Welcome to Best of Xbox Game Pass where each week I’m going to pick out a game available on Game Pass and explain why I think it is worth playing. While I’ll certainly include some of the bigger titles available on the service, I’ll focus more on other games that you might have overlooked in the hope of leading you to a hidden gem
After the peaceful, relaxing experience of building hospitals and curing people suffering from illnesses in Two-Point Hospital, I thought it would be nice to shift gears and bring some much-needed darkness into our lives. I’ve always had a love for things that take classic fairytales and feel-good stories and twist them into something sinister and strange, which is why this week I’m jumping back to the Xbox 360 era and the cultural touchstone that is Alice in Wonderland.
Alice: Madness Returns is actually a sequel to American McGee’s Alice, which was launched a full ten years before Madness Returns arrived. Both games were created by the demented minds of Spicy Horse and American McGee, whose first name legitimately is American. Published by EA, neither game ever managed to find huge success, explaining the vast gulf of time between releases and the lack of a third game, although there is still hope for that, Fear not, though, because the original game actually comes with Madness Returns and can be accessed from the main menu. But if you don’t fancy playing that, you can still enjoy Madness Returns.
Alice Liddell spent her early years in an asylum under the belief that she was responsible for the fire that killed her parents and her sister, forcing her mind to retreat into Wonderland, the colourful and insane world we all know from the classic stories. Madness Returns takes place one year after Alice was released, having managed to save Wonderland and thus repair her fractured mind. Now nineteen, Alice finds employment under a Doctor who tries to help her forget her trauma, and in return Alice looks after the various orphans under the Doctor’s care. But although Alice may have been released back into the public she still suffers from her emotional trauma, prone to bouts of survivor’s guilt and hallucinations. Before long something happens that sends Alice spiralling back into a broken and ruined Wonderland.
Madness Returns is a bleak, dark game at times. Not only is it heavily rooted in Alice’s own psychological trauma but it also paints a picture of a desolate, horrendous London that you occasionally get to explore. The story takes numerous twists and turns before ending in a particularly brutal fashion. In other words, it’s not a story for the feint of heart and it earns its mature rating. This ain’t your grandad’s colourful and cheerful Alice, that’s for sure. It’s a trip down a rabbit hole well worth taking, though, especially because there are a lot of details to pick apart and analyse, like how characters and areas represent aspects of Alice’s personality, her madness and her despair.
As a fairly low budget game from the Xbox 360 era, Alice: Madness Returns hasn’t aged too well from a technical standpoint. Textures are low-res, there’s jagged lines everywhere and the framerate can sometimes chug like an Asthmatic having a coughing fit. It doesn’t matter, though, because what Alice: Madness Returns may lack in raw graphical oomph it more than makes up for in its deliciously twisted art-style. The character designs are especially gorgeous to look at, like someone took all the classic Alice imagery, set it on fire and then used the ashes to paint this new, horrific version of Wonderland’s inhabitants. That’s not to take anything away from the environments, either, whether it’s the Mad Hatter’s mechanical realm or the Oriental Grove with its origami ants. In a great little touch, Alice’s dress changes based on the realm she’s in. Everything you see in Madness Returns is creepy and fascinating, a macabre journey that reflects Alice’s mental state every step of the way. I love it.
Alice is no simpering girl, mind you, she’s a bloodthirsty badass who wields the Vorpal Blade, which is basically a kitchen knife. Michael Myers would be impressed. But she also has a couple of other weapons at her disposal, including a Hobby Horse for heavy attacks and a pepper grinder that acts as a minigun. You read that right. It’s a good thing she has them because the enemies in Madness Returns are suitably creepy, from teapots with eyeballs to black gloop with doll faces. Oh, and Samurai Wasps. That’s two words I never thought I would combine.
Combat is pretty simple, with X handling the slashing, Y unleashing the Hobby Horse for a slam and pulling the left trigger focuses on enemies, which then lets you pelt them with pepper or tap A to block incoming attacks with your trusty umbrella. It’s not the smoothest fighting around, but honestly the fact that you’re obliterating a teapot with a pepper grinder makes it really hard to care. And the excellent enemy designs keep the fighting entertaining throughout.
And if you aren’t fighting you’re platforming. As a 3rd person platformer Madness Returns does quite well, probably because it never focuses on trying to be ultra precise. It’s a basic mix of timing, double jumps and glides, but executed solidly enough to be enjoyable rather than tedious.
A third game in the series titled Alice: Asylum is being made by Spicy Horse and American McGee, with progress being posted to their Patreon. Right now, however, it’s hard to say when it’ll be released, so the original game and Madness Returns are all we have of this devilishly delightful action-platformer franchise that has been sorely overlooked. Madness Returns is rough around the edges and does have its fair share of bugs, but it’s also one of the most visually exciting games around and is like nothing else. It’s a unique experience worthy of playing simply because of that, but underneath the Tim Burton visuals lives a solid game, too. If you have Game Pass and you’re a fan of horror, of all things twisted and dark, and if the idea of Alice covered in blood and wielding a knife is exciting, then Alice: Madness Returns is perfect for you. It’s an underrated gem, worthy of being polished and admired before it sucks you down into Wonderland.