American McGee's Alice Review: Darkness Without Sex
(Note: I highly recommend listening to the game's theme music linked above while reading this.)
Giving a grownup spin to classic childhood stories is nothing new, much less to take those charming tales and spin them a few shades darker. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll is perhaps one of the most famous stories to get the "goth" treatment, arguably followed closely behind by Little Red Riding Hood.
Alice has turned into a fashion icon - dark or light. And the darker she goes, the shorter her skirts become, the higher her stockings ride up, and the bigger her breasts become.
But with so many renditions of Dark Alice that have come to light over the years, very rarely do I find one that stays true to the source material. Rather, Alice has turned into a fashion icon - dark or light. And the darker she goes, the shorter her skirts become, the higher her stockings ride up, and the bigger her breasts become. (See Grimm Fairy Tales: Return to Wonderland.)
Not so for American McGee's Alice.
Lovingly taking the original story to heart, American crafts a darker story to follow of madness and murder, with a dark-haired Alice, armed with a razor-sharp Vorpal Blade, and an even sharper wit.
Having fallen back into her childhood dream world, Alice discovers that Wonderland has become quite... changed. Twisted and bloody, she slices and dices through the twilight world with a motley collection of deadly children's toys, guided by a familiar Cat with a very changed face.
This third-person action title by Rogue Entertainment has become one of the most beloved cult classics ever since its release back in October 2000 - and it deserves the reputation.
In terms of looks, the game suffers in comparison to the slick polygon-heavy glory of modern-day Lara Croft's TressFX hair or even the smooth Shanghai-produced animation sequences in the game's sequel, Alice: Madness Returns. This is a game that was released over ten years ago, and this should kept in perspective.
With that in mind, the punishing Wonderland world was created with an exceptional eye for detail - and it shows. While lacking in good looks and modern-day polish, Alice makes up for its on-screen limitations with an incredible atmosphere that has not worn with age.
This can be attributed in part to incredibly detailed levels that draw from twisted chapters of the original source material - and not just from the Disney movie.
The rest should be because of the music. From level to level, it strikes a dark, unsettling chord with tick-tock chimes and level-appropriate effects (crashing thunder, swirling water, etc.).
From there, the gameplay takes over. The third-person puzzles that are just challenging enough to get through at a reasonable pace without losing track of the story (although you can always amp up the difficulty with Nightmare mode), and there is usually more than one way you can go about completing them.
But what makes Alice memorable?
In all honesty, the greatest charm of Alice was in fact, not Alice herself at all. She carried her weight of the story well, and I was charmed by the acid wit that allowed her to stand toe-to-toe against the Cheshire Cat's trickster riddle games...
But it was Cat who stole the show.
His dark-chocolate drawl guides you through cutscenes and mind-stumping puzzles alike, since you can call him up for helpfully cryptic hints if you're stuck - or just looking for some company. He is your closest friend while in Wonderland, and he stays with you... until the end.
So, what went wrong?
Alice is a wonderful game, and a shining gem of my childhood. I play it again, every so often, just to revisit the story and the wonderful camaraderie that Alice and Cat share (which was lost somewhat in Alice: Madness Returns). But it is not without its flaws.
Ever since the beginning, Alice was criticized for being too linear and the puzzles too simple. This is largely true. The levels are gorgeously and interestingly crafted, but the mechanics to get through them are simple and mostly require timing, some memorizing, and the good luck not to be blown off a ledge by Boojums.
(Forever the bane of my existence.)
There is only so much that you can interact with your environment, so its purpose is largely just to be there - to help immerse you in the story and stage the puzzles that you need to complete, but largely for atmosphere rather than exploration.
Much of the background story of what happens "in the real world" is told in an accompanying "diary" from Alice's attending doctor rather than in the game itself. It is only packaged with the retail version of the game (although by now, it can easily be found in .pdf form almost anywhere), and if you were unaware of its existence, all the pieces of Alice's puzzling dual life never really fall into place.
As a child, you would be scared to play this game... and if you were really young, you probably shouldn't.
As a child, you would be scared to play this game... and if you were really young, you probably shouldn't. It does not pull punches. It is bloody, and doesn't pretend to be otherwise. This game asks the question: "If you cut a card soldier, would he not bleed?" and then answers it immediately with: "Yes. Profusely."
This is the dark, grownup Alice that I always felt she deserved.
As a fan of the original story and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, to me American McGee's Alice combines staunch adherence to its storybook roots with the fiendish glee of creating a grim new fairy tale. I play it more for story (and Cat's voice) than cutting-edge gameplay and wicked puzzles, but that works for me and always has.
So here's a riddle: when is a croquet mallet like a billy club? I'll tell you... whenever you want it to be.