The sequel to American McGee's Alice has arrived, bundled together with an updated version of the original with widescreen and controller support. Including the 11-year-old original in the package even helps to serve a purpose which the developers might not have intended. Alongside it being a nice bonus and introducing it to newcomers, it helps demonstrate that while the sequel may be fairly unremarkable in its gameplay, the series certainly has come a long way from the sloppy combat and slippery platforming that made the first game only worth playing for the art design.
Of everything in Alice: Madness Returns, it is by far the art design that really stands above the rest.
Alice: Madness Returns is still an interesting game, if for nothing else that it exists as an entry into the comparatively sparse action-platforming genre that has been largely phased out these days. It harkens back to an older time when games were unmistakably games instead of the movie-like set pieces of many current releases, with level layouts that made little sense from any logical standpoint and enemies spawning out of nothingness just for the sake of it. That's not to say Madness Returns isn't full of cinematics, and the story of poking around inside a mind falling apart is at least a reason for the levels being what they are, but the end result is attractive in a classic sort of way.
It's a shame then that Spicy Horse didn't feel the need to advance any of the mechanics from past years. The best thing I can say about the gameplay is that it's solid but unremarkable in nearly every way, with my few direct complaints mostly being limited to the almost great but flawed combat. The horribly inconsistent lock-on camera, terrible target swapping, and nonsensical changes to the dodging when locked-on all damage what would have otherwise been good combat with generally nicely designed enemies.
However, the primary focus of the game is the platforming. While it's well made, responsive, and gives a good amount of error correction thanks to the triple-jump, it doesn't seem to care about bringing anything new or interesting to the table. Once you've played about an hour, you've encountered all the game has to offer, though the visual design and story elements generally keep the game afloat despite the attempts to make the underlying game as generic as possible. The Eastern-themed Chapter Three, however, lacks even that buoyancy. It instead provides a rather bland presentation and no development for the entire level, making it a chore to get through.
But those aforementioned visuals are otherwise wonderful, with varied and contrasting landscapes across the other levels, almost every one a beautiful and fascinating design with Alice's clothes changing to match each area. If nothing else, Alice: Madness Returns creates a superbly exotic atmosphere that captures the spirit of the original and expands upon it wonderfully. Even all of the monsters are striking to look at, from black ooze creatures housing doll heads to fully armored samurai wasps. Of everything in this game, it is by far the art design that really stands above the rest.
In the end it's up to whether you feel the art is enough to carry an otherwise generic game or just want to revisit an older time in video games. Alice: Madness Returns is beautiful with few real flaws to speak of, but the gameplay is perhaps entrenched too much in its roots. Overall I enjoyed my time playing through, but I also can't say I would miss it if I never had a chance to experience it again. Alice: Madness Returns may execute its design in a far more complete and solid fashion than its predecessor, but that seems to be limits of its desire.