Through the looking-glass

All smiles

Fancy seeing you here.

I recently completed both American McGee-penned games based on Alice in Wonderland. I’m pretty sure “American” is not really a legitimate first name, but regardless, I’d been interested in these games since the first came out in 2000 – you know, back when having an ex-NIN guy make your soundtrack was cool, and when a Cheshire Cat with tatts was a good idea.

A while, then.

I actually bought the first game – American McGee’s Alice – on release, but had never seen it through to the end. It’s a 3D, third-person platformer which in terms of ease-of-use stakes ranks somewhere below DIY-trepanning. In good ole keyboard-and-mouse times, the game was almost unplayable at times. Given the inclusion of an ‘updated’ version with the PS3 sequel, I was interested to see how it translated to controller. And to see whether there’d been much of a graphics update from the original.

I'm late!

Chunky rabbit, anyone?

Well, there hadn’t been one. I mean, it now worked on 16:9 format screens, but that’s it. Those lovely chunks I remembered from the Quake III engine were still there, creating an oddly retro vibe.

Happily, the use of the controller seemed to make playing the game a little easier – but it didn’t change the difficulty level much. MANY missed-it-by-this-much deaths ensued, as I fought to free Alice from her in-the-nuthouse state by killing everything that didn’t look like a girl in a badly-washed frock. Cards certainly get the short end of the stick.

I suppose it’s a bit much to expect the tech of the time to bend to storytelling too much, but there was some pretty effective FMV to set the scene: Alice Liddell as survivor of a house fire which killed her family. There is a feeling of journey from illness to health as you finish the game, especially given some of the layers of ick which crop up in later levels. Just wait for the boss fight lecture at the end.

The second game – Alice: Madness Returns – also pretty dark. (Mind you, the source material isn’t as smilingly happy as you remember.) Wonderland is corrupted and grim in it – moreso than in the first – and it really accentuates the aura of institutionalised abuse. Fipping between Wonderland and period London, everywhere you look there’s damaged children, opportunistic thugs and all sorts of sticky, tarry horror.

Oh, and doll faces. LOTS of doll faces.

The game adds a couple of new mechanics (including shrinking, which reveals hidden instructions and platforms) and some pretty excellent weaponry, and it seems to take the series into more purely horrific territory. There’s a lot of ick, and though there is a lot of repetition (and levels which seem to go on forever) there’s a real sense of darkness to the game. But then that’s undone by the inclusion of random, frustrating side-scrolling levels and slippery-dip races which seem like so much busywork. It’s a shame, as there’s a lot of potential, and there’s a real sense that a lot of thought has gone into creating the different levels (some Steampunk, some Orientalist fancies, some just organs and gore) and the characters. It has the same sort of fabulous, wilfully strange feeling the source material contains, but it just stops short.

It’s a real bummer, because I desperately wanted this to be a great game. It looks wonderful, but it’s hamstrung by corner-cutting and what often seems like a lack of attention to mechanical detail. When it’s working – and you’re not chewing your hands off because of invisible walls and obnoxiously tight timings – it’s lovely. But most of the time, it’s almost lovely, which is very different.

The two games are worth playing in a row, because they do tell a unified story. Playing the first will also frustrate you to the point where you’ll be willing to overlook the faults in the second because it looks so much better – and because they’ve tried to do much more than either budget or time would allow. I’m not certain I’ll take a return trip to Wonderland with these, but I was happy to have experienced their blast of idiosyncratic oddness, however flawed.


  1. It looked so visually appealling, that I really wanted to play it. Something always told me it would be ‘not good’ however. Nice review though, I may wait until a steam sale and just go for it!

    1. I’d recommend grabbing it. I kind of knew it’d be flawed, based on my playing of the first. But what’s the most disappointing is how there’s a wealth of artistic ability just knobbled by the lack of time or consideration given to turning it into a game. The side-scrolling bits and power-up battles are really bizarre, and break the whole vibe. It DOES establish a feeling well, so much so that you feel sorry for the game when it breaks the spell by not reaching the levels of polish you expect.

      It’s been on sale for $5 at one point – even for a tenner I reckon it’s worthwhile, provided you’re prepared to be frustrated as well as dazzled.

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