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Saturday, 7 March 2015

American McGee's Alice.

American McGee's Alice.

You know, when I first played this game, it seemed like the most creative thing ever.

It's not, of course. The idea of a dark twist on Alice in Wonderland has been around for as long as the book entered public domain. But it was the turn of the millennium, I was eleven, and I'd never encountered anything of the like before. American McGee's Alice wandered across my path as a demo consisting of the first two levels, and I was immediately hooked, and had to purchase the full game. I loved that just as much.

American McGee's Alice, the game that developer American McGee perhaps still remains most known for, puts you in the shoes of a now-grown-up Alice, who has spent much of her formative years in an insane asylum after her family died in a fire. Alice suffers from severe hallucinations, and during the game she's dragged into her hallucinatory Wonderland, now a warped and distorted mental hell built off her trauma and issues. To regain her sanity, Alice must journey through this land and defeat the Queen of Hearts, with the help of a select few allies. 

Pictured: Not an ally.

In a way, the game hasn't aged well - in terms of gameplay, at least. As a hack-and-slash/platformer from the year 2000, it has all of the attendant problems of games of that particular kind from that particular era: It's awkward, clunky, and you'll find yourself overshooting your goals while platforming and flailing wildly at thin air while not. But gosh, does the game try with its gameplay: On top of the knife-fodder card guards, the game throws a massive variety of enemies at you - poisonous spiders that make your screen go fuzzy, automatons that crash through walls to get at you, evil ladybugs that drop exploding acorns on you, ants dressed in Victorian military uniforms. The designs are imaginative, even if you kill them all in roughly the same way. The game also gives you an impressive range of weapons, from staples (your trusty knife, weak but fast with ranged and up-close modes; the cards, weak and ranged; the croquet mallet, strong and slow) to more esoteric offerings (the demon dice, which will summon a random monster; the stop time watch, which will freeze every enemy for a limited amount of time) - you won't use most of them over the course of the game, as some of them are simply too impractical, but it's nice to have them, I suppose.

The uniting feature there, of course, is that there's a lot of thought put into the ideas and designs, but not as much put into gameplay functionality, and that probably describes the game as a whole pretty well. From a design standpoint, the game holds up well even fifteen years later: The (admittedly somewhat blocky) environments are still interesting and unique, and beautiful in their own warped way; the characters you meet are still unnerving, even terrifying; the music is excellent. Alice is an artistic game, and its artistry has, for the most part, been unweathered by time.

Also not allies.

(Not, of course, that it doesn't have its poorly made areas. The Vale of Tears and Fungiferous Forest areas are interesting ideas, but in practice they're dull, especially compared with the much more interesting school and chess board themed areas that come before and after, and they seem to last an age. But when Alice is on form, it is grotesque and beautiful.)

The voice acting is very strong also, although some characters steal the show: The Cheshire Cat, who probably has the most lines in the game, is sonorous and rumbling, with careful inflections to make you hang onto his every word; the Hatter is another standout performance, sounding shrill and posh and unbalanced; Alice is a more muted performance than those around her, but she's always great to listen to, with her sharp, matter-of-fact delivery providing a nice contrast.

There were a lot of rumblings of a sequel back in the early 2000s - talk of an American McGee's Oz and American McGee's Grimm, which would have given the properties of The Wizard of Oz and Grimm's fairytales a similar treatment. Oz never materialised, and Grimm appeared in a reduced form as a series of episodic games with very simple gameplay and a cheerful, child-friendly style. It's a shame, really, as despite Alice's somewhat mediocre sales, there's definitely a considerable gap in the market for more like it.

We did get a sequel in the form of Alice: Madness Returns, but its quality was rather sub-par to say the least.

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