims to surprise and delight, and surprise and delight it does.
And then it goes on. And on. And on. New sights appear alongside the recycled, but after around three hours the dread realisation creeps in: they are only sights. Behind them, there’s just the same handful of actions repeated. The jumping challenge, the side-on jumping challenge, the thumping’n’shooting challenge, the remote controlled bomb challenge, the find all the secret areas challenge. Drawn out and spun out over far too many hours, what’s actually on offer behind the theme park scenery is too sparse to sustain the bizarre, 15-20 hour length of the game. It’s a platformer first and foremost, but a pretty humdrum one: neither easy or difficult, but simply a forgettable, repeating, sometimes irritating middleground. It does seem to realise this to some extent, as it largely has you instantly respawn just before a failed jump rather than making retread long minutes’ worth of bouncy mushrooms and floating rocks.
It’s a different matter if you die in a fight. Following Alice’s pretty dissolution into a cloud of butterflies, it’s back to wherever the last checkpoint was. Generally speaking it’s not too imbecilic about this, but once in a while it’ll ping you back far too far, forcing you to repeat some long, irksome jumping puzzle, leaving you with the cold, sweaty fear of failing the fight a second time and having to go through all of this again. This kind of cruel design is admittedly relatively rare (and a couple of times, dying even saw me respawn past whatever foe had been giving me a hard time) but it highlights just how much filler is in the game.
That’s the big problem, the fracture at the heart of Alice’s appealing infrastructure that spreads and spreads and eventually collapses as more weight is heaped upon it. It has more visual variety than about a dozen of its peers, but underneath that it’s a formulaic, flair-free jumping and fighting game, stretched out so far that Alice’s won’t be the only sanity under threat. A few more weapons and weapon upgrades come along eventually, but their efficacy and thrill doesn’t justify the wearying journey to them.
My motivation to keep going was only to see what it might paint upon my monitor next, not because I craved any more jumpy-stabby. I prayed for jumpy-stabby to stop, in fact. “Just show me the next zone! Unlock Alice’s next dress! I just want to see, I don’t want to play anymore!” That’s what I’d have cried at my PC, were there not someone in the room at the time. What I actually cried was “oh you bast… oh for fuuu… oh not again” and unrepeatable variations upon a theme, as I strove just to get through it. In a great many ways, it's doing what Psychonauts did, and that's what drew me to it so much in those early hours, but sadly its spirit just isn't the wild equal of its superficial madness.
What began as a delight ended as a chore. Tightened down to 6 or 8 hours Alice would have stayed a convincing wonderland, but it’s hard not to suspect that someone just wanted to make the best or even just get their money’s worth out of all that remarkable art. Less curiouser and curiouser, more like averager and averager.