Alice: Madness Returns is an unlikely sequel to the 2000 cult-classic, American McGee’s Alice. I call it unlikely for a few reasons. The original was not a commercial success. EA had released a sequel 11 years after the original, and the very concept of these pair of Alice games existing in the first place is kind of absurd. Essentially this Alice duo presents a darker, twisted take on Lewis Carroll’s iconic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland books.
EA’s Alice games use the same iconography, characters and stories from Carroll’s books and twists them to an almost unrecognisable extent. Teapots, playing cards and the denizens of Wonderland have all been contorted grotesquely and it is a delight. Madness Returns particularly deserves praise for its eye-catching presentation. The epic landscapes in the background; the fantasy critters drenched in blood; the way the camera zooms in to add drama during combat, Madness Returns is always interesting to look at.
This is especially true because of the game’s Victorian-era inspirations too. In EA’s games, Alice’s reality penetrates the magical land of Wonderland, making her trip more of a hallucinatory journey through her psyche. The story breaks up levels in Wonderland with trips back to reality in Victorian-era London which is grey, industrial and depressing. Here, Alice deals with the trauma of a fire that killed her family while also being tormented by her mental health. These are purely story-based, walk-about sections to break-up the fighting, jumping and exploring that makes up the majority of Alice’s adventures.
In Wonderland, Alice’s real life trauma invades Wonderland where a dark corruption poisons a once beautiful fairy world. It’s up to Alice to unravel the mysteries of both her worlds but the story really isn’t the highlight here. Alice’s struggle is interesting and works enough to give context to the world. But none of the characters do enough to be memorable, including Alice. She fares well when put up against other drab protagonists from the 360 generation but she’s really a non-character. The game also doesn’t confront mental illness to say anything interesting about it, like Hellblade or Psychonauts. It almost feels like mental illness is used more for an aesthetic in EA’s games.
In terms of gameplay, Madness Returns channels Nier: Automata, randomly leaping between genres and perspectives. Platforming and combat take up the majority of Alice’s playtime and both are endearing, if a little flawed. Platforming is serviceable; it’s not always clear where you’ll land or how far you’ll get with a jump since Alice doesn’t move with the weight of Banjo or Mario. Alice’s glide ability doesn’t move half as fast as it should which further adds to the confusion about landing and distance between platforms.
So, most of the challenge comes from grappling with the game’s controls and movement, rather than the level design pushing back on you. Regardless, the levels are always so creative and visually striking that it’s never a chore to move around them, no matter the circumstances. It’s just a shame that invisible walls are so common since it makes Wonderland’s imaginative levels feel far more restrictive.
Combat fares a little better, especially in 2021’s climate of action/adventure obsession. It mostly consists of close quarters scrambles with an assortment of enemies that force you to play in different ways by cycling weapons on the go. For example, the Teapot Cannon fires missiles that are handy when it comes to crowd control. An umbrella is always at the ready to parry attacks or reflect enemy projectiles, as well as a quick dodge to strafe around enemies thanks to the game’s Zelda-like lock-on.
Thanks to Alice’s responsive controls during combat, weapons that force you to change tactics ensure combat remains fun every time you rip apart monster playing cards. I’d love to see how Wonderland’s style would translate to the over-the-top action of Bayonetta.
However, earlier I made reference to Nier: Automata, and that’s because Madness Returns’ platforming and action is broken up by other weird detours. These include a 2D ship defence section and an area where Alice is suddenly a giant, stomping through swarms of enemies. It has the kind of genre-hopping tendencies that AAA games don’t have any more, and that EA would never dream of making anymore.
Ultimately, Alice: Madness Returns is a little bit mad. Its visual design is bonkers, its genre-hopping is refreshing and frantic and its story is all about Alice’s madness. There is so much to love about Madness Returns despite the rough edges around gameplay, story and level design. Madness Returns is endearing, fun and always interesting to look at. We can only hope Lewis Carroll’s fantastical Wonderland gets another big budget adaptation in video game form, because it would be a sight to behold.
But what are your thoughts on Alice: Madness Returns? Let us know how you got on with the game by posting in the comments. And if you haven’t yet picked the game up, the Xbox Store will cover what you need.