EDITOR’S NOTE: I’m traveling for four weeks, returning in mid-June. During this period, I’m running a series of articles that take another look at some of the bigger releases of 2011, reassessing their impact outside of the release-schedule hype.

Alice: Madness Returns proves two totally contradictory things. First, that a well-designed environment can sometimes be enough. Second, that a well-designed environment can never be enough.

Like many of the most interesting games of 2011, Madness Returns was a sequel. Unlike most other sequels of 2011, however, the game that preceded Madness Returns was eleven years old—American McGee’s Alice was something of a cult classic, designed by (and named after) McGee, an ex-id Software designer. And unlike most other sequels, Madness Returns was also reviewed unenthusiastically.

To say that you could debate the qualities of Madness Returns solely through a discussion of its level design is an understatement. Madness Returns’ environments are magnificent, and display a depth of imagination unique in mainstream videogames of 2011. “Madness is a place,” was one of the game’s taglines, and the game’s environments certainly seem to have been built to reflect this. The game effortlessly conveys emotion through spatial design.

Madness Returns’ environments exude personality: oversized mushrooms wobble and jiggle, pig snouts with wings hover absurdly, and giant, carved Alice faces watch on impassively. It is one thing to see images of Madness Returns. It is another entirely to see the world in motion.

Still, the aesthetics of the game are far from perfect. Ghoulish baby enemies and kitchen knife-wielding, goths ‘n butterflies heroines are a very worn conception of what it means to go ‘dark’. The artistic team behind Madness Returns might have done well to remember just how dark Lewis Carrol’s original books managed to be through hints and allusions alone. The insanity of a teenager loses much of its edge when illustrated so obviously.

Equally—and this was the key complaint at the time—Madness Returns simply does not play very well. Jumps are difficult to judge, controls are iffy, and combat feels a lot more like luck and buttons than skill or learning. This is as true today as it was when Madness Returns was released. It is tempting to wonder what the game might have been like if the designers had take the truly bold step, Dear Esther-style, to remove the traditional game-challenge layer and to let the game rest on its spatial appeal alone.

Nonetheless, there is still a lot more to be enjoyed about Madness Returns than its weak critical reception might have indicated. It is not a game that will entice you to finish it in a single sitting—indeed, you may never finish it at all—but it is a game that, with a little exploration, can be deeply rewarding.

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