Poor, mad Alice Liddell. It's been eleven long years since her tenure at Rutledge's Insane Asylum, and even longer since the passing of her family in a fateful late-night inferno. Now an orphaned young adult, Alice: Madness Returns' haunted heroine has spent the past decade rebuilding her once-shattered psyche one fragmented memory at a time, but in a world much different than that of her fantastically twisted Wonderland. London's cruel East Enders still regard her as a madwoman, though, mocking and condescending to the raven-haired waif at every opportunity.
It's an attitude that's carried over into Alice's Wonderland as well, as many of its madcap inhabitants dismiss her with a similar tone -- when they're not trying to kill her, that is. Baby-faced inkblots, katana-carrying insects, and eerie, oversized dolls are all out for Alice's blood, and she'll spend a good chunk of her time strafing, slicing, smashing, and spraying enemies with scattershot spices and scalding tea.
At its best, Madness Returns' combat feels pretty punchy and impactful. Excellent animations and wickedly delightful character designs help highlight the onscreen action, but a rebellious camera and wonky targeting system (it has a nasty habit of locking-on to the exact opposite of what you want dead) can quickly turn the combat into a chore – particularly in later levels, which opt for an "overwhelm the player" approach to difficulty that does little more than emphasize the core combat's "rock, paper, scissors" structure.
But Madness Returns is very much a platformer first, and a hack-n'-slash-n'-shoot second, although there is quite a bit of crossover between the two. This Xbox 360, Playstation 3 and PC game's platforming is far from trailblazing -- I could've done without probably half of its "invisible-but-not-really" platform puzzles -- but what's there generally works, and serves to help show off some of the game's more inventive level designs and its astounding art direction.
Air vents, levers, pulleys, and bouncy platforms keep Alice regularly afloat, but she's no stranger to cheap and frequent insta-deaths when faced with bottomless pits, deadly flowing liquids, and a generous assortment of spikes. You will get sick and tired of her shrieking, butterfly-bursting death sequence, as you'll see it quite often, particularly in the game''s final chapters. Thankfully, it doesn't punish you too badly for plummeting to your doom -- Alice always spawns nearby, ready to (quite literally) leap back into action at a moment's notice.
Despite its core shortcomings, Madness Returns impresses with some stellar, and quite daring, art design. Developer Spicy Horse's twisted take on Lewis Carroll's fable is spectacularly sinister, and the mythology and macabre world they've constructed around such bare-bones prose is very impressive. The characters and environments almost always pop, but what could have really made them shine was a good trim (Madness Returns' five chapters each tend to drag), and some better pacing.
The action can become rather repetitive during extended play sessions, and while Spicy Horse makes an admirable effort to break it up with unexpected set-pieces and occasional "mini-games" of sorts, very few of them are done well enough to truly succeed in their task of distracting for more than a scant few minutes (rolling a disembodied doll's head over ramps and through loop-the-loops late in the game serves as a low point).
And as impressive as the aforementioned art direction is, it's worth noting the unfortunate amount of graphical glitches that Madness Returns is riddled with. Blurry, tardy textures regularly pop in and out, and I was faced with more than a few enemies that randomly disappeared from the fray during combat. Which is a shame, as the game's environments and animations really drive the experience, and a bit more polish could've improved that experience endlessly.
All in all, Alice: Madness Return is far from a bad game. Stellar art and a darkly unique stage help set it apart from the brown and bloom of this console generation, and Spicy Horse should no doubt be commended for their approach to an underfed genre in the HD-gen platformer. It won't be lauded as one of 2011's great games, but Madness Returns' rich world and twisted design certainly make it one of the year's most bold-- warts and all.