This week, Zero Punctuation reviews American McGee's sequel adaptation of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Now with more creepy baby doll heads!
When video games have forged the new utopian society, Bill & Ted style, eventually there's going to be a war over whether to sanctify or demonize the bloke who figured out you could make cinematics by zooming in really close on the concept art.
Oh, hello. Didn't see you there.
Who remembers American McGee? He was a bloke who worked on Doom and got a free ride, just like everyone else who worked on Doom. I think the bloke who made the tea for the Doom team got to make his own game. His name was John Romero - no! American - presumably named when his parents got the boxes confused when they were filling in his birth certificate - made a couple of games that are remembered alongside botched prostate surgery and one game that is vaguely fondly considered, American McGee's Alice (by American McGee), which has now received an HD re-release for those interested in their gaming history and. . .what's that? Oh, apparently they've tacked on some other game. Incidentally, American now operates out of China, which is beautifully ironic in an almost prophetic kind of way.
Alice: Madness Returns continues the first Alice's edgy, dark, and disturbing reinterpretation of Alice in Wonderland - forgetting that Alice in Wonderland has always been pretty fucked up, considering the books were originally a middle-aged man's attempt to get inside a teenage girl's pants - and is actually a direct sequel that assumes you played the first one, which is a little cockish for an eleven-year-old game that wasn't very good. But they do bundle it, so hush my mouth I guess.
Alice, who looks for all the world like a spoon trying out its new contact lenses, is living in an orphanage in a grim depiction of Victorian London falling somewhere between Jacob's Ladder and Wallace & Gromit when the titular madness returns like an obnoxious neighbor who comes over uninvited, looks through your cupboards, and rearranges your spice rack. Alice returns to Wonderland to find it being terrorized by a mysterious demonic train that looks like several cathedrals reenacting their favorite over-exposed torture porn move and must revisit various characters and locations from the first Alice to uncover the cause of her relapse, culminating in a spectacular boss fight with the undercooked kipper she had for breakfast that morning.
Like the first Alice, Return of the Madness is primarily a platformer, which you don't see a lot of these days because platforming in full 3D has often proved itself to be like juggling with handkerchiefs in a wind tunnel. The first game had a real problem where the slightest keystroke would launch Alice as if from a trebuchet and every platform felt like it was covered in ice cubes and ball bearings, but this new one adds not only a slow fall mechanic but an honest-to-buggernuts quadruple jump, which solves the problem some might say rather drastically, like putting down a dangerous pit bull terrier with a tactical carpet bombing.
The other problem with the first Alice was that all the weapons were absolute tripe sandwiches that were hard to use and gave very poor indication that you were causing damage, and for the most part Return of the Max Weapons fixed that issue, except for the teapot cannon, which is a tripe sandwich with brown sauce, I tell you that. I don't care how much damage you say it's doing, game, it looks and feels like I'm lobbing water balloons partially filled with diluted cat piss.
So by the sound of it, Return of the Jedi fixes Alice 's issues and must therefore be a better game, yes? Well, that's the odd thing. The HD re-release is probably where you're going to get your money's worth on this purchase. For all its flashes of current-generation panties beneath its slutty miniskirt, the new Wonderland feels severely depopulated. And while the fact there's a demon train that's been going around breaking windows, stealing our jobs, and seducing our women may well explain why large sections of the game consist only of platforms floating in void, I'm sure it's no coincidence that such things are a lot easier to make than locations with any actual connectivity, variety, or entertainment value. The ridiculous maximum jump distance seems to have forced the game to spread out so far it seems virtually empty.
Even the trademark creepy imagery seems a bit phoned in and a bit over-reliant on creepy dolls. Yes, a porcelain doll's head with no hair or eyeballs is a creepy thing, but after the five hundred millionth one they kind of get devalued in the global creep economy, falling below sweaty uncle Dan and the feeling of another person's bum warmth on your toilet seat.
Earlier, when I said that there's a boss fight with an undigestable kipper, I was joking in my trademark lovably facetious way. The fact is, Alice: Return of Jafar doesn't have any boss fights, except one right at the end that heavily features those creepy doll heads again - they're practically being used to stuff the fucking furniture by that point. And while I'm not saying I have some kind of constitutional right to regular boss fights, the game has this rather obnoxious habit of letting you think you're about to have a boss fight and then whipping it away from you like a dollar bill whipped from out the grasp of a street urchin by the biggest cunt on Earth. Virtually every chapter ends with a confrontation with perverted Wonderland figure du jour that then gets swiftly resolved in another bloody concept art cutscene. It's like the end of Monty Python and the Holy Grail without the justification of spoof. It's like if they ran out of money at the end of Terminator 2 and finished it off by flashing some pencil drawings in front of the camera showing the T-1000 falling into the molten steel after he slips on a banana skin.
Batman Returns isn't without its charms. The between chapter moments where Alice surfaces into reality were quite interesting in an interactive storytelling sort of way, and the headfucky transitional sequences as she inevitably descends back into Wonderland were right up my diseased-ridden alley. But the game can't seem to decide if it's going to be about story or arcady combat platforming and has no idea how to marry the two elements. The prolonged repetitive gameplay commits the cardinal sin of any form of entertainment in that it just gets really fucking boring. And when it's not boring, it's just being obtuse and - let's call it what it is - pretentious. There's flowery dialogue, and then there's a game where you can randomly switch around character's lines and it'd still make exactly the same amount of sense.
On the whole, it's a big, inconsequential puff of gas that adds very little to an original concept that - let's face it - wasn't even that original. Ooh, Alice in Wonderland can be a bit fucked up at times. As observations go, that's right up there with noticing that Batman and Robin were probably bumfucking. What I'm saying is that I don't see Alice: Madness Returns making mad returns. [Weak laughter].
- The face behind the mirror: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Once I tried to seduce a girl by putting a Drink Me label around my knob but she did something horrible with a cocktail umbrella
- Surprised it didn't turn out to be an inflammation of the womb