Nothing but a pack of cards?
There are many wonderful things about Alice: Madness Returns. Just look at the jailbait urchin heroine herself -with her beautifully rendered hair swishing this way and that, or her ever-changing dress glowing like a deep sea fish when underwater.
Alice Madness Returns: Rampages
Then there's the Wonderland around her: rampaging cathedrals built into the backs of trains, a communist dormouse whose Dobby-like voice trumpets worker death throughout the Hatter's mechanical kingdom, skull-faced playing cards built out of punctured, bloody sackcloth... this is truly a dark, fascinating place. The graphics may be a smidge dated, but the art style and the imagination make up for it in spades. (Or, if you're of that persuasion, hearts.)
That though, is all there is. Everything you'll enjoy in Alice: Madness Returns is skin-deep. The broken Wonderland overlay starts out fantastic but a few hours in the law of diminishing returns kicks the game into a nosedive, down a rabbit-hole and deep into platform purgatory. Each (hugely lengthy) chapter is bookended by interesting deviations in Victorian London where Alice knocks around with evil solicitors, tricksy psycho-analysts and black-eyed prostitutes, while confrontations with the familiar Wonderland cast are invariably top notch, but everything in-between rapidly becomes a dirge of leaps, jumps and bullshit widget-collection.
Alice Madness Returns: Combat
As a base to build on, the combat in Madness Returns is inarguably entirely solid. Alice's main weapon is the melee Vorpal Blade - yet soon toys like a Pepper-grinder machine-gun, a Hobby Horse hammer and a Teapot cannon get added to the arsenal. You're encouraged to really mix up your moves throughout, gradually learning the attack routines and frailties of a full cast of black slimy 'Ruined' enemies, red-eyed Cyclops teapots and cigar-chomping crabs, while Alice's meaty attacks do occasionally feel something approaching badass.
This sensation, however, rarely lasts for long - endless enemy repetition, poor camera lock-on in busy fighting arenas and hugely punishing checkpoints when you perish will make you want to break things. (Given that you're potentially sitting quite close to a relatively expensive TV and console set-up, this is quite the bad thing.)
Alice Madness Returns: Girl power
In between the girl-powered brawling, though, is three dimensional platforming that belongs to another age. A rubbish age at that, when we all had bad haircuts and a proportion of us were afraid to talk to girls - let alone delicately jump them between invisible platforms. Alice is thrown up on jump-pads, hovered up on gusts of air and finds herself racheting/inhaling various machines to mess with the environment again and again, and again. The puzzles are universally one-note and the platforming unchanging throughout - whatever the current shade of the game's wacky wallpaper.
There's more padding in Madness Returns than a Wonderbra factory and the narrative will leave you short-changed. On paper the themes of Madness Returns (and the way Wonderland reflects events and characters in the real world of Victorian London) are fascinating - yet in practise nowhere near as clever as it should be - and far too fascinated by floating platforms.
Despite promising beginnings Madness Returns sings only one song, with its chorus on repeat, for the entirety of its lengthy play-time. Like Duke Nukem Forever before it, it's a relic of a game: a churn that could only really have passed muster in times gone by. Things start out so well, but from there it's less curiouser and curiouser - and more rubbisher and rubbisher. Sorry Alice.