Ever since it was first published in 1865, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland has been open to dark interpretation, and there have been many throughout the years from any number of artists, writers and filmmakers.
Tim Burton’s 2010 (supposedly) dark take on Alice is probably the best known of the less wholesome versions of the story, but that and all others really pale in comparison to the one that appeared on PC a decade earlier, courtesy of American McGee.
His game, Alice, followed a version of Carroll’s protagonist who is committed to an insane asylum after experiencing a family tragedy. While in treatment, she explores a corrupted, treacherous version of Wonderland, a manifestation of her broken mindscape (or is it?). It was well received and became an instant cult hit, but was maybe too esoteric to be embraced any further than that.
In 2011, McGee brought his interpretation of Wonderland back, this time for the Xbox 360, in Alice: Madness Returns.
If you played the first game, it will feel like jumping straight back in when you start Madness Returns. If you haven’t, then it’s story can be enjoyed independently of its predecessor and it’s an easy game to get into.
Madness Returns finds Alice having been released from the asylum but summoned back to Wonderland, which is being corrupted by an outside force – here taking the form of the unstoppable, speeding Infernal Train.
The narrative then jumps back and forth between Wonderland and the real world, as Alice tries to piece together the mystery of her past that is causing her mental state as well as the chaos in Wonderland. The game’s compelling, mysterious and at times uncompromising story, which builds to a well-constructed resolution, is what draws you in and makes you want to see the game to its conclusion.
The first thing you will notice about Madness Returns is that it’s gorgeous – the locations are beautifully detailed and stylized, with a great use of colour and attention to detail, including the ones set in the real world. Even though it has an air of menace from the start, it’s a magnificent place to experience.
After completing the opening stage set in Wonderland, you then get to explore the equally stunning outlying worlds created especially for the game: a sunken ship village inhabited by anthropomorphic sea life, an insect-strewn landscape inspired by eastern Asia and a village made of discarded toys.
As you progress you also get to meet the game’s twisted interpretations of the Carroll characters; the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, the Caterpillar, the Walrus and the Carpenter. There are also plenty of grotesque enemies of the game’s own creation, the most horrendous of all being the final boss, the Dollmaker.
As for the gameplay, it’s a straightforward hybrid of platformer and hack-and-slash. Each area’s set up is that of crossing the landscape to reach an end goal, with intermittent enemy hordes to defeat. These enemies range from flying blobs with baby faces to mechanised teapots to ghouls marked with playing card insignia. These enemies can be dispatched with one of four weapons: a vorpal blade, a hobby horse, a pepper grinder and teapot cannon. Only certain enemies are affected by certain weapons, though.
This is what ended up earning Madness Returns mixed reviews on release, that given the game’s visual ambition more original gameplay could have been in order, as well as criticisms of levels lasting for too long.
The latter may be true, but on the other hand that gives you more time to admire the game’s artistry. Exploring the world also has advantages beyond that: there are plenty of hidden items to find, accessible only by using Alice’s shrink sense, which shows hidden paths and otherwise unreachable areas. Some of these collectables reveal more of the story and shine a bigger light on the depth and attention to the game’s lore.
McGee has since launched crowd-funding campaigns to help make future sequels, which met their goals. It’s great to see this property might be seen again in another form one day, but Madness Returns has plenty going for it and deserves to be seen on its own merits.
Alice: Madness Returns isn’t the most innovative of games, but there is a lot that it does right, and while its mechanics are short on originality, on a visual level there is no other game like it – it’s certainly one of the most underappreciated backward compatible games on Xbox. It might be too much for some and not without its problems, but it is so well crafted is that its flaws can be forgiven.
In a medium dominated by big-budget games from established studios, made by committee with huge resources at their disposal, it’s great to see an undiluted singular vision get the same mainstream treatment. That’s precisely the case with Alice: Madness Returns.