Alice: Madness Returns [PS3]

The follow-up to a decade-old cult classic, Alice: Madness Returns is obviously an exercise in nostalgia – but it’s not only for fans of the original.

The single most surprising thing about Madness Returns is that it’s not a vanilla third-person action game. I was quite prepared to be bored rigid by yet another manic hack and slasher, but despite its frantic combat, Spicy Horse’s revival of Wonderland is an honest-to-God, really, truly, old school platformer.

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I expect at this point half the audience have stood up and left the room, and I would have been among them. I loathe platformers, with their twitchy, pixel-perfect demands, and especially 3D platformers, which until the advent of home stereoscopic displays promised endless frustration in attempting to judge depth. But Madness Returns is genuinely joyful to play.

Games like Prince of Persia have attempted to overcome platforming’s problems with clever mechanics, and Madness Returns does likewise. Alice can double-jump up to three times in mid-air, gaining height every time, and glide for several seconds on each occasion. This soon becomes second nature, and makes for a forgiving platform experience where misjudging distance isn’t always fatal.

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It would be easy to dismiss this gentle handholding if the platforming scenarios weren’t so nail-bitingly tense. After a few short sequences of easy back-and-forth leaps Spicy Horse pulls a massive canyon out of nowhere, and from then on, your stomach will clench on almost every jump, and you’ll be leaning this way and that, possibly gibbering a little in terror.

Although the punishment for failed jumps isn’t too fierce – you’ll rarely have to backtrack very far, and Alice re-spawns almost instantly if killed – the level designers have done such an excellent job of creating tension that those inclined to vertigo may want to avoid playing – or even spectating.

Some of this has to do with the scale and hazard of the environment – a level in which the paper-thin platforms float in a completely empty space, with the ground a distant haze beneath you, or another filled with rusty nail spike pits, are good examples. Although objectively there’s nothing more unpleasant about one type of failure as another, you won’t remember that when you’re picking you way across the card bridge.

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Alice’s other party trick – shrinking – is also apparently designed to make you quake. When in shrink mode, Alice can fit through narrow gaps – but she can also see markings and objects etched in chalk, which are otherwise invisible. A great many of these hidden items are platforms, and as most of them move and Alice is unable to jump while in shrink mode, you’ll do a great deal of faith leaping. Possibly throwing up in anxiety.

There’s a fair few instances of puzzle solving, where Alice must navigate timed switches and discover hidden routes, but none of them are so hard you’ll give up in disgust. Although the platforming is definitely challenging, it’s not beyond the reach of most players, and you’ll rarely get stuck. A few small errors with collision detection see Alice occasionally unable to surmount small changes in level, but this is relatively infrequent.

This all makes for excellent and genuinely refreshing nostalgic fun, even for hardened platform haters like myself, which is why it’s a little disappointing that other areas of the game don’t quite live up to it.

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The combat, which is spread out and relatively infrequent, is mostly a matter of figuring out which weapon to use when and on what. Things are at their most difficult in crowds when you’re in danger of falling, but even so, spamming the dodge button and strafing will get you through almost any situation. On the higher difficulties, the enemy’s attacks become cheaply powerful but they don’t get any more intelligent.

The two main action streams are broken up by a variety of short sequences. Puzzles, into-the-screen slide sequences, and some side-scrolling platforming are among the delights on offer; I won’t spoil your discoveries by saying more.

Unfortunately, the timing and position of these sequences often feels a bit arbitrary and jarring. In fact, Madness Returns, while rapid and unceasing, is disconcertingly badly-paced, switching back and forth between different modes with little structure. It feels like a large number of small groups of people went ahead and made a series of variously-sized modules individually, then came back and cobbled it into a whole. You can see the stitches, and some of the stuffing is leaking out. It’s not pretty.

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In a similar vein, the story is a bit of a hodge-podge. The decision to communicate most of the plot through optional collectibles means some players, rushing through, will find the revelation about two thirds of the way through a complete slap in the face. Taking the time to explore yields a more fluid storyline, thankfully.

The voice acting is a bit of a let-down, too – or perhaps it’s the editing. Some of the cast are superb – the Carpenter and the Cheshire Cat are particularly good – but Alice sounds like a pantomime character, reading lines to children in a condescending chirrup. Again, pacing’s a problem – lines that would have had tremendous impact delivered slowly are squashed into too-brief cinematics and matched with unsuitable animations. Much of the gravity and humour of the excellent writing is thereby lost, and that’s a genuine shame.

On the upside, Madness Returns is certainly good bang for your buck. Each level seems to go for approximately forever and another week, but beautiful and varied design rewards progress, so it doesn’t feel too bad. It’s a shame that most of the least interesting levels kick off the game, but even in these early chapters, there’re at least two to three distinct areas to refresh your jaded eye.

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It’s actually kind of shame that there’s not more to do in the wonderful environments Spicy Horse has created, because wandering around in them is a genuine delight. It’s rare to see a game pay so much attention to detail, and yet hold so little inclination to use it for anything. Apart from rounding out your collections, there’s little reason to revisit the gorgeous designs.

I did notice some graphical problems when entering new areas, with textures lagging a moment behind other assets and loading in slowly. Otherwise, loading times were extremely good, and much better than I experienced on a preview Xbox 360 build. (If you’re using an Xbox 360, you might want to consider a full install to speed things up.)

If you’re a fan of dark fantasy, you’ll find a lot to love in Alice: Madness Returns. If you’re looking for a break from the generic action fare filling shelves at the moment, you’ll be equally pleased. Just don’t go in looking for blockbuster polish, or with the expectation of playing any kind of game that doesn’t involve jumping back and forth for eight hours.

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