What draws you towards a game? Is it word of mouth, stirred by those around you? Is it a follow-up to an old favourite, reimagined and rejuvenated? Or possibly a cheeky marketing campaign that means you can resist no longer?
But what about the look? Not in terms of polygon pushing or uncanny valleys, but wrapping itself up so tightly in a style that you are compelled to see what lies around each and every corner, no matter the game itself.
Alice: Madness Returns did that to me. Early screenshots depicted dank Victorian streets, brightly coloured Wonderlands and the ruin which Alice’s mind had since wrought upon them. They were packed with detail and subtleties that drew my eye, and the final product’s artistic direction easily meets my expectations.
The London street you initially wander through does the Unreal Engine on which it runs proud. Not a drop of colour can be seen, with dirt and squalor positively exuding from the screen. Citizens chatter as you pass, road workers replace cobbles and streetwalkers ply their trade. It’s a bustling recreation of yesteryear with smoky chimneys filling the skyline for as far as the eye can see.
As you pass into Wonderland for first time, the contrast could not be more striking, as bright greens and blues replace the sober palette as plant life towers above you. Though what captivates the vision most are the hosts of extra features that make it more than any other rendered forests you may have seen. Giant snails peer through the foliage, waving their eyestalks as you pass; autumnal glades are visible through the trunks of trees; and towering stone statues of Alice herself cry into being distant streams. In amongst the dominos and marbles that clutter her mind, the local fauna even plays a part with cowbirds and insects filling the air.
It’s a visual treat that continues throughout your exploration of Wonderland. Taking in the industrial floating teapot industries that are the domain of the Hatter, through to the rather literal interpretation of the Queen of Hearts, each region allows the artists new scope to pack the surroundings with treats.
Part of the spectacle comes from the floating nature of the land, made up of countless islands apparently quite content to hang in space. With the world stretching out not only in front but underneath you, the sense of scale is vast and does call in to question whether Alice has permanently succumbed to the “Drink Me” bottle.
These platforms also handily help form half of game’s main compulsion. Being a nimble girl, Alice catapults off spring-loaded toadstools and slowly glides down, using her skirt as a makeshift parachute, allowing her to cross wide gaps and scale heights normally beyond the capacity of someone dressed in a blue pinny.
Although a simple trick, her ability to float such distances always left that margin for error that caused even the most simple of traversals could end horribly. Indeed, even without consideration for floating islands, including the large gushing vents offering columns of steam to ride on and precarious moving bridges, most of your time is spent centimetres from a very large drop.
Though not unenjoyable, the repetitive nature of the platforming is its downfall. Most elements are introduced exceedingly early, leading to weariness several hours in. Long sections of unchallenging floating and bouncing seems injected for nothing more than padding to expand the game’s duration. At times neither challenge, variety nor enthusiasm met me, leading to only the hope of spying something incredible around the corner to push me on.
Combat does go some way to break up the monotony as Wonderland turns against its creator. From small, disturbing creatures covered in dolls heads, to zombie playing cards and samurai wasps, your opponents are as varied as they levels they inhabit. Armed with a mix of ranged and close-combat weaponry, tussles can be what you want to make of them, although each enemy tends to have its own pattern and weakness to exploit.
Continuing the artist merit, even Alice’s dodge sees her evaporate into a cloud of butterflies before reforming a safe distance away. Using this move to dash towards and slice a giant doll with your Vorpal blade, before dodging her hammer blow only to shell her with a mortar made from the finest Darjeeling, adds a certain amount of elegance to the brutality.
Battles are no picnic, and so frustratingly the aspect that has the greatest habit of turning the tide against you is the camera. Locking on to focus on a single enemy is a common feature but here the focal point is far too close, and the insistence on creating a dramatic one-on-one view over any semblance of peripheral vision sees you at greater risk of being picked off by secondary concerns rather than your main target.
Though certain aspects of design show signs of being out of touch with current ideals of gaming, Alice’s ability to shrink at will offers the game a level of redemption. Whilst tiny she can she platforms that are otherwise invisible to the naked eye and Wonderland graffiti offering pointers to the numerous collectibles scattered throughout the land.
Mixing the standard sections with these hidden pink walkways adds a degree of variety and challenge that isn’t touched upon until the closing stages. Certainly, they and the stylings of the final level bring Madness Returns back from what had been several hours of tedium. That midpoint is punctuated with a series of 2D platforming, rhythm action and bizarre Marble Madness tributes, but their inclusion is almost baffling at times and most outstay their welcome. The injection of such mismatched distractions is apparent proof alone that Spicy Horse knew that the core platforming element was repetitive and derivative and yet wanted any way to break that experience up.
The simple solution would have not being so intent on creating such a lengthy game. With chapters taking almost three hours to complete, their ideas become stale. In shorter bursts I have no doubt that my apathy towards navigating yet another set of floating islands via steam pipes wouldn’t have surfaced so readily. The shame of all this is that, as hinted, the final couple of chapters are among the best but are so far in that they will be lost to most.
And so we come do a verdict of, for the most part, style over substance. As talented as the art department may have been in producing some elegant cinematics and the most wondrous settings for an adventure that has graced my television, they have been let down by a game director that lacked pacing.