American McGee's Alice (PS3) Review - DLC for Alice: Madness Returns
Alice Review PS3
The game begins as a fire breaks out in the home of Alice while she is day dreaming, she leaps out of a window to save herself but her parents die in the fire. With no legal guardians to take care of her and her proclivity to talk about her adventures to Wonderland, she finds herself in an Insane Asylum. The guilt of surviving the fire causes her to lose grip on her sanity and when Alice returns to her fantasy world of Wonderland it is a much bleaker and darker place. The set-up is very similar to that Return to Oz movie from the 1980s.
For the first 2/3rds of the game the focus is about equally split between platforming/puzzle solving and combat with a little more weight to platforming. By the final 1/3rd of the game it becomes progressively more linear and more focused on combat as they toss larger and larger waves of enemies at you. It feels like game padding at times.
The jump mechanic is a little weird, forward momentum does not affect the length of the jump that much, the angle of the camera is what determines the length of a jump. When you stand still for 2 seconds a pair of rotating footsteps appear in front of you. If you angle the camera down toward your feet, the footsteps move closer to you and if you angle the camera upward, the footsteps move away from you. When you press the jump button, after a slight delay you will jump and land where the rotating feet were visible.
Unfortunately the rotating feet will only show up on fixed pieces of architecture. If it is an object with action like a flying book or a leaf on a pond, the rotating feet are not visible so you will have to estimate the location of the rotating feet. Thankfully in the early parts of the game if you fail a jump and fall into the void, instead of killing you it just transports you to the last piece of solid ground you were standing on. That gives you time to get used to the jumping mechanic before you have to start loading from a save file every time you die.
You are supposed to automatically grab vines when you touch them during a jump, but in practice that doesn't always happen and you'll clip through and fall to your death. Once you grab the vine. you can swing back and forth to get some momentum with the left stick and then jump, or you can climb up the vine with triangle and down the vine with circle.
Alice also has the ability to spread out her dress and hover if she jumps into the upward exhaust of a steam vent. There also a few underwater section in which you push forward with the stick to swim forward, X to swim up, and circle to swim down. Puzzle solving is pretty easy, it usually involves either collecting a certain amount of items from the level or pulling switches to raise platforms / unlock doors.
You move Alice with the left stick and the right stick controls the camera as well as the blue targeting reticule in the center of the screen. When the blue reticule passes over an enemy, the semi-lock-on mechanic is activated. The blue reticule will surround the enemy and it will no longer be locked to the center of the screen. As long as you angle the camera to keep the blue reticule within a box that extends from the center to about a 1/4th of the way to the edge of the screen, the lock-on will hold. While locked-on to the enemy, ranged attacks instead of firing straight ahead will angle to fly straight at the enemy. This gives you some room for targeting error when using ranged attacks.
The game features 2 gauges, a red gauge on the left side of the screen which is your HP bar, and a blue gauge on the right side of your screen which is your Willpower (WP) bar. Weapons that attack with a melee swipe deplete no willpower, but any secondary attacks or ranged attacks will deplete WP. If you are out of WP the only ranged attack available is the Vorpal Blade secondary attack which can only be used every 5 seconds. WP is replenished by picking up vials scattered around the world as well as when you absorb the heart of the enemies you kill (this also replenishes your HP).
Most weapons have a primary attack which you activate by pressing Square or R2 and a secondary attack activated by pressing triangle or L2. Press R1 and L1 to cycle right or left through your available weapons. This weapon selection system works fine in the beginning but as the game adds more weapons and utility items like the stop watch it can become a pain to flip back and forth to weapons on the opposite side of the "wheel." There is also no indication what is the next weapon in the queue to the left or the right so you have to memorize the placement of the weapon or spend 10-12 seconds flipping through to find it.
Keep an eye out for large, vertical red vials as you play through the game. They are usually on optional paths that might require a few extra jumps and are located just before tough battles. When you touch the vial it will spray a red mist in Alice's face which warps her temporarily into a demon. While in demon form, she has infinite WP and the damage of attacks is boosted by a large amount. It lasts for about 30 seconds.
Enemies range from Wonderland mainstays like the Queen's guards which come in 4 varieties (the four suits) with varying degrees of firepower, to ants and flying insects in the shrinking section of the game, to annoying flying banshee enemies whose screams can damage you and knock you off platforms. In the first few levels there is very little enemy variety but the game slowly introduces new enemy types as you journey through the various themed worlds. In the final stretch leading up to the last boss they start dropping huge groups of enemies at you with potent ranged attacks, it is more annoying than necessarily challenging. It usually involves chucking a fire-breathing jackbomb into the spawn point and then retreating while it does its work.
Every few levels you will face a boss inspired by major characters from Carroll's tale; Tweedle Dee & Dum, the Mad Hatter, the Jabberwock, The Red Queen, etc. Most of them are pretty simple and can be beaten with the strategy of circle-strafing and attacking with your most recently acquired weapon. Some of them mix up that formula, they have a hidden weak point that only appears just prior to attacking or they create clones of itself to hide among, as damage only counts against the original.
One item I wish was included is a health bar for the bosses, sometimes it is difficult to tell if you are actually damaging them as they don't always give visible feedback when they are struck. On the final boss particularly it takes so many hits to kill, I was unsure if I was actually damaging it until it finally exploded into a shower of blood and guts.
WONDERLAND OF WEAPONS
There are quite a variety of unique weapons in the game, it's a bit like a Ratchet & Clank game in that respect. Early on the weapons, for lack of a better word, suck. The starting weapon is the Vorpal Blade (knife) which is weak in melee with a short range. The alternate attack throws the knife (but it doesn't deplete your WP bar) which does decent damage, but the knife can't be used again for 5 seconds.
The next weapon is a deck of playing cards. Primary fire rapidly flings the cards one by one like a weak machine gun, and secondary fire blasts out many cards at once in a wide spray (like a sawed off shotgun). Unfortunately, both card attacks eat through your WP quite rapidly. This is quite inconvenient as midway through the first level the game introduces an annoying flying enemy that pretty much requires ranged attacks to kill it. The playing cards are too weak to kill them (they come in pairs) with one bars worth of WP so you have to resort to throwing the knife when they stop moving, then dodge while you wait 5 seconds for it to replenish.
Things turn a corner halfway into the second level when you get access to the electric crochet mallet (which is a little like a revolver). The primary attack is still a rather underwhelming short ranged melee strike, but the secondary attack fires a hard hitting, electrified crochet ball that can be fired semi-auto and doesn't deplete much WP. If you miss an enemy with the ball it will begin to ricochet around so, with luck, a miss can turn into a hit in tight quarters.
The rest of the weapon always require WP to use. The Dice which can summon a random assortment of demons to attack your enemies depending on what numbers you roll (I never found it that useful). The Jackbomb hurls jack-in-the-box toys which either explode in 3 seconds on primary attack or spit fire in a circle around the box as a secondary (great for softening up a large group of enemies or holding a chokepoint). The Ice Wand acts like a "cold" flamethrower and can create a wall of ice to block attacks as a secondary. The Ball and Jacks can either fire straight ahead in a tight spread (like a long-barreled shotgun) or as a secondary, toss the jacks into the air and they will home in on the locked-on target and strike a single enemy multiple times for high damage. The Eye Staff fires a laser beam or fireballs. Finally the Blunderbuss (BFG equivalent) shoots an explosive cannonball that requires a full willpower bar to fire.
Do note the game doesn't just hand you all these new weapons as you progress, on some you have to do a little searching as you play through the levels. That means watching for ledges you can jump to with glowing objects and exploring all the open paths before moving on further through the level, though the game offers you more than one opportunity to acquire the missable weapons.
The story is...ok. The place to which Alice once escaped to in her daydreams has now been warped by the loss of her sanity and offers her no comfort in her time of loss. The Cheshire Cat guides Alice on her journey to regain her sanity by murdering all those who have been corrupted in Wonderland. He gives hints, tells bits of backstory, and explains the mechanics of the game. The excellent voice acting helps to elevate the tale, but ultimately the story is just a simple and a nice excuse to move from one locale to another killing things.
The opening and closing cutscenes look terrible (4x3 FMV), but the actual game sections are not just a straight port as it features a widescreen presentation. Because of this, the rest of the cutscenes which are done in-game look fine. The framerate is decent unless there is a lot of action on the screen (at least in the beginning). When enemies are killed sometimes they will just slump to the ground, but other times their heads will explode. When they explode the game will often freeze for about a half a second before returning to normal speed. While the graphics aren't up to PS3 caliber they are serviceable, better looking than a PS2 game, it's the same engine as Quake 3.
The character and level design is suitably macabre and sinister, though it comes off like a PG-13 version of Shadow-Man which was released a year earlier. The core gameplay of platforming and fighting may not change that much but they continue to alter the setting which makes it more visually interesting. You journey through a mining town, a haunted school, a shrunken adventure through the outdoors, a gravity-shifting fun house, "Hell", etc.
The save system is a little tedious, but great. The game does one auto-save at the start of each level as a control and then you can manually save at any time in one of the 5 other slots. This is a "save state" save system so the situation is frozen in time when you save. That means you can save after each jump in a difficult platforming section or save midway through a boss fight if you haven't been hit yet. That can also be a double-edged sword, if you save in a precarious position you might get caught in a death loop and be unable to escape without using the control save in slot 1. It's a good idea to alternate when saving between 2 or 3 other save slots so you can go back to the previous save if you get stuck in an unwinnable position. One annoyance with the save system is there is no time stamp added when you save so if you DO rotate through multiple save slots there is no indication which is your most recent save.
It has aged alright. The graphics are functional, the slowdown when enemies explode is a little annoying but doesn't typically impact gameplay. I played the game because I intended to play through the sequel, Alice: Madness Returns next, but not much of consequence happens that would make it a requirement. 80% of the story is summarized in the opening few minutes of Madness Returns. The DLC does offer 6 trophies and they are also story-progression related so they cannot be missed.
I played on medium difficulty and had very few deaths from enemy attacks (mainly from falls) so I would probably recommend just playing on easy as that reduces how many times you have to hit the enemies to kill them. That will help reduce the monotony of combat late in the game when they run low on ideas and just start chucking large waves of enemies at you.
It's a functional, grimm, Wonderland themed 10-12 hour platformer-shooter hybrid from 15 years ago. It's gameplay isn't anything too exceptional, but the setting is fairly unique.