[CVG's Alice: Madness Returns review is based on the Xbox 360 version]
Alice's latest adventure in Wonderland is a dazzling bore. The art's filled with clever flourishes and the story's a wriggling mass of psychological thrills, but ho-hum platforming and repetitive combat are the price you pay.
It's all a bit front-to-back, as the Caterpillar might have said. Plenty of effort's been put into Madness Returns - but sadly, it's ended up in the wrong places.
Following on from American McGee's original (get it free from the Store with the code in the box), the story sees Alice escaping back into a world of deathly fantasy - the world of her mutilated psyche. She's wracked by guilt, tortured by visions and confused, perhaps, by the way her hair keeps flickering out of existence during cutscenes.
And so, when not exploring a lavishly-made East London hub that has almost nothing to recommend it apart from some bracing swears, she returns to the land of mushrooms and turtles - no, not that world - to impale her demons with nasty weapons.
Those weapons are an early indicator that priorities might be a little skew-whiff here. Your deadly gadgets all look brilliant, but they rarely feel right. The Vorpal Blade's the main slash attack and probably the best of the lot, but the Hobby Horse club lacks heft and the Pepper Grinder rifle is ham-strung by sleepy aiming - and an idiotic lock-on that always seems to prioritise the most harmless enemies.
The same goes for the Teacannon mortar. Ah, enemies. Here again, it's more of the same: care and attention's been heaped on the sights and sounds, but there's a gaping hole where the fun should be. The Eyepot - an arachnid kettle made of brass - sums up Madness Returns' problems most comprehensively. Funny name? Check. Interesting walk? No problem. Boring combat loop? Absolutely. Shoot it a bit, and then hack it a bit. Oh, and then repeat.
Later areas eventually introduce the odd decent baddie, including an invisible sailor with a penchant for flinging bombs and nimble Samurai Wasps. These flutter through an oriental fever dream of carved soap and jade dragons, but sadly they share it with tiresome damage sponges and back stabbers, and are often lost entirely within a trudging blend of brainless puzzles and weightlessly inaccurate platforming.
Wonderland's beautiful but overstretched, meaning even its better levels outstay their welcome. It's almost a tragedy. Squint and you see the game you almost got. It all looks so promising: playing-card castles float beneath fluffy white clouds; frosty angler fish guard a ship trapped in a bottle; slivers of rock rise and fall in hellish valleys, suspended on gusts of smoke belching from a hookah pipe.
Very occasionally, the pinwheeling inventiveness of the visuals gels with the play itself - there's excellent fun in a shrinking move that reveals otherwise invisible platforms, for example - but for the most part, it's a long, competent slog: pretty yet vacant, with grindy chapters that don't know when to quit.
OFF WITH HER HEAD
On top of all that come a dozen tiny annoyances: a hiccupping frame-rate, a camera that kills you when it's just trying to help, and weapon-levelling with so little bite it's almost funny the devs chose teeth as the collectible power source.
As in the original, Alice uses imaginative visuals to hide a blandness and lack of polish. That original is eleven years old, so you can't blame rushed production for the lack of progress. It's hardly bonkers, then - but it is a bit stupid.
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Insipidly competent but, sadly, just a bit of a yawn to play.
- Pretty art
- Boring combat
- Iffy platforming