[This review is part of my on-going Halloween quest. Check it out!]
Welcome ladies and dawgs to the first installment of my Halloween Quest reviews. I have played and completed American McGee's Alice, and I wish to share my thoughts about this game with you, in a very spooky way.
For those that don't know, American McGee's Alice is a grim continuation of the classic Alice in Wonderland stories. In this game, a fire burns down Alice's house, killing her family. Traumatized, or rather, spookified by the incident, she goes into a comatose state. She lives the next years of her live in an asylum, and one day she revisits Wonderland only to discover it has become a corrupted, spooky place, thanks to the Queen of Hearts' reign. The entire game revolves around Alice traveling through Wonderland, decapitating card men to save the land... and HERSELF (because Wonderland is her subconscious, get it?).
First off, it must be said that this is not a horror game. When I chose this game for my quest, I thought it was going to be disturbing and scary, that Alice would be a goddamn psycho, and that the gameplay would mostly consist of exploring levels while solving puzzles, with just a little bit of action and platforming. Turns out action and platforming are the absolute core of the game. In fact, there's almost no exploration or puzzle-solving here. The levels are linear and the only reward you get for trying to explore is health. Also, the game is not that scary at all! Maybe it's because the visuals are not impressive anymore, but there wasn't a single scene that disturbed or affected me in any way. There's a few "emotional" moments but they fall flat on their faces, thanks to the poor execution and in part to the dated technology. Oh, and Alice is a not a psycho, just a bit disturbed, but polite as a true British Miss. So in the end, this game is just an action/platforming 3D title with a dark art-style and some gore.
But how good is the fighting anyway? Well, I thought it was pretty decent! It's simple - you acquire a variety of weapons throughout the game and most of them have a primary and a secondary attack. The knife is your first and main weapon - you can either slash your enemies or throw it at them (which is very effective early on thanks to it's high damage output). You also get dices that summon demons to help you out, cards that you can throw from a distance and even a staff that hits multiple enemies at the same time with ice.
With 9 weapons (plus a hidden one near the end of the game), you would think there is a lot of strategy and variety to the combat. At some points, yes there is. However, I found out that a lot of the weapons become useless as you progress through the game. The croquet mallet loses it's relevance rather quickly, as does the cards later on because of it's low damage rate. After the you get to the middle of the game, you will have to rely on just a few weapons to be effective against the increasingly tough enemies. I would have preferred if the player had more freedom to mix and match the different weapons. For example, the ice staff could have been strictly a weapon to freeze enemies for a few seconds, so you could put a toy box bomb right next to them to blow them up. Or maybe use the knife to carve a spooky sculpture out of the ice. Stuff like that.
The platforming is... okay. I'm glad it's there to vary the gameplay and give the levels some verticality, but it can be annoying. There's plenty of pitfalls in the game which kills you instantly, forcing you to reload your last save. There's also a flying enemy whose sole purpose is to push you off platforms with their scream. The developers were devilish enough to create situations where you have to jump to the other side but also kill or avoid these enemies. Since the checkpoints are far from each other, this can be especially frustrating on the console version (I will expand on that later).
There's also a few underwater sections. I did not enjoy these. Alice can breath just for a short time, you can only use the knife and there's an evil fish which, though easy to kill, can be a pain in the arse. Thankfully, there's only two or three of these sections.
Oh, and I almost forgot, but there are some boss battles. They are nothing special, some of them can even be annoying, but most were still fun to fight, and they are important to give more narrative to the story.
Like I said before, the levels are rather linear. But not linear like an Uncharted game, I mean they are linear for it's time. You see, Alice is a computer game made in 2000, and old PC games usually had levels designed like mazes. During the year of 2000, games like Deux Ex, Hitman, Thief II, Giants: Citizen Kabuto and No One Lives Forever were released, and all of them had big, open, almost sandbox-like levels. Alice on the other hand had more strict, straight-forward levels. They were still somewhat open and they feel wide, especially for today's standards, but it was not like the other games released at the time.
Despite that, the level design can still be confusing. Often the path you should follow is not immediately obvious, and in some parts you even have to go back to pass through a gate you opened via a switch. And that's what I meant when I said Alice is not linear like most games of today. If you are too used to knowing exactly where you have to go, the level design of this game might feel dated.
The environments of the levels are hit or miss. Some look great even today thanks to the imaginative design, but others, like the photo above, are incredibly barren and boring to look at. But thankfully, most of the game levels are interesting. My favorite probably is the "Pale Realm", a chess-themed world which is visually striking because of it's black and white color scheme. There's also a lot more fighting than platforming in that level!
If you are interested in this game, I would like to make a recommendation: play this game on PC. I played the console version that came with Alice: Madness Returns (the sequel), and ran into a bunch of problems. First, the framerate is not good most of the time, it can get pretty bad in many areas. And occasionally, the control just stops working! At first I thought there was something wrong with my controller, but no. It happens only with this game, and it happens during it's entire length.
Because this game was made for PC, the game was designed with a few PC sensibilities in mind. The main thing I'm talking about is the quicksave feature. In computer games of that time, you could often save your progress anywhere on the level. The quicksave feature saved the exact moment you pressed the button. This means that you could save everytime you made a difficult jump, or right before or after a hard section. The developers assumed you used this feature, so the automatic checkpoints were few and far between. And they felt free to put some harder areas where you could easily be killed, like those flying enemies that push you to your death.
In the console version, you can save anywhere, but it's simply not as convenient as it was on PC. On the computer, saving and loading worked almost instantly, and you just had to press a button. On the PS3, you have to navigate the menu to save your game, and it takes at least 5 seconds to save and reload. It might seem like it's a short time, but believe me when I say it adds up.
Also, selecting weapons is a chore. You have 10 weapons by the end of the game, and you have to switch between each one of them to select the weapon you want to use. This was not a problem on the PC because the weapons were assigned to the keyboard numbers, like a shooter.
So that's why I recommend you play this game on the PC. You will be avoiding a lot of problems that might hurt your enjoyment of the game. If you still want to play it on your console, just remember what I said about the quicksave feature. The game expects you do to it, so don't feel lazy or ashamed to use it as much as you want. I recommend saving right before or after a section in which you think you might die. It will save you a lot of time.
To conclude, I would like to say that yeah, I enjoyed this game. It was frustrating at times and I don't think I will replay it, but it's still a solid game. I do wish it had a more grim and spookier story than it actually has though.
Should you play it? Well, if you're curious and can get it cheap, I say go for it. Just keep your expectations in check and remember that you are playing a computer game from 2000. The sequel might be more worthwhile for most people.