I'm not sure I should like Alice: Madness Returns as much as I do. Spicy Horse's Xbox 360, PS3 and PC follow-up to 2000's original twisted tale at times feels a few months of QA Testing away from release, graphically struggling to compete with anything that's hit stores in the last two years, and rather bloated in terms of length, but it's still somehow incredibly likeable.
Alice: Madness Returns picks up 11 years after the events of the first title, with Alice seeing a psychiatrist in Victorian London. Twisted memories see her slip into Wonderland, a once beautiful place that's been destroyed and taken over by nasty creatures. All the while the details about the fire that killed Alice's family are gradually revealed, slowly unravelling as she makes her perilous journey towards the truth.
What we have here is something of an endangered species these days: A 3D platformer. At its core, Madness Returns is a sprawling adventure that features plenty of jumping from platform to platform, with our heroine able to triple jump and glide in between in order to reach distant areas. There are plenty of pull this, press that and shoot this styled puzzles, combined with some pretty challenging jumping, which gives the game a retro feel.
It's retro in a good way, though, with this type of gameplay rarely seen outside of Mario games. Alice is also able to see hidden platforms by drinking a shrinking potion, which adds a whole new level of trickiness to the proceedings. You can only see these invisible platforms when small, but can only jump when normal sized, so you're often asked to leap about without being able to see where a platform ends and thin-air begins.
Thankfully, die by falling into the ether and you'll be returned to a safe place reasonably close to where you were before. The same can't be said about death during combat, which often forces you to replay lengthy chunks of gameplay for no apparent reason - a recipe for frustration that will likely force some players to give up entirely or at least lower the difficulty setting.
Combat here feels like a mix between Zelda: Ocarina of Time and modern hack 'n' slash titles like Dante's Inferno. While not all available from the get go, you'll eventually get your hands on two melee weapons (the fast Vorpal Blade and the slower but more powerful Hobby Horse), two projectile weapons (the mini-gun like Pepper Grinder and the more deadly but slower Hot Tea Launcher), a timed bomb and an umbrella that can deflect enemy projectiles. Each weapon can be upgraded by using teeth found along your adventure, and the two melee weapons can be used together to perform some basic combos.
Death during combat isn't very common when you're faced with a handful of enemies - especially when they're the same type - but when you're up against a five or more, each coming at you from different angles, the game's target lock-on system comes unstuck. You're left unable to auto-target the enemy you're after, accidentally selecting a lesser foe by mistake. This often resulted in me fumbling with the controls while a group of enemies swarmed Alice, wiping out her health and forcing me back to an annoyingly placed checkpoint.
Lock-on and checkpoint problems aside, the combat is very enjoyable, delivering meaty melee strikes and powerful projectile attacks. Mixing the two styles isn't the easiest thing to do, yet for the most part it's handled very well by Spicy Horse. At times you'll wish the developer toned down the frequency of combat, though, with certain sequences feeling like grinds through to the conclusion as you battle room after room of near-identical enemies. The platforming and twisted whimsy on offer are the stars of the show, but sometimes the combat is thrown too much into the forefront of the experience.
There's no question that Alice: Madness Returns is a dated looking game. While it appears to have been built on Unreal Engine 3, early impressions are of a poorly modelled world, rough textures, horrible texture loading and iffy animations. Technically Alice's 2011 adventure isn't good at all, yet the wonderful art design makes this a game that's often beautiful to look at. There's a huge amount of variety in the environments and characters you'll meet. You'll move from an industrial factory-like setting to a world of ice, head under water and venture across an Asian-themed landscape complete with origami characters.
As much as I frequently bemoaned the technical shortcomings, I always wanted to see what was around the corner and often took the time to marvel at the sheer amount of crazy level architecture on display. Yes, this could and probably should have looked even more spectacular given the amount of creative freedom the development team had, but I couldn't help but be taken in by it all. The cast of characters are a bit hit and miss, but there are some real memorable performances and some completely bizarre ones that give the game a sharp dose of humour.
What's more, this is a big game, at least by modern standards. While someone will no doubt speedrun the whole thing in an afternoon, most players will be looking at an adventure that easily exceeds 12 hours, and will more likely take 15 or more. Much of this will depend on how many of the secrets you hunt out during your play through, with many hidden paths accessible by shrunk Alice and secret areas opened up by finding and shooting flying pig snouts - completely bizarre, but it fits inside this version of Wonderland.
I'd have liked the adventure to have been trimmed of fat, the combat is at times extremely irritating, and the art design far exceeds the technical prowess on show, but at its core Alice: Madness Returns is an imaginative romp through a world that's clearly been designed by some incredibly creative minds. If you miss the classic 3D platformer and like games with a heavy dose of surrealism, you could do a lot worse than give Alice: Madness Returns a shot.