American McGee's Alice
By: Tristan Jones on November 22, 2005  |  Comments ()  |  Bookmark and Share
 
Credits
Platform: PC
Also available on: Mac
Developer: Raven
Players: 1
Year: 2001
OFLC Rating: MA15+
Seven years after travelling to Wonderland, Alice Liddell is in an insane asylum. Rendered mute by a fire that killed her parents, Alice has not told a soul about her adventures through the Looking Glass, and has endured seven years of abuse at the hands of the orderlies, and nightmarish, turn-of the century psychiatric treatments. But something is calling Alice, a distant, recognisable voice, and Alice is trying to respond. She starts receiving nightmarish visions of warped creatures and friends gone by, and snaps out of her years of silence in shocking outbursts of violence and seemingly insane ramblings about the 'savage Red Queen' and 'horrible twins'. No one believes her as she begins recounting her adventures as a young girl in Wonderland, or that it's calling her back because something has gone very wrong, but one night, the gateway opens and Alice finds herself once again tumbling down the rabbit hole into a world she thought she knew.

American McGee's Alice is a very well put together sequel to Lewis Carroll's classic literary work that works on the premise that Alice and Wonderland form a sort of symbiotic link with each other, and as Alice grows and endures the abuse dealt to her at the asylum, both she and Wonderland go through a complete metamorphosis (think E.T.). In Alice's absence, Wonderland has become a more twisted and disturbed world, the Red Queen has taken control, the Mad Hatter has become psychotic and obsessed with clockwork to the point where he has replaced the organs and limbs of his partners with gears and mechanics, the Jabberwocky is no longer dead and serves as the Red Queen's general. Wonderland is fucked in a serious way.

Alice works using the Quake 3 game engine, but in a third person point of view and tweaking a few things to suit the gameplay far better. There are a lot of moments in Alice where destroying enemies takes a backseat to traditional platforming sequences, and probably just as many where you must contend with enemies while dealing with the dangerous platform navigation. Normally this would be an exercise in infuriating frustration, but what the developers have done to make things easier is allow you to pre-determine where you are to land after you jump. You can determine where exactly you can and can't get as little white footprints appear, showing you exactly where you will land. I'm damned sure that without this little innovation Alice would have people tearing their hair out in frustration, as many platformers do nowadays.

The platforming elements are mixed nicely in with the third person action, and the large variety of obtainable weapons prevents this game from slipping into the repetition prevalent in most shooters/action titles available (especially ones based on a Quake engine). Alice carries everything from knives (which can be used to hack and slash or throw), croquet sticks (bludgeon your enemy to death or smack energy balls at them), and explosive Jack-in-the-Box devices to elemental staffs, razor sharp throwing cards and even the all powerful Blunderbuss. Each weapon has a secondary function which keeps their use from becoming monotonous. Character deaths at the hands of different weapons certainly keep things interesting too.

There's a very large bestiary to this game, each particular section of Wonderland is home to very specific kinds of enemies, and often they are only found in those areas. The only truly recurrent enemies are the Royal Card Guards who are enforcing the Queen's vicious rule everywhere possible, and the Boojums, Banshee-like spirits that attack by screaming and belching flames. Each separate section of Wonderland has been very clearly thought out and is vastly different from the one prior. You start off in a school housing other children that were pulled into Wonderland while Alice couldn't be reached. Unfortunately, they weren't as strong willed as Alice, all of them have gone insane and are found wondering the hallways, some with disturbing scars of their insanity. From there you go on to places like the amazingly designed Fungiforous Forest, where you are shrunk down to the size of an insect and must navigate a huge forest (or garden) of bizarre plantlife, or the Pale Realm, where you basically enter a living chessboard world.

From a design perspective, Alice is completely flawless, and is made even better by the incredible visuals. Graphically, Alice is amazing. Simple as that. The amount of detail in the textures really make certain elements of your surroundings feel completely real, which juxtaposes with the bizarre nature of Wonderland, and helps create the feeling that Wonderland truly is wondrous, but something is very off and subtly disturbing about it all. When you find Alice's old house sitting at the top of the magma bleeding Fire Realm, you'll know exactly what I mean. The amount of detail in the enemy characters is equally as incredible, but as the action is so hectic at times you often don't get the chance to take in exactly how good they really look. Just about every Card Guard has it's own face, and the intricacy of the weapons they carry is unmatched. Enemies like the Boojums, imps, and chesspieces (just to name a few) all have very uniquely disturbing aesthetics that work on varying levels. It's interesting to see what McGee has done to the familiar denizens of Wonderland, and after meeting up with a couple earlier in the game, you become hungry to see what has become of everyone else. A great example of the amount of detail this game goes into, while also pleasing those who know the books is when you come across Humpty Dumpty at the crossroads between the Pale Realm and the elemental realms. He doesn't say anything or have any bearing on the game's plot, he's just there, sitting on his wall, smoking a cigar with half of his head cracked or missing, exposing the boiled insides. Try throwing a knife inside if you aren't satisfied with that for depth.

As a horror title, Alice took me completely by surprise. There's a hefty amount of carnage and bloodshed to be had by those into the gorier games, but it's one of those games where the sheer disorienting placement of surroundings is incredibly eerie and some of the warped creatures and characters you come across in Wonderland truly are disturbing. The asylum level is great example of just how truly creepy and disturbed the game becomes, bedheads come to life as spiders with the faces of screaming babies on their bodies, children who've clearly had some unorthodox medical treatment, and the unfortunate fate of the March Hare and the Dormouse are just a few.

The game would probably not have the same impact as it does without it's soundtrack. As great as it is visually, audibly, it's even better. The voice acting is superb (especially the Cheshire Cat) and the sound effects used in the game were nearly all recorded specifically for it, so you never find yourself saying "That's the same sound they use in this!" and the music itself is hands down one of the best soundtracks around. It sits right up there with the Silent Hill and Monkey Island game scores. With the whole thing composed by Chris Vrenna of Nine Inch Nails, it's a disturbing blend of children's instruments, music boxes, industrial sounds, warped and choral vocals, along with traditional symphonic instruments that really defines this game. The soundtrack is even available to buy over Amazon (but if you know what you're doing you can find the complete score on the game CDs).

Literary purists have balked at this game, saying Carroll would be turning in his grave, but I for one am a huge fan of the books and really, REALLY loved what this game did. In fact, the only problem I had with this game was that the conclusion was a touch predictable, and you are left half hoping for more. However, the concept of Alice being sane in a Wonderland that's gone insane is really well presented in even the most basic and subtle ways consistently throughout the game, and if you read the doctor's journal that comes packed with the game then the subtle parallels between what happened to Alice in the real world and what has happened to Wonderland are even more satisfying to view. It's a shame that this game will probably be sodomized by Hollywood, as a film has been in various stages of development for nearly five years now, and a few months back Sarah Michelle Gellar had reportedly signed on as Alice.

Alice really is an amazing game, and one that will keep you playing for a huge amount of time just to explore every nook and cranny of Wonderland. Now, if only they'd hurry up and bring out American McGee's Oz!
Movie Score
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