Lewis Carroll's worst nightmares come to life in Alice: Madness Returns (Electronic Arts and Spicy Horse, reviewed for Xbox 360, rated: Mature, $59.99), a third-person action game continuing a virtual adventure released over a decade ago.
In the mature spirit of, and based on the characters from, the "Alice in Wonderland" prose, the action focuses on an emotional Alice Liddell attempting to fight her way out of madness.
With a goal to recover suppressed memories about her family's demise and stop the Infernal Train from destroying Wonderland, she embarks on a six-chapter journey mixing bloody combat, classic platforming and challenges within fantastical environments.
Designer of the original game, American McGee returns to deliver a twisted yet dazzling look into Wonderland juxtaposed against a depressing Victorian London.
Using a Dave McKean (Sandman, "MirrorMask") and Terry Gilliam artistic approach, Mr. McGee's team combines computer-sculpted characters with puppet-like facial features, colorful locations, abstract imagery and animated illustrations to help tell the story and reveal Alice's buried memories.
Characters such as the bulbous Duchess, demonic Cheshire Cat and a cybernetic Mad Hatter stand out while Alice's retro-goth-evolving fashions appears inspired by comicdom's Emily Strange.
Although the game hugely relies on style over substance, its macabre beauty remains riveting throughout; players will initially appreciate the fights and exploration, before it borders on the repetitive.
Delights include Alice's ability to turn into a flock of blue butterflies while short-distance teleporting or meeting her temporary demise and her shrinking at will (even hiding in shrinking violets to restore health).
Wicked, and most artistic of the entire game, a Hysteria mode has Alice temporarily go medieval on foes. It's played out in black and white with splashes of red as the slaughter progresses.
Weapons of choice to fight off the likes of flying pig snouts, grimy beasts with doll faces, winged bolts and one-eyed (bloodshot) tea kettles are equally inspired.
They include a meat cleaver (decapitations are commonplace), a pepper grinder (it shoot pellets like a gatling gun), a cannon teapot and White Rabbit time bombs.
As Alice explores, she will find teeth to upgrade weapons, occasional puzzles and lots of stuff to jump on, through and over.
Fans also get a decent resource to read up on the characters (more than 70 to learn about) and the option to replay those very slick cut scenes.
"Alice: Madness Returns" revels in its morose imagining of a piece of classic literature while offering some insane game play for the adult in the family. More importantly, it also inspired me want to go back and read the original book.
As a decent bonus, EA also gives players a code to download the original Alice game to see what all the fuss was about back in 2000. By the way, the visuals continue to be a real treat.
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