American McGee’s Alice PC Review

American McGee’s Alice arrives on XBLA and PSN, coinciding with the release of the sequel, Alice: Madness Returns.

Eleven years of innovation and advancement fails to undermine the impact of American McGee’s vision of Wonderland; a grotesque landscape of hallucinogenic imagery, nightmares, menace, and lunatic bit players – to quote Carroll’s Cheshire cat: “We’re all mad here.”

It’s a perfect setup to a hellish, yet faithful, adaptation of Carroll’s much loved source material, turning Alice – once a bright, if uppity child – into an asylum housed young woman “deaf, dumb, and blind to all stimulation” following a house fire which killed her parents – the quote appears in the excellent expository casebook accompanying the original PC release.

As a textbook example of how to rework classic literary texts into a video game format, American McGee’s Alice deserves the utmost respect, even if the mechanics underwhelm compared to recent offerings; the platforming is unpolished, the combat unrefined and the puzzles obtuse – but, like any underrated cult creation, is redeemed through flashes of ingenuity as opposed to technical perfections.

Such are the triumphs of the story components; the voice acting is superb, if marred by a certain Mock Turtle, Chris Vrenna’s score haunts and the atmosphere is one of the best I’ve experienced. The writing’s exceptional – dialogue turns tutorial tips into poetry. Take one of the Cheshire cat’s opening lines: “when the path is problematical, consider a leap of faith. Ride the wind.” Rogue Entertainment could’ve easily written “air makes you float upward” – thankfully they didn’t, maintaining the integrity of their atmosphere.

The characters are impressive themselves. The Cheshire cat – one of gaming’s most undervalued characters – is essentially the Virgil of the piece, guiding Alice through dour encounters as she battles to regain her sanity. There’s a deeply unsettling undertone to his trademark smile – hinting more than he dares say and coming across as the only sane creature in all of Wonderland, the fly on the Pantheon wall watching the Romans kill each other. I like him a lot.

His infrequent visitations ensure Alice is never upstaged. She has a superb character arc – told symbolically through the game world opposed to tawdry exposition; Tweedledum and Tweedledee are her abusive wardens, the Jabberwock (shouldn’t there be a ‘y’?) her crippling insecurities – this is quality craftsmanship, even if the case notes stole some of the intrigue – fortunately a non-issue upon it’s re-release. If Silent Hill 2 sprung to mind then great – as a character, Alice belongs in the same ranks as James Sunderland. I’d gladly say more but you’d benefit from working the rest out for yourself.

We’d be looking at an all time great if the gameplay equalled the writing but Rogue let themselves down with a lack of overall refinement. Take the combat; you’ll favour a couple of weapons – of a total of ten- and given little reason to alternate, save for a spell of curiosity upon each acquisition. The weapons behave differently, but risk ennui if you’re unwilling to experiment – disappointing, but forgivable.

I still recommend American McGee’s Alice despite the presence of gamelay problems. I’m glad EA saw the franchise’s potential and gave Alice another chance at mainstream success, doubtful given the edginess and strangeness of McGee’s vision, but welcome nonetheless. It’s a fantastic game well worth a gander. Now tell me; why is a raven like a writing desk?

8 out of 10
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