I’ve grown up to be mesmerised and hugely influenced by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, everything from chasing the white rabbit to falling down the rabbit hole into a tunnel filled with floating chairs and clocks to playing croquet with pink flamingos in a maze full of card guards, striking a conversation with a door-knob and eating cake or drinking a substance to make me huge or small. I’ve always become easily ensnared into fantasy worlds, especially ones that have some form of realism to escape to, just like Alice. From being in the real world one minute, to diving into a intricately detailed and colourful land having tea with a rabbit, mouse and a mad hatter. It’s why I loved growing up reading Harry Potter books as I live in London, and the idea of catching the train from Kings Cross to a huge far off castle that is Hogwarts Witchcraft & Wizardry seemed within reach for me, as did frolicking in the Shire with hobbits and the dream of visiting Rivendale or Lothlorein with the alluring yet elegant elves. The reason Alice has stayed closest to heart is also the fact she’s female. Looking at the last selection of games I’ve played reels in macho men wielding huge weapons such as in Halo, Vanquish and Call of Duty. All great games, but missing that female factor. And the use of escapism, means I can leave my troubles and usual depressed state I was in at school to the enticing imaginative world of Wonderland, that at certain times is reminiscent of various dreams I’ve had.
Diving back into the rabbit hole ten years later following the story from the first game by American McGee, we meet Alice again, but it’s not an Alice and not a Wonderland we’re familiar with. There’s a darker edge to the storyline that slowly unravels as you gather memories during game-play. Even early on in the game, starting out in Victorian era London, you can already tell how the graphic style stands out with its use of dark, dank and crisp features to demonstrate the poverty stricken side of Victorian England that Alice has grown up in due to being an orphan from a fire that killed her family. So it isn’t long before we leave the asylum she’s being treated at to jumping back into Wonderland to find out the truth and save her memories, and being met along the way with some guidance from a very malnourished Cheshire cat, far from how we remember him being a purple and pink tubby. Although his huge grin, fading act and riddles still remain. The first stage of the game sees Alice jumping on colourful mushrooms and running along plush vivid looking green grass, I had to double-check the age rating was in fact 15, but it wasn’t long before turning a few corners and facing various enemies such as the ‘Ruin’ creatures; Slithering, Insidious, Menacing, Drifting, and Colossal Ruin, that I start to see the dark side. Ruin is the filthy black ooze leaking out of the ‘Infernal Train’ , which plagues Wonderland, a large fiery steam train that looks like an old classical Victorian cathedral or even Houses of Parliament on wheels, which we find out later is run by the Dollmaker and is the main focus of the game. In addition to being acidic when touched, Ruin has the ability to form into large monstrous creatures with pieces of dolls. At various times large amounts of Ruin can block doorways, buttons or other important parts of the level, but defeating the enemies will cause it to become brittle, allowing alice to smash it with her Hobby Horse weapon or blast it open with her Teapot Cannon, but more about the weapons later. The largest of the Ruin enemies is Colossal Ruin, which unsurprisingly enough I found the most frustrating. His attacks shift from flamethrowing lava balls to my most hated attack of chasing you with his porcelain doll hands to eat you which takes a considerable amount of life, to its annoying steam vent, both of the last attacks are very hard to defend from as he seems to move faster than Alice even with her swift dodge movements. The best tactic I found with this enemy was the teapot cannon, especially when upgraded for a more powerful effect and especially when he appears tired and lays slumped on the ground. Yet, the downside of the teapot cannon is it’s quite slow to heat up and you have to make sure you aim well as each attack sent counts. Unfortunately the game’s aiming isn’t the greatest aspect, I tend to leave the left trigger to auto-aim and just free-handedly aim enemies. Other enemies include; Card guards who appear like zombies as they revive unless you kill them off quick, Bitch Babies which are porcelain headed dolls with multiple spinning legs that spit acid and attack you with powerful headbutts, and the Executioner a monstrously large card guard that chases you throughout one level with a large sickle, reminscent of the executioner I last met in Resident Evil 5, yet this fellow had a humorous end.
As the game progresses you are given more access to various weapons all cleverly depicting everyday weapons we know; a Pepper Grinder (machine gun) which overheats but works perfectly for swift, long ranged attacks, Vorpal Blade for close ranged quick attacks, Hobby Horse (similar to the Gravity Hammer from Halo) for whacking down ruin areas and slamming down on enemies with a devastating finish, and the final; the Teapot Cannon (Grenade Launcher) for slow but very effective tea pelting for close and far enemy encounters. Enemies you defeat and breakable boxes and pots leave behind teeth to collect for upgrades to weapons, each can be upgraded four times maximum. It’s up to you to decide what weapon best suits what enemy or situation, I personally find the Pepper Grinder and Hobby Horse my favourite. The other mini weapon, generally used to help solve puzzles and distract enemies, is the Clockwork Bomb which looks like the white rabbit (reminds me of the Monkey Bomb/Cymbal Monkey from Call of Duty) and the umbrella which reminds me of the Princess Peach game on the DS where Alice can deflect attacks. While the combat does play a significant part to the game, the main style of Alice Madness Returns is platformer, and if it wasn’t for having spent the bulk of my childhood performing difficult jumps in Mario games, I’d have major difficulty with certain jumps in the game, but even so you will spend a lot of the time just missing the next floating rock, invisible platform, floating domino piece, or playing card, etc even with Alice’s ability to jump, double jump and float, some jumps prove difficult, especially with the amount of jump glitches so expect to see a recurring amount of Alice’s death scene with butterflies scattering around, reminiscent of Bayonetta’s jump move. The only other aspect of the game I’d say I dislike is how like Grand Theft Auto, the auto saves suck! You have to be led a considerable length of the game back, but this improves as you go further into the game.
Edging closer to death on our last rose, Alice has the option to turn “Hysteria” on, whereupon her character screams and turns stark white with bleeding black eyes with matching black and white attire and sharp flowing hair. Her moves are more powerful and effective, and enemies within the short time she can activate hysteria can not harm her. This is an amazing feat to watch, yet upon aiming to complete the game with only using hysteria once, I did happen to click the left stick by accident on more than one occasion, yet I do plan to replay the game on easy mode for collectibles and will try this then. Although it was definitely worth it using hysteria, especially against Colossal Ruin and the final boss against the Doll Maker for a more effective, swift fight.
One of my favourite anticipations of each level apart from what lays ahead is Alice’s outfits. Funnily enough her outfit from the first chapter in the Hatter’s Domain was my favourite with her steam punk dress, always with her bow at the back with some form of skull or in the instance of the toy level; a porcelain head. My second favourite would be from the Japanese level where she wore a floral kimono. There are also extra dresses available on DLC which not only offer different designs but more powerful weapons and moves. Although, after completing the game you can replay it equipping yourself with your choice of outfit from the levels played but they now offer you features such as the Classic Dress providing health back if you shrink Alice.
The first chapter would have to be one of my favourites with the use of the dark mechanical scenery, Alice’s steam punk style outfit, and the hare and mouse who we first meet, originally from the Mad Hatter’s tea party; the hare donning a metallic drill arm, and springy metal legs with a matching eyeglass, and the dormouse rolling on metal wheels. My other favourite level would be the Japanese level with the use of giant fans as platforms, the powerful samurai wasps and the beautiful wall scroll level, which looks a lot like Okami with the use of a watercolour type theme, and is also available on other chapters. My least favourite level would be the toy level, only purely because of my childhood fear of porcelain dolls. Doll parts feature throughout the game, mainly within the ruin enemies, yet the doll parts and actual dolls are everywhere in this level. You have to battle giant walking evil porcelain dolls with an arm and a hook until their heart shows to blast them to pieces, Bitch Babies I mentioned earlier, and avoid obstacles such as decapitated spiky dolls swinging on swings to get from platform to platform, all the while walking around a deranged world that appears to be a dollhouse, obviously getting the more closer to the end and the truth behind the Doll Maker. The effort of thought put into every level is simply amazing, from the design of her dress, to the fast-paced and sometimes eerie music, weapon and other character designs, the replay value with collectibles and mini-games such as chess puzzles, and Radula Rooms to defeat multiple enemies to gain extra lives, as well as the selection of difficulty levels all make the game worthwhile in time and worth your money. My thought of the concept of the different variations of Alice in Wonderland is the idea of “escape”. The original was Alice trying to escape an argument with her family, Sucker Punch saw her trying to escape with her sister from a mistreating step father and to survive, and the Tim Burton remake saw Alice trying to escape an arranged marriage. The storyline is a sad one, especially the end when we realise the Doll Maker is in fact Alice’s doctor who has been feeding her lies about the fire and trying to wash out her memories when all the while he’s been abusing her and her sister. Alice has managed to get her memories back with the use of her ‘escape’ being Wonderland, and it sickens her that he continues to use children and brainwash them from the asylum. Thankfully after defeating him on the Infernal Train against his puppet hands and various floating enemies, Alice has her vengeance pushing him onto the train tracks to get what he deserves. It’s just sad to think that all the enemies, mainly ruin enemies with the doll parts could represent the children he’s brainwashed and how the Doll Maker has aimed them against Alice without knowledge of what they’re doing just like what they do with the doctor. The doctor is right with one thing he said, Alice remains mad, “his work is done”. Yet, even as we see her walk off into the real world again and Alice still envisions it as Wonderland, she now sees it as her old Wonderland, the colourful and sweet Wonderland, the happy Wonderland, where she can escape to.