GDC 2011

Alice: Madness Returns – Preview


American McGee’s Alice was quite the sensation when it was released in 2000. It was dark and edgy, turning the fantastic locales of Wonderland into a foreboding place that reeked of menace. We finally got our first look at the gameplay of the long-awaited sequel, Madness Returns, and not much has changed – including the gameplay.

Ten years ago, a fire killed everyone in young Alice’s family, but she’s a bit fuzzy on the details. Her journey through the six domains of Madness Returns is her attempt to reclaim her memories and learn the truth of that fateful night. Sometimes those memories are a simple voice telling her of her fondness for cake; other memories are represented as full-blown cutscenes. None of them are warm and fuzzy. Wonderland is still a terrifying place to be.

We saw a brief section from the Queen’s castle and gardens, where Alice was being chased by card guards and a shiver-inducing behemoth covered in porcelain doll faces. Alice has four weapons: her vorpal blade, a pepper mill that works like a machine gun; a teapot that’s great for sending long-range grenades; and the hobby horse from her orphanage, which conveniently doubles as a parasol when she wants to block. She also has a clockwork White Rabbit that she can use as a decoy. The trick to defeating enemies is learning their weak spot, then attacking it for massive damage. The card guard is armored, for example, is to make him lean over, at which point you can nail the vulnerable point on his back. It’s not exactly rewriting combat by any stretch, but the enemies are distinct and the weapon variety helps keep things interesting.

In between fights, Alice will need to use her wits and exploration skills to find her way through Wonderland. She can shrink at will, which not only reveals secrets that aren’t visible to her normal-sized eye, but also gives her access to areas she couldn’t otherwise reach. We didn’t get to see too much of this kind of exploration, just a small platforming sequence where the platforms themselves could only be seen when Alice was small.

Neither the exploration nor the combat is likely to blow you way with its originality, but you’ll probably forgive that as soon as you lay eyes on Madness Returns‘ incredible visuals. Everything in Wonderland is just plain stunning; when Alice dodges an attack, she leaves a trail of butterflies in her wake. It’s a small detail that adds to the storybook feeling of Madness Returns environments and I could watch it all day long.

Madness Returns (which comes out on my birthday, June 14th, just putting that out there), is dripping in atmosphere and creepiness. Joel Wade, the game’s Executive Producer, says that the development team wants you to feel like you’re stepping into a painting, and from what we’ve seen so far, they’ve definitely succeeded. It’s the kind of painting that will probably give you nightmares or at the very least make you seek therapy, but a dark gem of a painting, nonetheless.

Alice: Madness Returns will be coming out on the Xbox 360, PS3 and PC this summer.

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