Monday, November 14, 2011

In Which Thaddeus Attempts, and Likely Fails, To Measure Madness

Welcome to Wonderland
Today, we'll be looking into another sequel, though one not nearly as critically acclaimed, for either the precedent or the sequel, as Batman's latest outing.  Alice: Madness Returns is the sequel to the released-in-2000 cult favourite American McGee's Alice, though often merely in story conceit and design.  It takes place some time after the first game's deliriously happy and somewhat anti-climactic ending - Alice Liddel, now sporting a last name, is in the care of an orphanage run by the noted Dr. Bumby.  Of course, it turns out that she never really got over her family's death as related in the first game, the first of many sort of retcons Madness likes to sprinkle throughout its ten hours.  Soon enough, she finds herself back in Wonderland, less twisted than the first game but now sporting oil and machine chimeras known as Ruin mucking everything up.

Paint A Beautiful Canvas
The first thing most people notice about Madness is that it is a beautifully REALIZED game.  Every level has a cohesive and beautiful style, from an idealized Asian mountain to a wonderfully steampunk castle, that informs everything from enemies to Alice's wardrobe.  The graphics themselves are also quite good, especially Alice's hair, though there is a bit of texture pop-in that appears to be endemic to Unreal Engine games.  In addition to Wonderland's bizarre and wholly unique settings, the slums of London, visited in between areas of Wonderland, are brown, drab, brown, dull and off-putting; unlike most games of this generation, this effect is intentional and helps contrast brilliantly with Madness' mindscapes.

Forgetting Pain is Convenient
Of course, an absolutely amazing and fully realized art style isn't enough to carry a game by itself.  Sadly, the gameplay of Madness is fairly mundane and bare-bones.  You have access to all of Alice's out of combat maneuvers virtually right out of the box - shrinking is the only move you don't start with and it takes roughly five minutes to gain it - and there are only four weapons, a dodge, and a utility bomb to use in combat.  Hopefully, you really enjoy triple jumps, gliding, hovering on vents and weighing down switches because boy-oh-boy are you going to be doing that a LOT.  None of it is bad or particularly glitchy, the controls are incredibly competent, and level progression is usually fairly straightforward, it's just all quite same-y.

There is a fairly diverse rogues gallery to slash, crush, explode and season (don't ask) your way through in between the many platforming sections.  Aside from the ubiquitous Ruins plundering their way through Alice's world, each level has its own thematically appropriate enemies.  Most enemy encounters are actually quite fun to play through, mixing foes with dramatically different weak points and strategies, but they eventually suffer from the same malaise as platforming.  A few of the later levels, the second to last in particular, start to drag out as well, sometimes taking an hour or two to beat.

Different denotes neither Bad nor Good
The most important issue for a lot of people, and most of the people who actually remember the first game, is how well does Madness hold up against McGee's original.  I'm happy to say that in every respect, outside of a reduced total number of weapons, Madness is clearly superior.  It takes the story threads from the first game's incredibly loose plot and runs with them, crafting a much more interesting tale topped with a great ambiguous ending.  My sole complaint in the story department is that Madness spends so much time at the start basically recapping the first game's backstory - most of the first three levels, in fact - that it takes a bit too long to get to the interesting parts.
NOTE: If you're an American McGee purist, should such a thing exist, you may take umbrage with some of the retcons and personality 180s.  I doubt anyone else will notice or care.

Both combat, now a fluid and melee-oriented affair, and platforming, now with multiple jumps and gliding, are lightyears ahead of the original.  Level design is less abstract, but also far less maze-and-fake-door-happy, resulting in a much better experience.  Even the art style itself takes cues from the last game while expanding on them, with a particularly inspired take on Queensland being one of the most atmospheric levels in the game.

In Conclusion
Madness is a strange, strange beast.  Despite all the problems I had with it, I very much enjoyed my playthroughs.  It is one of those games that is strong enough in at least one field, art design in this case, that it buoys up the entire experience.  The plot, though initially anemic and reminiscent of McGee's Alice, does blossom into a wholly interesting flower of its own and comes to a satisfying conclusion.  If you are willing or capable of dealing with some uninspired - though thoroughly competent - gameplay, or have severe nostalgia for the first game, then I highly recommend picking up a copy of Madness.  For everyone else, it's definitely worth a rental.

6.5/10 - Recommended, with Caveats

Explanation for Score: 10 - 2 for generic, sometimes boring gameplay - 0.5 for slow plot burn - 1 for grade school level "puzzles".

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