PREVIEW: Alice:Madness Returns (Xbox 360)

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AliceHobby.jpgIt’s been ten years since the visionary American McGee turned his hand to a skewed gaming vision of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, but this summer will see us venture down the rabbit hole once more for the Xbox 360 sequel Alice: Madness Returns. We tried the game out at a recent EA preview event.

Alice’s many adventures have left her quite disturbed and delusional. Increasingly blurring the lines of reality and her imagination, a family tragedy tips Alice over the edge, urging her once again to return to Wonderland in search of answers, and nicely setting up the increasingly bizarre situations she finds herself in.

From what we’ve seen so far, Madness Returns plays out as a pretty straight action/platforming game. Alice will jump and glide around this steampunk inspired version of Wonderland, whacking foes and solving the odd puzzle. She controls well at this moment, if lacking slightly in weighted movements.

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Our first taste of Madness Returns takes place roughly half-way through the first level, with Alice exploring a floating industrial complex in the sky, in search of the Mad Hatter. Though environmental and character designs are strong (we had a particular soft-spot for the goblin-like Mad Caps), colours and textures are a bit muddy and muted for our liking. Even a dark re-imagining of Wonderland should have a little colour, if you ask us.

Combat is split between ranged and close-combat attacks, with a variety of household objects reclaimed as weaponry. Vorpal blades will have you decapitating baddies and slicing up card-suit warriors, a tea pot cannon acts as a goopy grenade launcher that smothers enemies in slime, while a pepper pot becomes a crank-loaded machine gun. You’ll also get rabbit bombs; timed explosives that can be used to lure and kill enemies. Combat overall may be Alice’s strongest point so far, with each enemy requiring careful planning to identify and strike at their weak spots.

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A key gameplay mechanic, just like in the books, is Alice’s ability to shrink. She’ll be able to get into otherwise inaccessible areas, which is often a great way of finding collectibles which usually result in a little bit of extra backstory being revealed. Shrinking also puts the world into a hazy-dream like state, in which otherwise invisible objects appear. You’ll often appear trapped high up on a platform with no obvious way to traverse a deathly gap, when hitting the shrink button will reveal an invisible ledge between. It’s a simple but effective way of splitting up the platforming sections, and we hope to see clever puzzles making the most of this mechanic in the final game.

The first American McGee Alice game was like playing Mario 64 with the Jaberwocky on acid, but in our quick preview with the sequel something seems a little…curious. While enemy design is frightful and twisted, the core gameplay mechanics haven’t progressed much over the past decade, while the gothic settings lack the fidelity or imagination for us to be fully invested in the game.

Admittedly, we’ve only seen a small portion of the game so far, but it was not quite the tea party we were hoping for. Perhaps delving a little deeper down the rabbit hole with the full game, slated for release on June 17th, will yield a little more joy.

Gerald Lynch

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