We bought Iain a box of soap because his odor was starting to affect everyone’s work. He threw out all the soap, and now he stands on the empty box every week to write this column. (Editor’s note: the chump who normally scours Iain’s columns for dick jokes and inappropriate comments about dead babies is driving across the country at the moment so it fell to me, the review editor, to step up to the plate. To this end we combined Iain’s regular feature with his review of Alice: Madness Returns so as to make life easier for all of us.)
As one with some experience in the matter, scoring a video game can be an immensely frustrating process, and the pressure to mark a game in such a finite way can rarely be done with total confidence. This, of course, is true of any review process. What makes it doubly worse for a game reviewer is that, in comparison to a movie for example, games require a considerable investment of both time and money and so the pressure for accuracy is stifling.
This is why when scores of bigger games tend to approach extreme ends of the spectrum, it’s better to say something is broadly good or bad because you’re more likely to influence a wider audience that way. If the purpose of a games journalist is steer one towards the good games and away from the bad (it’s not, but that’s a story for another day) then he or she needs to gravitate towards as broad an audience as possible.
So how does this is all relate to Alice: Madness Returns? Well, basically, objectively Alice is very much a middle of the road, 7/10, C+ game. It’s an old school 3D platformer, in a quite literal sense, set in unique but uneven world, beset with small glitches and slightly bigger issues with narrative. It’s not especially innovative, nor even necessarily very modern. It’s the sort of game whose experience can vary wildly from player to player, and for a reviewer (i.e. me) this make a score near impossible to nail down.
But what’s the point of a review where all I can say is “meh” and the only thing to take away is that you’ll have to try it out for yourself? That would neither fulfill the idea of a recommendation, or provide an accurate depiction of the game I played and the experience I took away from it. Alice might be a flawed title, enough to make it nigh on impossible to rate the game highly, but there’s more than enough shine on the title to balance out the blemishes and make it more than worthwhile for fans of the 3D platforming genre, and for me in particular (AKA the guy writing this review) I freaking loved it.
This is my problem then, a typical issue for a game reviewer, but Alice just so happens to especially emphasize it. The thing is, if all you’re looking for is a recommendation then you’ve come to the wrong place. The score that caps this review will no sooner tell you about the game than to read the back cover. Alice is a game that caters to a niche, if you know it’s not for you then don’t bother because I doubt this game will change that opinion. Certainly, that isn’t much of a review.
To blindly rave about the game as I saw it wouldn’t be the answer either. It is my lot to review a game, or at least a portion of it, wholly objectively, as is the fair thing to do. To this end I feel like Alice is pulling on these opposing desires and pushing me towards either a dry and broad review with a thoroughly middle of the road score to cap it, or a ranting explosion of opinion that will hold little value save to me and whoever happens to think like me.
That’s enough of that I think, for the time being at least. Enough of the wishy washy words that don’t get me anywhere save to paint me into a corner. I could probably drivel away all day about the dichotomy of writing reviews, but I have a review to write and I’ve always felt there’s no better way to get a point across then with the aid of a nice clean sample. So think of my Alice review in those terms if you will – a clear and concise example of the difference between the objective and subjective portions of a review and the struggle to pair them together.
We’ll start with objective, or more accurately, the negative. There’s really one overwhelming issue with Alice, that in turn highlights other problems. This is, to use annoyingly nondescript language, an inherent lack of polish. Visually the game is beset by minor glitches, clipping mostly, that detract quite heavily from the design and occasionally impact the gameplay. There’s really no two ways about a problem like this – it’s a flaw in the game that negatively impacts its quality
The lack of time spent fine tuning the title is especially, and painfully evident, in the presentation of the narrative. Alice weaves an interesting enough tale (though it plays a distant second fiddle to the games aesthetic which clearly had more effort put into it than the story) but it is, if I’m being perfectly frank, terribly told. Story beats just kind of happen with little to no build up, and at times the narrative is immensely confusing. The latter sections are particularly bad in this regard as the story bounces between a succession of weakly linked cut scenes that vary in style and quality. I wanted to know what happens next, which is arguably the only condition that a story really needs to fulfill, but I found myself filling in a lot of the gaps in my head when the game was not especially forthcoming, or clear, in its efforts of exposition.
Ultimately, Alice falls foul of a mortal sin for video games, basically the one thing that’s preventing me from pissing in the wind and writing a five star review for the game. It could have been better and it should have been better. Nothing drives me mad quite like wasted potential, and while the stink of it might be enough to send me into fits of rage, to see it so brazenly laid out on the table like we see in Madness Returns makes me livid. I’ve already mentioned the visual issues, and the story desperately needed more time and someone with a shade more insanity than whoever it was that put together the narrative.
On top of this you can add repetitive gameplay that exists only to pad the game’s length and god awful mini-games that add nothing to the title. That first point, repetition, wasn’t too big a deal for me because I enjoy so much of the title, but, and speaking objectively of course, I have to imagine that for a lot of people this is will be make or break moment. It’s not as bad as some other reviews have made it seem (honestly, some reviews I’ve read I just don’t know where they think they’re coming from) but unless you’re predisposed towards the gameplay there’s a pretty solid chance that parts of Madness Returns will drive you up the wall.
The second point is next to inexcusable for a modern game, even to someone like me who loved the title. Occasionally, the brief diversions from the standard game are quite entertaining and a refreshing change of place. A trio of beautifully designed 2D levels are a highlight of the third chapter, and the puzzles that require you use your brain offer a nice change of pace (even if most of them are very simple). The rest of it was awful though. Laboriously slow side scrolling shooting sections and weird Super Monkey Ball like mini levels, were by far the worst. None of it added anything to the game, often they took away from it and made the game a whole lot duller than it normally is. Again, it all stems back to this lack of polish, almost like they made only three quarters of a good game and hurriedly stuffed in the rest a few weeks before release.
But about those three quarters, they are some damn good fractions. I’ve missed 3D platforming like this, all jump, jump, and jump again (before the platform you’re on disappears) and none of that hand holding bullshit we see in the likes of Assassins Creed or Uncharted. Now, don’t get me wrong, the AC and Uncharted games are two of my favorite series from this latest generation of gaming but I love challenging platforming gameplay and the almost unforgiving nature of Alice’s 3D platforming. I especially loved that portions of the game required me to leap from one invisible surface to another while being timed. Killing twenty bad guys is fun and all, but nothing beats a thirty second sequence of two dozen perfectly timed and executed jumps that leave you pumping your fist at the end and patting yourself on the back for being so awesome.
Complimenting the solid gameplay is a wonderfully designed, if a shade repetitive and uneven in parts, world that draws deeply from the rich well of Alice lore. Taking cues from both of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland novels, Madness Returns features an eclectic and colorful cast of characters that populate the game’s five, distinct chapters. All the old favorites are around, The Mad Hatter, March Hare, Red Queen and Cheshire Cat all appear in the game alongside a few other twisted versions of Carroll’s old characters. And the world they occupy is quintessentially Wonderland, sharing the same casual regard for dimension and space as the literary version, though with an almost pevertedly twisted version of it.
To my mind, the star of the game’s design is also one of the its sorely underused strengths. The comic book-esque depiction of Victorian London that Alice returns to in between jaunts to Wonderland is exceptionally well realized and I wish I had more time to play there (not to mention, more to do). In fact, if someone ever makes a game based on Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” novels then this is exactly how I want the world to look. Largely realistic buildings are populated by grotesquely unrealistic human characters. All big heads and even bigger breasts, and men with 300 pound torsos propped up on twig thin legs.
I suspect that the degree to which the visual style of Alice takes you in plays a large role in how much you will ultimately enjoy the title. For me, the aesthetic of Madness Returns appealed so much to my sensibilities that the game wrapped me up and wouldn’t let go for days. I loved just being in the world. Admiring the twisted architecture and grotesquely beautiful character designs was more than enough reason for me to overlook the occasional glitch or moment of sour gameplay.
Indeed, the more I think about it the more it seems odd to me that a game I criticized for a lack of polish I now praise for its presentation. But the only way I can think to put it is that the more one likes this game, the more enamored they’ll be with the visuals and design. The less one likes the title however and the more likely they’ll be able to see the design as a flawed and unfinished work. Thus it would seem we have come full circle – I started the day pondering the difficulty of writing a review and just now have I answered at least one of my questions, though it still doesn’t change the fact that “try it for yourself” remains the best advice I have to give.
Let’s wrap this up before I rabble any further. Games journalism ain’t rocket science, it’s probably more equitable to the level of working behind the cash register at McDonald’s and composing bad poetry for the emo girl that makes the nuggets. Reviewing a game can still be a pretty taxing process however, and for the most part broad strokes are required even when the audience chides us for our conservative attitude. For Alice this means two things – One, that sometimes a middle of the road, completely useless review is exactly what you’ll get if all you care about is objectivity. Two, I don’t believe this is the best way to review games and that subjectivity should ultimately play a large roll. And so with that, let’s make with the final score.
Alice: Madness Returns was released on June 14th, 2011 for Xbox 360, PS3, and PC. Review is based on the PS3 version.