If Lewis Carroll were alive today, I suspect he would enjoy playing video games. After all, he was a devotee of puzzles and board games, and the twisted dream logic of, say, Super Mario Galaxy or the Final Fantasy series might appeal to the creator of Wonderland.
Carroll's creations are no strangers to the video-game universe. They have popped up in games ranging from the whimsical Kingdom Hearts to the grisly Silent Hill. Alice has starred in several releases, most notably 2000's American McGee's Alice -- with the game designer's name presumptuously lodged in the title, rather than Carroll's.
After more than a decade, McGee has revisited Wonderland with Alice: Madness Returns (Electronic Arts, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99; PC, $49.99). It's a fascinating project -- in many ways, quite unlike anything else on the market in 2011 -- that's undermined by occasionally sloppy programming.
McGee's Wonderland is all inside Alice's head, a fun house distortion of her dismal life in Victorian London. See, the rest of her family was killed in a fire when she was a child. In the first game, the girl was trying to piece together her sanity; 10 years later, she's out of the asylum but trying to find out what caused her initial trauma.
The clues are scattered throughout Wonderland -- but it's being destroyed by the runaway Infernal Train and consumed by Ruin Spawn, creatures made of oil, machinery, and disembodied doll heads. This isn't the cartoon version of Wonderland; it's closer to Tim Burton's 2010 movie, though even more ghoulish.
Alice herself is a raven-haired beauty, closer to the goth girls hanging around your local Hot Topic than the angelic blondes who usually play the role. Characters like the Cheshire Cat, the Mock Turtle, the Walrus, and the Carpenter all look quite a bit mangier, and the Mad Hatter is now a malfunctioning robot whose limbs have been stolen.
The heroine is armed with an assortment of colorful weapons: a "vorpal blade" and a hobbyhorse for melee combat, a pepper grinder and a grenade-launching teapot for ranged attacks. The action is wonderfully smooth, whether Alice is battling monsters or leaping between floating platforms. She also can shrink herself, which allows her to find hidden fragments of her memory or read the warnings of an insane child who visited Wonderland before her.
The environments include a sprawling steampunk factory, an expanse of undersea shipwrecks and a colossal dollhouse, and they're all beautiful in their decrepitude. And they're filled with objects that reflect Carroll's obsessions, like clocks, mirrors, playing cards, and chess pieces.
While individual levels are gorgeous, they also drag on a bit too long, with challenges that get somewhat repetitious. Madness Returns would have benefited from tighter level design with broader variety.
It's also beset by glitches. Several times I saw poor Alice plummet to her death through supposedly solid platforms, and I got trapped in one scenario when an essential item didn't materialize when it was supposed to. The game's flow is also broken up by oddly timed, too-frequent loading screens that spoil the sense of immersion in this dark, twisted fantasy.
There's much to love about Alice: Madness Returns. It lets you explore a fantastic world that's unlike any you've seen before. It delivers a kind of action -- running, jumping, exploration -- that sadly has gone out of fashion. I wish Electronic Arts had given McGee's Spicy Horse studio a little more time to tighten all the screws, but I'm glad I made the trip.