Returning to Alice's Madness

Confession time; I had a soft spot for American McGee's Alice, a 3D platformer I played back on my PowerBook back in the post-Myth, pre-Halo era. Bungie had just abandoned the Mac gaming scene and entered the embrace fo Microsoft, in order to influence and promote the Xbox platform, and there was not a lot that I could play on the limited Mac hardware I owned. I did not want to build a Windows rig just for gaming.

There's also the appeal of the (superficially, at least) literary theme. So there's no doubt that nostalgia played a role in my decision to get Alice: Madness Returns for the Xbox 360, a sequel to that game that also included a code to download a port of the original.

Less Than Zero Punctuation

Yahtzee makes a number of excellent points in his Zero Punctuation review of the new game, but I thought I'd follow up on just a few and perhaps put in a few good words for a game that I've had a good deal of fun playing in the past couple of weeks.

The first dig comes at the cutscenes, which in the game are split between using the game's own 3D engine and the in-game models, and a second, sometimes longer set using 2D animation in a completely different style. Often you'll get a short 3D cutscene, followed by a longer 2D cutscene, and then another short 3D cutscene. It's jarring, to say the least, and not in a good way. I've no idea if it's true, as Yahtzee seems to suggest, that this was just a cheap way of making longer cutscenes. Those cutscenes aren't bad, in my opinion, it's just that the mix doesn't work well. I think it'd been better off with just choosing one style or another.

American McGee's Alice By American McGee

The next dig comes at American McGee himself, as a developer who puts his own name on his games, as a guy named "American" who currently develops his games in China, and being an iD software alum who makes games that aren't as good or important as the games iD software used to make. To me, it's not much criticism to say that a game isn't as good or important as what iD software used to make, because the same is true of iD software itself these days, and to lump Alice in with Daikatana I think is uncharitable. I played the Daikatana demo when it came out, and I recently watched a playthrough of it, and there's simply nothing in either Alice game that is as boring or ugly as any given level of Daikatana.

The game also gets taken to task for being one of these "edgier, darker" remakes of something that actually was pretty dark and edgy in its original form. That's very true, but I don't think the touchstone for most people when it comes to Alice in Wonderland is the original texts or illustrations, which are indeed dark, disturbing, and not so much for children as about one. What the game has made darker and edgier is Disney's 1951 sanitization of Alice in Wonderland, and Alice's default Wonderland costume in the game is the blue dress with the white ribbon from Disney's color version of the story.

Irrational, More Or Less

There are places, of course, where the new game's story falls flat. Yahtzee alleges that you can swap all the characters' cutscene dialogue without having things make any less (or indeed any more) sense and that's not so much untrue as it is an exaggeration. I do think the game makes the mistake of trying to portray mental instability by not often making no sense as a work. I honestly believe that a work actually needs to be more rational, not less, especially in its structure, in order to portray mental instability, otherwise all you're really left with is a series of conversations where characters talk past each other and not really with each other-- which makes even less sense in Wonderland than anywhere else, because this is where Alice is essentially talking to manifestations of her own consciousness. When Alice doesn't understand what is said to her, it has to be because she doesn't want to accept something that is disturbing, not because what was said to her was nonsensical; she has to refuse to want to see the sense in it.

Eat Me, I'm Eye Candy

Having acknowledged and contextualized some of the game's flaws, I'd say that artistically, it's beautiful. Environments are wonderfully detailed and varied, and while there are certainly some bleak areas that give Gears of War a run for its monochromatic money, those areas are used for effect and don't form the bulk of the game.

The use of weapons and controls is wonderfully economical, and doled out over the course of the game, so that even pretty deep in, when you get the last new weapon, it changes the way you play. Some weapons have more than one use, and some are purely defensive. Adding the new elements in over time, instead of all at once, means that unlike other games that rely on a large stable of moves and combinations, you're never overwhelmed by a series of new inputs you have to master, and even when you're almost done with the game there can be new combinations. Combinations are less long sequenecs of button presses you have to memorize like a Konami code, and more just a logical assemblage of simple moves you already know and use in order to achieve a given result-- usually coping with a group of enemies that have overlapping strengths and weaknesses.

It might have been very tempting for the game to build its bestiary by stacking: just introducing more and more new enemies, so that by the end you're fighting examples of everything you've ever faced. It might have been easier still to Diabloize the process by introducing color variations. Madness Returns doesn't do that, ever. Variations in enemy type and appearance are always accompanied by significant changes in behavior, as well, and while there's a whole class of "Ruin" type enemies that appear in every stage, stages also have unique enemy types that aren't generally seen anywhere else: the Madcaps and Eyepots of the initial chapter, the wasps of the Caterpillar's domain, and the monstrous dolls of the penultimate sequence.

For those in the OCD crowd, the game is actually teeming with collectibles of various kinds, and the game politely keeps track of your progress in each of these categories by chapter if you want to replay portions of the game just to find some your missing. There are pig snouts to pepper (for the Duchess, of course) that reveal hidden goodies or pathways; some are mandatory, some are optional. There are memories to recover-- audio snippets of various characters from Alice's life in the real world, that you would think were actually the ultimate goal of the game, given who the ultimate bad guy turns out to be-- but are actually just optional collectibles. There are also messages in bottles to collect, and all these things unlock additional content in the main menu.

Once you've completed the scenario once, you can replay it with the now-common New Game+ feature, taking your collected and upgraded weapons back into the game, at the same difficulty level or higher, now able to use all the weapons at their highest strengths right from the start.

I didn't collect everything the game has to offer, and I probably won't, although I did go back to chase after a few of the low-hanging fruit of which I had missed-- and that's not a metaphor, as one sequence contains some 2D sidescrolling platform sequences in which you collect peaches.

That brings up another point in the game's favor, which is a great variety. For the most part, it's a combat-heavy, puzzle-light 3D platformer, but every once in awhile it throws in a few extra elements: some rhythm minigames, some picture puzzles, some puzzles that are almost, but not entirely unlike chess, some 2D platforming and some 3D, marble-madness type sequences that are easily the most maddening thing in the game.

If you enjoyed the first Alice game and remember it fondly, there'll be a lot to like here. If you're a gamer that can tolerate platforming, but doesn't adore it, and would prefer to have it mixed in with knifing lumbering, demonic playing cards in the back rather than stomping on turtles, give it a look.