Review: American McGee's Alice
Reviewed By: Kirk Hiner
Review Date: August 10, 2001
I'll be honest. When I first heard they were making Alice into a computer game, I didn't think it was a great idea. I mean, a game set in Mel's Diner? What's the fun in virtually serving corned beef hash and burgers to 1970s character actors? Who would play Mel now that Vic Tayback is dead? Will the success of the game spawn the spin-off American McGee's Flo?
Then, much to my embarrassment, I learned the game is based on that other Alice; the maid for the Brady Kids, and that it entails somehow finding Bobby's lost whatever-he's-lost while dispensing wisdom to a disgruntled Jan, all while having the pot roast ready by six.
Nope, wrong again, I learned. This is, in fact, American McGee's Alice, which begs the question, is American McGee really so important that he gets to have his name in the title?
Sure he is. He designed the game and directed the project, after all, which is probably more than we can say for Clive Barker's Undying or Tom Clancy's Rainbox Six. It's for the best, anyway, because we should immediately differentiate this Alice from Disney's Alice in Wonderland. In fact, as a parody of Disney's moniker on the company's movies, American McGee's Alice is actually a very funny title.
When I first showed my wife the box for the PC version of American McGee's Alice, she was mortified. "Why do they have to take a perfectly good children's story and ruin it like this?" Tieraney, you see, is the victim of a very Disney upbringing. Children's story? Anyone who has read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) knows that long before there was Martin Short and Whitney Houston or whoever Disney is casting in these things, there was opium. Plenty of it. No, Alice in Wonderland, although written for an actual nine-year-old girl named Alice (the daughter of Henry Liddell, the Dean of Oxford, where Carroll taught math), is not the tale Disney has given us. It's creepy, and it's freaky, and it's funny, and it's like no other children's story ever written...except perhaps for some of Roald Dahl's books.
It's for this reason I can't understand why everyone is bragging up American McGee's Alice as being, dare I even quote it, "edgy." That would be like calling the remake of Psycho "tense." Throw in all the slanted doors and crumbling floors you want, you can't make Alice's Adventures in Wonderland any edgier than it already is. You can, however, make it cooler, like Tom Petty did in the video for "Don't Come Around Here No More," but that's neither here nor there.
So lets ignore the story's past and the game's hype and just talk about the gameplay, shall we? Needless to say, you play American McGee's Alice. Ends up the poor girl's parents died in a fire, and Alice blames American McGee's herself for their deaths. She feels so guilty that she's gone into a Tommy-like catatonic state, only she doesn't play a mean pinball.
While in the Rutledge Private Clinic and Asylum, she psychologically retreats back into Wonderland to find it "wickedly deformed" by the cruel Queen of Hearts. [SPOILER ALERT: The Queen of Hearts is not Juice Newton.] It's all fairly Narnian, actually, and it's up to American McGee's Alice--or just Alice, I guess, as I'm sure this joke is getting old--to change things back from "wickedly deformed" to just "utterly bizarre."
American McGee's Alice has plenty of nice touches throughout. The first comes before you even install the game; Dr. Heironymous Q. Wilson's casebook on Alice. It perfectly sets the tone for the game, and I highly recommend all players read it.
Within the game itself, my favorite feature would have to be the footprints. When standing in a stationary position, twirling footprints appear before Alice to indicate where she'll land if she jumps. This not only gives you better control of your jumps, but also means you don't have to be running forward to jump forward. A nice touch on small ledges, and very important in a game where you can control your direction in the air after you've jumped. This is Wonderland, after all, and I'm certain the 12" dance mix of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" mentioned that the laws of physics do not apply.
Alice does not lose life in this game, she loses sanity. When that's gone, she sinks permanently into her catatonic state and she and Wonderland are doomed. Luckily, with each enemy killed, she can gain some sanity back by acquiring his meta-essence. Keeping Alice's will up is also important; the stronger her will, the more deadly her toys.
I guess we should talk about that as well, since everyone loves to check out the new weapons in games such as this. Gone are the pistols, sniper rifles and rocket launchers, replaced instead with "toys" such as cards, croquet mallets and jacks. Why does this game have a mature rating again? Oh yeah, because of the demon dice, deadtime watch and trusty vorpal blade which extract more blood from a chess pawn than you'd think it could contain.
Ah, the enemies. Lets see...chess pieces, boojums, card guards, demonic fire imps, jabberspawn, and countless others who will make you thank God for His mode. Trust me on this, Lara Croft never had it so rough. Of course, she also never had the Cheshire Cat to help her out.
What really drives Alice, however, are the visuals. I mean, American put his name up there for a reason, right? The graphics are as good as you'd expect from a game based on enhanced Quake III tehnology, but it goes well beyond that. Some of the levels in this game are simply wild to look at, and more than once I found myself telling my wife, "Tieraney, you have to check this out!" This game goes well beyond how I imagined Wonderland would look after reading the story, and finally restores the imaginative creepiness that was mercilessly stripped away by Disney three or four different times now.
Yet I didn't enjoy American McGee's Alice as much I thought I would. I loved the look of the game and I loved the characters, but the gameplay grew tiresome after a while. I was more interested in seeing what the next level would look like than in Alice's adventure, and that wasn't quite enough to drive me towards the finish. The problem, as I see it, is that there was too much killing and not enough exploring and puzzle solving. The best moments in this game are when Alice has to solve puzzles that force her to interact with the wonderfully bizarre environment, an environment that has more personality than perhaps Alice herself (of course, in her defense, she is in a coma or something). In that aspect, playing American McGee's Alice is like watching Batman Returns; it's great to look at and the characters are cool enough to freeze Jell-O, but an overabundance of villians and unsatisfying story development leave it a little too flat.
So, yeah, American McGee's Alice is a good game. Those looking for a little more style than you can get from Tomb Raider, Rune, etc., are going to find it here. You're also going to find OS X compability, provided you have the RAM for it. American McGee's Alice wants 128MB all to herself, and trust me...you don't want to make her mad. She may look cute, but as a wise man once told me, "A pretty face don't mean no pretty heart."
And so, I suppose it's only appropriate to end this review with a quote from Lewis Carroll:
Or, if that's too literate, perhaps this quote from Florence Jean Castleberry:
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