Update: I was unfortunately not aware of Shamus Young's severe criticism of Fallout 3 available here to link in the original piece and I regret that. It dovetails rather nicely with what I've written and it's much better executed than my piece. I strongly recommend anyone...
Your spine shakes with chills as your heart begins to race. Your mind wanders with the fear of the unknown, and just when you think you were safe from whatever hunts you, you feel it’s grip across your throat. It’s almost Halloween, and you know what that means, a series of reviews on some of the scariest horror games out there today! Welcome to my 13 days of horror reviews, where we honor the creepy, the kooky, the mysterious and spooky side of video games, both past and present. Today, we look at American McGee’s Alice.
“Alice In Wonderland” is one of the timeless classics in the world of literature, a timeless fantasy adventure invented by the mind of Lewis Carroll. Similarly, American McGee, video game designer who has worked on FPS’s Quake and Doom, similarly tried to create his own opus with the young girl in Caroll’s work. His version, a twisted, cynical teenager in a macabre landscape that Tim Burton probably takes vacations to.
“American McGee’s Alice” is definitely a strange game that has some strange themes. In this version, Alice is actually an insane, moody teen who, after losing her family to a fire, tried to kill herself and was institutionalized in a mental hospital. And seemingly, the world of Wonderland has been twisted and contorted to fit her new persona; everything is dark, jagged, gothic and destructive. The Queen of Hearts now rules with an iron fist, old friends such as the Mad Hatter and the Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, have become distorted and grotesque and minor nemeses such as the red chessman and the card soldiers of the queen have been ordered to kill you.
Luckily, you’re not alone on your quest to restore Wonderland to its former glory. The Cheshire Cat, now a skinless thing, guides you as you go through an old school, linear platformer through the landscapes of Wonderland. You need to time jumps, slay enemies, and restore order with a myriad of available weapons that and items you can find, such as the blunderbuss, a croquet mallet, demon dice that choose your poison for you, from electrocution to fireball attacks, and the famed Vorpal blade. While there is really nothing new added to the gameplay, what gives it charm is that the aesthetic of the entire world.
For example, taking out enemies in the game should almost always be done from a distance, because they are too powerful for head on attacks. The difficulty of taking out enemies is almost uncompromising sometimes, taking nine to ten hits just to kill some basic foes with even higher level weapons. Also timing jumps to avoid those pesky pitfalls is always a problem, and since this is a platformer game, doing so will cause a lot of unnecessary deaths or lots of constant jumping. For example, in the woodland stage, you need to jump from leaf to leaf, while fighting enemies, to get to the top of a mountain-like area. Miss one, you tumble to the beginning and you have to start over. It gets very frustrating, to the point of quitting the game almost.
It is kind of interesting, but the game, upon reflection, reminds me a lot of Psychonauts in its design, both in terms of gameplay and its visuals. American McGee took one of the most twisted fairy tales and made it darker, more menacing and quite frankly just devilishly fun. It’s also a well designed game graphically. McGee used the Quake engine to not only power the gameplay elements, but also the graphics of the game, offering slick textures and detailed characters and cut-scenes that add to the ambiance of the story.
The game also has a pretty good sound. The voice actors are definitely into their roles, especially the Cheshire cat which acts so know-it-all towards everything, you can’t help but grin at every line he resonates. Alice sounds brooding, the Queen of Hearts sounds menacing, and other characters range the gamut of fantastic delivery to mediocre line reading. The music is also fantastic, kind of a brooding and sinister quality to the soundtrack through the levels, and a more balls to the wall, jarring quality that can be found during the fantastic, albeit trial and error, boss battles in the game.
“Alice” is like Halloween every day, it’s twisted, dark, menacing, and a fun time. Throw in a emo goth girl as your protagonist, a well known fairytale twisted together to create a rather thematic storyline, and a fantastic visual representation of that story, and you have “Alice.” Despite the linearity of the adventure, it’s definitely an adventure worth taking, so don’t be a White Rabbit and late to the party, make sure to traverse the streets of Pandemonium to get to the party.