Memory plays a key narrative role in Alice: Madness Returns, American McGee’s long-awaited follow-up to his Lewis Carroll-indebted 2000 PC hit, as Alice—still crazy, and still in search of the culprits who burned her house down with her family inside—is posited with a choice between confronting or, as her psychotherapist encourages, forgetting the past. Alas, the game’s primary means of handling this theme is to have one replay—over, and over, and over—the same types of stages, puzzles, and battles that one just experienced five minutes prior. Remembering is at once an easy task and (as Alice’s doc opines) a deleterious force in EA’s sequel, because dull repetition is what it primarily demands. For all its suitably twisted art design (imagine Tim Burton doing a proper, Dali-surreal, and bloody adaptation) and clever warping of the iconic Alice in Wonderland mythos, there’s almost no discovery or surprise to this adventure, determined as it is to establish a competent if uneven template and then hew to it with an unswerving rigorousness that, instead of producing a sensation of hallucinatory, unmoored insanity, lulls one into a semi-satisfied stupor.
As the original Alice is included as an optional download, Madness Returns’s superiority to its precursor is easy to discern, at least in terms of its next-gen graphics, its sumptuous paper cutout-style cutscenes, and its third-person controls and combat, which now have been given a Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time-esque makeover. Alice’s dash moves and attacks (performed with the Vorpal blade, a pepper-shaker machine gun, or a giant hammer) have a swiftness and physicality that’s only mildly undercut by a mediocre lock-on targeting mechanism. And her jumping skills (she can float after a leap, or perform double-jumps to cross enormous chasms) exhibit sufficient precision. That’s fortunate, because despite its consistent emphasis on fighting, Madness Returns is, at heart, a platformer, and an okay one at that, insofar as its innumerable sequences of bounding from one hovering surface to another—often by using steam jets that eject you into the air—are executed with enough proficiency to prevent your throwing the controller at the screen. Yet like its battles, such jumping rarely progresses past a rudimentary stage, and after the umpteenth encounter or impediment exactly like the prior one, the game’s fanciful visuals and droll voice work prove mere façades designed to mask the project’s dispiriting lack of imagination.
There are airborne pig snouts to shoot, playful minigames to complete, a bulbous-nosed Mad Hatter to reassemble, an ice world to traverse, and myriad levers to pull and bad guys to defeat via unique strategies. Without any true variety underlying its sturdy and often hectic skirmishes or brainteasers, however, Madness Returns soon feels akin to a reasonably polished movie-to-game adaptation of a nonexistent film, with its core mechanics and linear level construction not awful so much as unexciting, and its graphics impressive from afar but marred by dull, clunky textures on closer inspection. Contributing to the game’s half-cocked feel, collectibles (shards of memories, bottles) are random and have no impact on one’s progression, the ability to turn small—in order to pass through keyholes, generally to collect the aforementioned collectibles—is perfunctory, and the weapon-upgrade system, via teeth that one picks up from fallen enemies, is one-note. All of which is to say that Madness Returns feels like many, many titles you’ve played before, and seemingly on purpose—intent on recalling innumerable genre predecessors as a means of enticing franchise-newbies, rather than trying to carve out a unique path, it’s finally just unmemorable.