It's said that one of the definitions of insanity is repeating the same action and expecting a different result. There's insanity aplenty in the gothic-'n'-gorgeous Alice: Madness Returns, a game that (re)hits both the high and low points of its PC-game predecessor, 2000's American McGee's Alice.
Alice is older than she was in the first game, but no less tormented by horrible memories of the blaze that consumed her family and left her an orphan. Her madness leads her back, yet again, to Wonderland, but the familiar vestiges of Lewis Carroll's creation that McGee and company twisted around in the first game have been degraded into Guillermo del Toro territory.
Instead of card guards, oily blobs with babies' faces menace Alice. Mechanized teapots with glowing eyes hurl projectiles, and king-size executioners try to chop her down below "shrink me" size. Alice, sporting an increasingly bizarre set of weapons and dresses, has to fend them off, collect her hidden memories and find sanity again.
Lord, the visuals in Alice can be breathtaking. Standing on a gear-shaped platform looking at mechanized castles shaped like teapots off in the distance. Watching glowing flowers that unfurl at your approach. Huge statues of Alice leaking tears of water and oil.
Alice is packed with gorgeous and magical touches like these. When she jumps and floats, her midair twirls are accompanied by whirlwinds of flowers. When she falls off a platform or a cliff -- and given the game's huge reliance on standard platforming conventions, this is going to happen more than a few times on the twisted road to sanity -- she dissolves into a cloud of blue butterflies.
Unfortunately, as in the original game, the gameplay isn't always up to the sky-high artistic standards. (Those who buy Alice: Madness Returns new can see for themselves: There's a voucher to download a console port of American McGee's Alice.) While the weapons you'll use are creative (think deadly hobby horses and a pepper grinder that functions like a machine gun), once you've figured out the various enemy weaknesses, the game slides into a different kind of madness -- repetition. A handful of bizarre minigame sequences sorta break the endless pattern of jump-the-floating-platforms, slash-the-enemies-that-attack-when-you-land, but not enough to kill the sense of déjà vu.
Worse is the dearth of things with which you can interact in this warped Wonderland. Most of the environment's just there as window dressing. The decrepit sections of Victorian-era London that launch each of the game's four chapters are the big offender -- they look sufficiently creepy, but tech issues stick out like a tiara on one of the grimy street vendors' bald heads. Clipping, texture and audio issues abound, and that's just sloppy.
Alice: Madness Returns shows plenty of signs of growth, not the least of which is the fact that American McGee, for perhaps the first time in his game-development career, stuck his name after the title rather than on top of it. It's unclear if there are any remaining corners of Alice's psyche to explore, but the visual mastery here is enough to make me look forward to a third chapter.