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Review: Alice: Madness Returns
At a Glance
|ESRB Rating:||M - Mature Audiences|
|My Rating:||Adults - 18+|
|Genre:||Hack 'n Slash / 3D Platformer|
|Review Published On:||March 27th, 2017|
Once you reach a checkpoint, the game will automatically save for you. While this is the only way to record your progress, checkpoints are really easy to find.
There is some really serious stuff to be concerned about with this title. Gore and violence are plentiful, but the biggest offender involves one of the worst things a person can do to a child.
As the use of the word "returns" in the title implies, this is the second game from the Alice franchise. However, due to technical difficulties and a lack of online distribution, it's very hard to get a copy of the first game, and even harder to get it to work on modern systems. Fortunately, Madness Returns stands on its own. Any backstory you need to know is provided by the story itself. There is also a section in the Extra Content menu that provides more detail if you're interested in reading over it.
In this incarnation, Alice Liddel suffers from mental illness developed as a result of losing her parents and sister to a house fire. Every so often, she leaves reality behind for the splendors and magic of Wonderland. But, Wonderland is a reflection of her own mental state, and as she works with her therapist, things are crumbling into madness and ruin. In order to save herself, she must piece together the fragments of her repressed memories and save Wonderland from the corruption plaguing it.
The game itself is a hybrid of 3D Platforming and Hack 'n Slash gameplay. The two are blended very well, as the fight sequences are generally kept out of the platforming areas and vice versa. The combat itself is spectacularly done, as it's honestly one of the best implementations I've seen in ages. You need to plan your blocking, dashing, and attacks with care to defeat Alice's many enemies. Button mashing results in taking longer to defeat enemies and also leaves you very vulnerable. In addition to timing your offensive and defensive moves with the right rhythm, you'll also need to keep in mind that each of your four weapons are very specialized. Different situations call for specific weapons; using the wrong one will waste time as well as increase the likelihood of something going wrong.
And this is just the core of the game. There's also an upgrade system, hidden collectibles, and lots of places to explore. All told, this game was a lot of fun.
However, as much as I enjoyed playing through it, potential players should be aware that this game also has some serious issues when it comes to the content of both the story and the level design. There are some profoundly dark subjects shown and discussed, as well as a lot of gore and disturbing imagery. This game is clearly not for everyone. It's definitely a title that should be kept out of the hands of children.
Points of Interest
Perhaps one of the best secrets is an unexpected cameo of Razputin, the hero from Psychonauts.
Concerns and Issues
The blood isn't restricted to the landscape either. Fleshy enemies bleed when cut, and some can even be decapitated. The various forms of the Ruin spurt black, tar like ooze when struck, and Alice can enter a temporary super powered mode called Hysteria. When she does this, the screen loses its color, her eyes appear to have been removed, and her face and forearms appear to have been doused with blood.
On the other hand, when Alice is killed, she simply poofs into a cloud of blue butterflies.
In contrast to the mechanical nightmares in the early portions of the game, other parts of Wonderland are filled with rot and decay, which leads us to a number of clearly undead and mummified creatures.
From there we turn to the Red Queen's lair, which is basically an organic mess, complete with tendons, blood vessels, teeth and even grotesque eyes. One of the DLC dresses, called the fleshmadien dress, is a similar mess of tissues that seem to cling to or merge with Alice's body.
Completing the spectrum of nightmare fuel, the Ruin are best described as blobs of oozing tar with random assortments of old doll parts. The larger the creature, the more doll heads that stick out of it. And when you discover the reason for all of the doll parts, things just get a LOT more horrifying.
However, while Wonderland can take shelter in the fact that it's an imaginary world, the people living in London are not so fortunate. Alice does kill someone in the real world, and feels completely justified for doing so. Perhaps the creepiest aspect of this game is that there's a good chance that you'll relish that moment yourself.
Fan theory adds one more person to the growing bodycount. Early on, Alice is talking with one of the nurses on the roof of a building. During this conversation, Alice starts hallucinating, and witnesses the nurse transform into a monster. As the creature begins to come for her, Alice falls into Wonderland for the first time in the game. Since the nurse is never seen again, fans have concluded that in her delusional and confused state, Alice may have pushed the nurse off the building.
Within Wonderland itself, there's an area where you'll encounter statues of geishas. While these aren't explicit, their clothing isn't very modest either. Things take a sharp turn for the weird a little bit later on when the geishas start being depicted as seductively posed mantises.
There is also a small amount of nudity, if you want to call it that, with the various living dolls found in Wonderland. Specifically, the Dollgirl enemies become broken and disrobed during combat, which is really more scary than sexual.
On the other hand, what Alice is wearing depends on where she is in Wonderland. Most of these outfits are reasonably modest, but a few also feature a deep neckline, much like the corsets Alice would see on the London streets.
It's quite possible that there's just a flavored oil being evaporated in these hookas (as this is a popular, family-friendly use for them), but they could also be filled with a form of tobacco. In real life, hookas aren't known for being used for anything more serious than that. However, smoking anything isn't good for you, even if it is just flavored smoke.
Alice could potentially do something about it. As we learn through her nightmares, she witnessed him rape her sister and set the fire that killed her family. If she told the police about this, the therapist could be dealt with, and he knows it. Thus, he's been actively trying to worsen her madness to prevent anybody from thinking her ravings are credible. It almost worked; he nearly had her believing that the fire was caused by her own carelessness or the family cat knocking a lantern over.
Thankfully, you never see a child actually get struck or abused in the game itself. Instead, you'll overhear some unusual comments and see a lot of symbolism involving dolls. The most direct examples are two very suggestively positioned dolls in Wonderland. Both of these are doors; one has you enter through the crotch area, the other through the rear.
The other big examples are the Dollgirl enemies. At first they appear to be neglected baby dolls, but as you fight them their clothing is removed, and as you continue to fight them, their porcelain chest will brake open to reveal a beating heart. During some loading screens, the game suggests using the Hobby Horse to defeat the Dollgirls. This has led some players to speculate that you're symbolically raping the doll when you fight them. After all, the Hobby Horse is the only weapon you have that's also a child's toy, and you're using it to disrobe the doll and then break their heart. Personally, I found that the Pepper Grinder was far more effective at dealing with these horrors, which may or may not change how you interpret the fights.
The crooked psychiatrist does eventually pay for his crimes, courtesy of an angry Alice and an oncoming train, though it's left open to interpretation if any of the children, or even Alice herself, get a better life afterwards.