Twisting, subverting and parodying popular fiction and culture is a common theme across all media, but, as countless cringeworthy attempts have proven over the years, it’s not an easy thing to get right. And on top of that, where Alice Liddell’s story is one that has been told many times before, what looks to be a simple setup for a game actually sees American McGee’s Spicy Horse faced with quite the challenge – its Wonderland must stand apart from all those others, and the original tale it wants to tell needs to stand up to that of the source material if this endeavour is to be declared worthwhile. With one decent stab at this under its belt already, McGee’s decision to go further down the rabbit hole now seems more like a vanity project than a lucrative business venture, though, if anything, that makes it all the easier to love.
Above all else, Wonderland itself was always going to be the most important thing to get right here, and it delights us to say that Spicy Horse absolutely nails it. The lush green vistas of the early stages set the tone beautifully, littered as they are with abstractions and anomolies to keep your eyes wandering, but with progress comes a vision of a Wonderland in turmoil. For every playing card bridge in the sky, there’s a tainted country house full of untold horror; for every forest glade, a grotesque and troubled character with whom to converse. It’s a game that revels in shocking and surprising, the thrill of the unexpected and the nonsensical a perfect homage to Lewis Carroll’s original work. The residents themselves leave a little more to be desired – while artistically strong, the majority of the cast (including the titular heroine) are voiced rather amateurishly, only rarely a real buzzkill but a nagging annoyance all the same. Visuals too will be picked apart by some, and while it might not be the most adept feat of polygonal artistry this side of Rez, Madness Returns has in its quirky and tormented art style a sleeved ace. Misproportioned characters abound and, above all else, Spicy Horse imbues even Wonderland’s most fondly remembered residents with a sense of foreboding and dread, a freakish and vulgar cast for what turns out to be quite the nasty tale.
How this tale plays out, however, is entirely more familiar. Comparisons to the platform adventure games that were oh-so-common in the PS2 era (from Jak & Daxter to good old Blinx) might be a little on the harsh side but this really does feel like a return to a genre lost – 3D platform games, though so common in the wake of Super Mario 64, have long since been lost in the sea of me-too shooters today’s audience apparently craves, so it’s actually quite refreshing to see life breathed into the genre. And to be fair, it’s not too shabby an effort in this regard, the vibe perfectly fitting the subject matter and leaping from toadstool to distant toadstool isn’t something you get to do too often outside of a first-party Nintendo game these days. It’s not all good news, though; the ever-present bugbear of the troublesome camera rears its head on occasion, and an exercise in pacing with Alice’s armoury means combat isn’t all that interesting in the early stages. This improves dramatically as the adventure progresses, mind; by the time you’ve received all of the bizarre tools of destruction on offer, battles are strategic, Zelda-inspired tests of picking the right tool for the task and going after the right enemy first – still quite simple but all the better for it. Madness Returns doesn’t claim to be the next Bayonetta and this was never the focus of the game, but combat is serviceable at worst and hugely satisfying in its finest moments.
But enjoyable as its encounters can be, there’s an argument to be made that the finest moments in the game come at the quietest times in terms of action. Intermittent returns to an almost Fable-esque London bring the pace right down, and reality’s authority is stamped on Alice’s life anew. These sections serve merely to flesh out the narrative but some – particularly those that come later on – are truly affecting, Liddell’s descent into madness blurring the lines of reality with stunning effect as she tries to decode her past and find peace. It’s here that McGee’s vision is at its darkest, and the experience benefits greatly from such hard-hitting sidesteps from the usual reverie.
For all its inventive turns and standout moments, however, much of Alice’s return feels a little too templated for it to truly embrace the nonsensical. Repeated puzzles are frequent and, though there’s a real sense of variety in the tasks that lie in store for the poor young heroine, you can usually expect to see the same ideas employed several more times than they could and arguably should. Even on a basic visual level it won’t be to everyone’s tastes, either. Shooting for artistry and character over technical complexity as games like Psychonauts have done before it, Madness Returns is a bold venture, and one that we’re glad to see a firm with EA’s profile back. It may seem from foibles such as repetition and generally sub-par voice work that Spicy Horse is reaching beyond its grasp in trying to subvert so familiar a character set and make it its own, and in some respects this is a fairly accurate assumption. But the passion and vision of American McGee’s studio is evident throughout Wonderland, embuing this surprising sequel with enough soul and character for it to easily warrant our recommendation.