Alice: Madness Returns isn't your regular cup of tea.
Despite its 11 year absence, the sequel lives up to its original title quite well. Alice is back, and her mind is still fragmented and all is not well with her. Her grasp on sanity is tenuous at best and her psychologist sessions are not going well; the Victorian take on medicine is resplendently well-played out in the form of a Doctor whose therapy focuses purely on just "forgetting all the bad things."
It doesn't take long for Alice to start hallucinating again and thrown back into "Wonderland", coming across the Cheshire Cat who practically growls in his svelte voice that not all she sees is how she remembers things.
Alice isn't looking for a fight. But, as the Cheshire Cat lazily laments, "Really? That's a pity. One's certainly looking for you." Alice is unwittingly thrown back against nightmarish enemies with her trusty Vorpal Blade ("keen and swift," the Cheshire Cat purrs), a Pepper Grinder, and a couple of other surprises for you to discover. Her enemies are beautifully rendered and the soundtrack lends an urgent, ominous tone to the entire affair. In addition, Alice's stumbling into the "Drink Me" fountain allows her to shrink at will, allowing her to see things that the "big Alice" can't see and allow her to crawl through keyholes, some cleverly disguised behind rocks. And, throughout, shrinking will allow her to see the occasional crude drawing scrawled in a light neon purple warning her of challenges and suggestions of paths to follow. There are other upgrades, to be sure, including weapons (similar to the God of War scheme except that you're using teeth, not red orbs).
The gameplay is fun throughout and although hack-and-slash might help you with the first couple of nemeses that you encounter, you will eventually find others that will force you to adopt different tactics. Unlike Dante's Inferno, this game will require a little bit more strategy on your part and the secrets are very well-hidden. If there is anything that I feel detracts from the gameplay, it's the occasional area where you feel that you can explore a certain direction (say under a shallow tree root?), but you can't go that direction and no amount of shrinking will allow you to do so either. That's too bad, because the "force field" walls are quite archaic in this era of game design and some graphical work could have been employed to suggest that a certain area is simply not traversable.
That con aside, the game is a visual feast. I occasionally would stop just so that I could rotate the camera slowly and drink in the sights. The artwork is quite imaginative and is a stark contrast to the parts where Alice wanders around a somewhat lifeless London. Now, I have read reviews that there are some occasional bland textures. Call it what you will, but I attribute it to the fragmented mind of Alice herself; there is too much in this game that looks so good as to fault the programmers for areas (especially London) where it's seemingly lifeless and devoid of rich textures. I simply don't buy it. I won't spoil the artwork for you any further, but the level design and incorporation of everyday items as means for travel or building materials does make me utter the occasional "wow."
Now, as for story, don't expect any mind-blowing Hollywood movie here. The point of the journey is the nightmare and the art. With that in mind, the game succeeds quite admirably.
5 stars, McGee, for blowing my mind away again!
If that's not enough, the current release also includes a voucher to download the original Alice (just over 940 MB) for the PS3. If you didn't catch the game the first time around, now's your chance to get it again without resorting to the insane prices people are charging for used PC copies.
Alice is not for the faint of heart to be sure. The Mature rating is quite well-deserved, although I believe that the cover would do well-enough to dissuade any parent who would ever think that this is a whimsical take on the Alice story worthy of an 8-year old.
PS - just as an historical footnote, there are many who keep on stating how much this game is like God of War, Dante's Inferno, etc. The original Alice predates God of War by about 5 years. It's easier to compare this game to those, however, because they are considerably fresher in everyone's mind.