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Alice: Madness Returns Xbox 360 Review

With the relentless gloomy greys synonymous with the Unreal engine, Gears of War and Batman: Arkham Asylum (relax – they’re still great) being obvious culprits, it’s easy to forget its full potential. It’s a pit which Alice: Madness Returns (and Enslaved for that matter) deftly avoids, possessing an aesthetically sumptuous world of intricate detailing and outstanding visuals.  It’s a far cry from American McGee’s Alice’s moody and bleak atmosphere, feeling decidedly less creepy from the pursuit of HD prettiness but its ability to absorb and surprise remains undiminished, though a relatively mediocre game hides beneath a remarkable exterior.

Madness Return’s biggest issue is that it’s too long, padding arbitrarily an experience which needed trimming. A game’s brevity should be dictated by its story and breadth of ideas, to which Madness Returns can claim neither; its story was more concisely told by its predecessor and the recycling of enemies, puzzles and challenges ensure a tedious adventure in long sessions.

Paradoxically, Wonderland’s dream-like structuring of non-sequiturs and symbolic – opposed to literal – sense felt like an excuse to avoid generating an adequate sense of cohesion. A poorly conceived doll-head mini-game brings one chapter to a standstill (twice!) only for Alice to arrive at a different locale at the end. It felt like a lazy attempt to transport the player from A to B, though three Muramasa style side-scrolling stages provide a forgivable exception.

There were flashes of brilliance but not enough. The Queensland episode was superbly realised: detailed, spooky, atmospheric and inventive – neatly encapsulating what made its predecessor special. The combat – a tidy system of four upgradable main weapons – was well polished, imitative of the 3D Zelda titles – that immortal triumvirate: lock-on, attack, evade – but adding a Bayonetta-esque evasive move. It never became tiresome. The platforming was also robust, forcing you to glide and double jump precisely over visible and invisible obstacles, constantly finding that unnerving sweet spot between relative ease and the seemingly just out of reach.

The game’s triumphs failed to mask a nagging sense of repetition. The environments change with surprising regularity but the action remains the same, every lever pull and tricky jump, every time-based challenge and fetch quest failed to provide any variation and felt like aggravating time wastages.

The plot began well but degenerated quickly, making a misjudged turn into Whodunnit Avenue. Alice battles to regain her sanity, already giving the ethereal Wonderland a tangible gravitas. Her own mind is the perfect enemy, the horror that her family was killed in a freak accident the perfect setup. Surely a hideous and chaotic act of fate, one that’s illogical, neutral and random is far more terrifying a prospect than a moustache-twiddling madman behind the curtains? The integration of Wonderland and Alice’s reality is handled well at least. We catch occasional glimpses of London in Wonderland; underwater hints of Drury Lane and the mountains suggest opium dens in a shadier district. It’s a quaint detail.

I did not regret playing Madness Returns, nor could I earnestly recommend it. There’s incentive to brave a secondary play through to obtain more unlockables – by way of memories and opening up new nooks by shooting pig snouts, naturally – but the problem is thus: we’ve been blessed – daresay spoilt – by better action/adventure titles over the past few years for Madness Returns to ever compete. Hopefully we see Alice again. I sensed a great game in Madness Returns and occasionally played one but this spicy gift horse would be best looked in the mouth.

6 out of 10