Alice: Madness Returns

Posted by James Campbell on June 17, 2011 in Blog, News tagged with , , , , , ,

Today marks the European release of the long-awaited sequel to American McGee’s Alice (2000), Alice: Madness Returns, now available on the PC, Playstation 3 and Xbox 360.  At the end of the last game, having slain the bloated Queen of Hearts, whose tentacles had dug their way deep into the soil of Alice’s psyche/Wonderland, our heroine awoke from her catatonic state in the Rutledge Asylum for the Wayward and Lost Souls, looking radiant, transformed – a free woman.  But as the new game begins, we learn that re-entering this strange, Dickensian caricature of Victorian society was no easy process.  No sooner had Alice left the asylum than she was arrested on suspicion of having started the fire that killed her family.  When the trial collapses due to a lack of evidence, a now mousy-looking ragamuffin Alice enters a children’s home, looking to forget recent events.  But it isn’t long before the ‘real’ world begins to resemble Jacob’s Ladder with Jabberwocks, and Alice finds herself falling down that rabbit hole again…

The first Alice game was a sensational feast: from its script, wedding cod-Victorian diction to a story combining underworld myth with Freudian cliché, to its eye-candy, derived from Sir John Tenniel, Hieronymous Bosch, H.P. Lovecraft, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and all things gothic, baroque and utterly barbarous.  Its steampunk soundtrack, by Nine Inch Nails’ founding member Chris Vrenna, was the yellow icing on an already magnificent Miss Havisham-style wedding cake.  But if you haven’t played the original, don’t despair; with each copy of Madness Returns comes a one-time-only access code for a free download of the original.  As someone who hasn’t been able to get his to work in the last seven years, that’s a lovely bit of news.  Look out, as well, for an interactive storybook, free to access through facebook, iTunes and the like, which tells the story of the original game and of the events in-between.  If you’ve ever wanted to take a young orphaned waif, shave her head, apply leeches to her arms, and indulge in a spot of ECT, then the storybook offers you the opportunity to jump in and have a go.

While it’s a pity that Vrenna wasn’t involved with composing the new game’s soundtrack, it’s lovely to hear virtually all the original cast return to reprise their roles, eleven years on.  The game looks stunning, setting up some sharp contrasts between the corrupt and idyllic aspects of Wonderland, and suggesting an even stronger debt, this time round, to the Alice of Jan Švankmajer.  Including, as a character, Alice’s current psychiatrist, whose observations are threaded throughout the game and whose interest in the corrupted Wonderland seems decidedly suspect, suggests there’ll be a lot more depth to this story than there was in the original.  And if the new game can capture anything of what made the original such a revelation, it should stand as one of this year’s gaming highlights.

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