Poor old Alice. She's back in Wonderland and it's an increasingly miserable place, horribly corrupted by her slackening hold on reality. Specifically she's in Queens Land, home of the Queen of Hearts and her playing card minions. The stony castle has been overgrown by ivy and neglect and now festers under a piss-yellow sky of despair.
But never mind Alice, eh? Imagine how American McGee must be doing! The creator of American McGee's Alice must have been incubating this tortured take on the world of Lewis Carroll for nearly 11 years. He probably doesn't wear a lot of Hawaiian shirts. And just imagine the office mood boards.
McGee's name's not on the front of this one but he is very much in charge of it. Standing on stage at the Game Developers Conference in a Hawaiian shirt (OK, not really), he speaks proudly of how the first game sold over a million units.
Whether Electronic Arts expects this one to improve on that isn't addressed. But after last year's Dante's Inferno, it certainly fits with the publisher's ongoing commitment to making hellish-looking games based on ageing literature. (Look out for a survival horror take on Pride and Prejudice sometime in 2014.)
Anyway, Alice: Madness Returns is described as a mixture of platforming, puzzling and third-person combat (much like the book). The demo on show at GDC gives us a taste of how Alice explores memories that help her to understand the events surrounding the death of her family.
In Queens Land she begins by using her shrink ability, which allows her to see the world around her slightly differently. (And also climb inside a flower, for some reason.) For instance, she can see hints left for her by the Insane Children (whom you may remember from the first game), which highlight secret areas and point the way ahead.
In this case, the arrows direct her to jump and double-jump over semi-visible platforms that lead her into a courtyard, where we get our first taste of combat. Alice is up against playing cards and a Ruined enemy. The playing cards are leathery, ragged, hooded and filthy, while the Ruined is a black blob with spindly legs, pipeworks on its back and assorted tortured doll faces on its front. Twinkling xylophone blends uncomfortably with deep bass as they advance.
Alice is a bit handy in a fight, able to use her bloodied vorpal blade to hack and slash at enemies as well as her hobby horse (a giant hammer, effectively) to smack them more firmly. She also has the teapot (an explosives launcher) and pepper grinder (machine gun). She can drop a little clockwork bunny who distracts enemies and can be remote-detonated. (We have no idea why Tim Burton left all this out, incidentally.)
The developers describe each enemy as a little puzzle with a weakness to exploit. For example, the cards must be struck from the rear to do real damage, while the Ruined shoots flaming rocks that need to be repelled back into its face using Alice's parasol. She can perform combos and dodge enemies too. The latter move turns her into a rabble of butterflies because, again according to the developers, "everything has to be wonderful".
After the battle, Alice breaks into a nearby bandstand through a wall of creepers and recovers a memory fragment. In this case, it's a snatch of dialogue from her psychiatrist in real life. Elsewhere, we're told she will encounter larger epiphanies that play out in Victorian paper theatre, which we don't get to see this time.
We're also told that some of the game takes place in London, which is where Alice is physically located in the world outside Wonderland. Madness Returns is set 11 years after the original game, and Alice has been released from Rutledge Asylum into the care of a psychiatrist, but things are actually getting worse for her mentally, and this latest retreat into the mental depths of Wonderland is not working out massively well.
For example, back inside her head Alice moves through a hedge maze and encounters more playing card and Ruined enemies, some flying through the air and dodging around unhelpfully. As well as engaging them with simple two-stick combat controls, she can lock on with the left trigger for a better chance of doing damage.
Once they're out of the way though, she is assailed by the Executioner - a larger, scythe-wielding card with a mad jester's hat, who chases her through the maze toward the camera, spinning his weapon like a conductor's baton or like General Grievous out of Episode III (possibly the first and only time Star Wars and Lewis Carroll can legitimately be accused of coinciding).
Just when it looks as though Alice is about to get punted back out the rabbit hole, she escapes into a clearing and finds a cake on a table. "Eat me," it says, and we all know what that means: Alice grows to the size of a house and towers over the Executioner, who drops his scythe in fright. Alice then squashes him beneath her tidy little buckled shoe.
Madness Returns, then, as they say, and brings with it some pretty familiar gameplay mechanics. Based on the few minutes we got to play with it at GDC, it's a game that will live or die (or go bonkers) based on what developer Spicy Horse can do with Wonderland itself.
The original American McGee's Alice built up a cult following on that basis, so you could say it stands every chance. But the world of games has moved on a lot in the past 11 years, and we'll need a little more convincing before we believe Alice has learned enough in the meantime. In other words, Madness Returns looks promising, but you might want to give it a sanity check closer to its 14th June release.