Alice: Madness Returns picks up eleven years after the original game and we quickly learn that Alice is still not right in the head. Alice still suffers from survivor's guilt after her family was killed in a deadly fire, so she must go back to Wonderland in order to heal herself and find out the real cause of her family's death.
You see, the official story is that the deadly fire was started by a cat that had knocked over a lamp. As you go on your journey in Wonderland though, you come to discover that Alice's memories aren't matching up with the "official story."
I won't really be touching too much on the story, as Samit Sarkar did that himself recently. Instead, I'll be focusing more on the core gameplay and controls.
Alice: Madness Returns (PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 [previewed], PC)
Alice begins her adventure in the Hatter's domain, and like everything else in Wonderland, the place has gone through some extreme changes. All of the domains have gone through a shift in power and we come to discover later in the game that there's a huge power struggle going on in Wonderland. In the case of the Hatter's domain, it is now under the rule of the March Hare and Dormouse.
Immediately upon entering the first area, I was completely taken aback by the absolutely beautiful set piece. The visuals are just gorgeous, stunning and very surreal. Developer Spicy Horse wanted to make everything look like you're stepping into a painting, something they certainly pulled off.
As I started near the beginning, the game will run you through some basic tutorials on the controls and mechanics you'll be dealing with. My first task was to get used to the platforming mechanics and learn Alice's jumping abilities. Pressing A on the Xbox 360 controller will see Alice jump and holding the A button after pressing it will see Alice float down.
Alice also has the ability to do multi-jumps (up to three) that will give her a slight boost each time you press A in the air. Navigating the early part of the Hatter's domain requires you to jump between stationary and moving platforms, and to utilize the various air vents that will help Alice get to platforms too far away for a normal jump.
After about a few minutes, Alice will come across the first enemy type and I was able to make use of the four main weapons at my disposal. The first weapon I tried out was the iconic Vorpal Blade which is merely a butcher knife, but very fitting for someone going through a mental breakdown. Nothing says crazy like wielding a kitchen knife around. While the Vorpal Blade is good for quick and fast actions, the hammer-like Hobby Horse is great for the heavy attacks.
Alice also has two long-range weapons. The Pepper Grinder acts like a machine gun and the Teapot Cannon is the grenade launcher-like weapon. Both of these guns have infinite ammo, but they also require a cool down time so you can't abuse the weapons.
As you go through the levels, you'll come across teeth which you can find in the world, hidden in boxes and after defeating enemies. The teeth are the game's currency which you'll apply to upgrading all of your weapons. You can upgrade your weapon's strength, rate of fire, reload time and more. The upgrade system is similar to that of God of War and you'll simply need to access the upgrade option in the pause menu and chose what weapons to upgrade. Health can be upgraded too, but contrary to the menu system for weapon upgrades, it will instead involve the player going through Challenge Rooms. EA wasn't ready to elaborate on what these rooms will require of the player.
Alice has some other special abilities to help on her quest as well. The main being her "Focus Mode" which is basically a lock-on system. Locking on an enemy will allow Alice to strafe and move around her opponents with ease. Flicking the right stick will also let you cycle through multiple enemies to focus on. Alice can also dodge attacks in any direction with the combination of the the right bumper and directional stick. Alice explodes into a mess of butterflies and reassembles into her femme fatale self a few feet away from where she just stood. I found myself using this dodge ability to also navigate around levels because I prefer moving through levels as fast as possible.
Another thing Alice can do is her ability to shrink down in size, which allows the player to enter areas normal-sized Alice can't. There are special flowers scattered around the levels called Shrink Flowers which heal Alice when she shrinks down into them. You'll also be able to discover hidden graffiti while in the flowers that lead to secret rooms or reveal hidden platforms.
So that's a lot of weapons and abilities, but how does it actually feel in combat? Great, actually. While Alice: Madness Returns has a God of War vibe going for it, the combat is actually very different. Spicy Horse didn't want to just make a simple hack-n-slash game. They wanted to make it so that each enemy is basically a puzzle.
For example, one enemy type was completely covered in armor in the front and my weapons weren't causing any damage. With this enemy class, you have to dodge out of the way at the very last second before it strikes it's blade down, thus getting its weapon stuck into the ground. This leaves the enemy's unarmored backside exposed for the player to attack. The battlefield will also become like a chess game as you're swarmed with multiple enemy types and you'll have to figure out which types to attack first so you're not overwhelmed by all the different baddies.
In the case you do get overwhelmed and you're near death, Alice will be able to go into Hysteria Mode which temporally leaves Alice invulnerable and unleash massive damage in her rampage. Hysteria Mode doesn't last long and it won't always be an option when you're on your last amount of health so don't depend on it to always save your ass.
After getting a small taste of the Hatter's domain, I played through the Queen's Land section that Samit Sarkar saw before. As I was running around this environment, I was told how each of the six domains will all have completely unique looks and enemies in them. There's always going to be something new for the player to get transfixed on, right down to the different outfits Alice will adorn to match the theme of each setting.
The game won't all be taking place in Wonderland either. You'll actually be going to London, but don't expect to do any fighting. The London parts only make up about 15 percent of the game and are designed to push the story forward. Once Alice is back in the real world, she puts together the repressed bits of memory she's discovered until something in London triggers her memory of Wonderland and it's back down the rabbit hole she goes.
Fans of the original will love all of the nods and references. For instance, remember the Dodos? Well they're back in Madness Returns, except they're all dead and slowly being cooked over an open fire. Newcomers to the series, like myself, won't need to have played the original American McGee's Alice to appreciate the new game. But the time I got with Madness Returns was so charming that I am now going to play the original game to better appreciate American McGee's latest before it's released this June. And even though it was a small taste, I strongly believe that Alice: Madness Returns will be one of my top ten games of 2011.