In the Rutledge Asylum, Dr Bumby is treating Alice for a severe case of the mentally ills. After her family were killed in a fire, her state has deteriorated to the point where she's haunted by dreams, led around by hallucinations, and deconstructing reality in a way that's charming in fiction, but would bore the tits off you in real life.
This world is harsh, with her family dead, and Alice tolerated mainly by people plotting to betray her. This gloomy, unfriendly London is one of Madness Return's strengths. Olde Lonnedonne Towne is looming and claustrophic. The oppressive buildings and the tight camera angle blot out the sky. The grotesque residents are a nicely stylised reminder that Americans think we're a race of buck-toothed horse-creatures.
These real-world moments between chapters are sadly brief. After a short, slow chase through narrowing corridors, Alice winds up in the clockwork chapter of Wonderland. The Cheshire Cat is waiting, full of portent and friendly, wise and utterly unhelpful banter - another of the game's strongest moments. The Cat might look like he's just pulled his face from a bag of narcotics, but these chats feel in keeping to the source material. It's slowly downhill from here.
Strip away the stylings, and Madness Returns is an simple, old-school platformer. And these days, that's only really a compliment if you're bringing an interesting tweak, and immaculate execution. All Alice has is the quirkiness of its locations.
You'll enjoy the first chapter, but after that, the game is far too content to rest on its laurels. Each of the five chapters simply reskins and recycles these opening ideas, to the point where every move becomes fatiguingly familiar. Chaper 1's clockwork valves become Chapter 3's hookah pipes. Same shit, different graphic. A moment where everything goes 2D is visually great - but there's nothing in the 2D platformer to challenge or take advantage of the new ideas.
Snicker Snack Attack
Alice begins with a multiple jump - she can double jump, billow out her dress to glide, and interrupt that ladylike descent two more times with more jumps. This extended range means that the levels can be open and large, and the platforms far apart. Unfortunately, the naturally shallow angle of the camera can hide the platform you're trying to land on. This makes the whole process feel grubby and unsatisfying.
Even though you'll rarely miss the platform - and if you do, the punishment is negligible - the extended platforming sections of Alice will leave you feeling agitated.
Alice is defenceless in the real world. She's ignored, abused, and attacked. In Wonderland, however, she's a brutal serial murderess. She carries the Jabberwocky-slaying snicker-snacking Vorpal Blade, and a pepper grinder. A hobby horse gives her a heavy hammering attack, and her last weapon is the teapot, which fires a chargeable puddle of steaming, corrosive Darjeeling that's excellent for scalding large groups of enemies.
Defensively, Alice can deflect strikes with her parasol, and sports an elegant dodge that transforms her for a couple of meters into a cloud of invulnerable butterflies. You also have in infinite supply of clockwork exploding rabbits, who can also be used to weigh down pressure plates.
As you'd expect, different enemies react differently to different attacks - beating enemies in Madness Returns is not a matter of stringing together light and heavy combos, and it's definitely not a matter of fine timing and quick reactions.