Too busy to devote 12+ hours a day to your gaming habit? Here's a review that's sensitive to your needs: Short and focused on just the things that a busy gamer like you really needs to know.
Reviewed On: Xbox 360. Also available for PlayStation 3 and PC.
In a Nutshell: A twisted platformer with some serious combat, set in a nightmarish Wonderland. The game picks up where America McGee's Alice left off in 2000. A house fire has claimed the lives of several, including Alice's beloved sister. Convinced she caused the fire, Alice spirals into a mental shutdown that transforms Wonderland into a toxic hellhole. Alice bounces between Victorian era London and this new Wonderland, trying to recapture her sanity and save her home away from home.
Alice is once again guided by the Cheshire Cat, who appears periodically to drop mad Zen master grooves that would be right at home in an episode of the old Kung Fu series from the '70s. Each level is a platforming paradise (or hell, if we're being honest here) based on an iconic Alice character (Caterpillar, White Rabbit, Mad Hatter, etc.). Alice alternates between visits to London, trips to Wonderland and flashbacks to what happened that terrible night.
Learning Curve: A love of platforming is absolutely necessary to survive. There is little learning on the job here: Not only must you plan your jumps, you will be jumping onto invisible platforms (made briefly visible using "intuition"), shifting in space and losing the ground beneath you without warning. You will die. A lot. The weapons selections include some devilishly clever takes on items from Alice's world – but really, it's just guns and melee. If you can aim and hit the button, you can defeat the enemies.
Navigating the game is generally easy. Alice's "intuition" reveals those invisible platforms, pathways and key doors plus blunt hints ("Go this way") written on walls and the ground. There are numerous hidden paths, doors and alternate locales to explore. Too bad these are blocked the second you enter the next section of a world. I missed out on many side trips because I couldn't tell which path was the main quest and which would lead me to hidden treasures.
It is a testament to the beauty of Alice, and the quality of the story (if not the writing itself) that I finished the game at all.
The Save Game: One of the worst save systems for busy gamers. You get one save, and it is entirely auto-save. The time between save points can be absolutely brutal: My worst experience was more than an hour between saves! The average seemed to be about 20 to 30 minutes, assuming you cruise through without any issues. Not bad, you say? It is if the game freezes at the 19 to 29 minute mark, or the game glitches and you can't proceed. Both happened to me, forcing me to restart from the last load. Had something corrupted my save file, I would have had to start the entire game over. Inexcusable.
Family Factor: Teens and more mature tweens will be able to handle it, but younger children will be horrified by the gory imagery and scary monsters. The London scenes include some language (mostly British profanity) and references to prostitution. There are some bare-breasted statues in a later Wonderland level.
Buy, Rent or Skip? Rent first and play at least three levels. If you get through three visits to Wonderland and are willing to keep going, look for a sale copy. $60 is simply unreasonable for a game that will not let you save anywhere, and that many will abandon around level 6.
On a Personal Note: I was a huge fan of America McGee's Alice on PC, but had to quit playing when my game glitched and I couldn't find my way out of an invisible area. Fool me once, right? I still have my original Alice and Cheshire cat figurines that Gamewatcher gave me all those years ago. So to say I was excited for this game is an understatement. Don't get me wrong – I did genuinely love Madness Returns. But I also felt disappointed that so many things that were wrong the first go-round simply weren't addressed in the sequel.
Every level is designed with a signature look that while not unique – you're still running/jumping/fighting – do keep the game fresh. Sadly, the truly breathtaking stuff is saved for the last few levels. Yes, the earlier ones are generally pretty cool. But when you reach the Queen of Hearts, you'll see what game designers can do when they put their heart and soul into it.
Unfortunately, many will never reach that point due to some lopsided, occasionally punishing gameplay and one of the poorest save schemes ever (detailed above). I breezed through some levels and had a splendid time, only to find myself trapped in an endless loop of pain in the next. A smattering of mini-games in various genres (rhythm game, Galaga-like sea odyssey, and what appears to be a Braid knock-off) felt random and added little to the title.
Console players can download and play the original Alice when the game disc is in the console using a code provided with new copies. NOTE: It is not being offered separately at this time, so don't buy the "add-on" unless you have a secondhand copy of the game! I actually dove into the the original Alice on Xbox 360 with great anticipation and realized... well, Alice wasn't the only one who's lost her mind. Maybe I've been spoiled by modern games, or maybe nostalgia is a fickle beast. Either way, I barely got 20 minutes into the original before I gave up and switched to the sequel. Sometimes, maintaining sanity means avoiding madness.
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