Spicy Horse and EA were showing off Alice: Madness Returns at GDC last week, giving us both a look at the third-person action puzzler and a chat with dev lead RJ Berg.
Alice: Madness Returns
Developed by American McGee’s Chinese studio, Spicy Horse.
Releasing on PC, PS3 and 360 on June 14
The first game, American McGee’s Alice, sold 1.5 million units on PC after releasing in 2000.
In Alice: Madness Returns, as in the real world, cake is a good thing. In the game, it turns you into a massive giant and allows you to crush your enemies as if they were ants invading your picnic. Luckily it doesn’t have the same affect in actual life.
Let’s take a look at where Alice’s cake came from in the first place.
American McGee’s Alice first hit PC in October 2000, and although the game received a positive reception from the gaming community – and garnered an 85 Metacritic rating – EA has taken a little over 10 years to be ready to head out with the IP again.
According to the game’s executive producer, RJ Berg, the long wait had nothing to do with there not being a market or consumer desire for Alice, it’s just that EA was in a “different place” during the last 11 years, and, since it owned the IP, a new release for Alice was solely the discretion of the publisher, not the developer.
In the meantime, American McGee and Berg contented themselves with work on the GameTap-exclusive Grimm, an episodic game series based on a nasty little troll and the Grimm Fairy Tale collection.
“American and I always thought we would do more work together,” Berg told us at GDC, “so we started [Spicy Horse] in Shanghai and created a project based on Grimm’s fairy tales in an episodic format. We thought we would mine that field.
“But before we finished that project, EA came and said ‘Hey, we’re getting the band back together. Let’s think about doing a new Alice.’ And we had thought about doing that anyway, but EA owns that property and American I were employees at EA at the time of the first Alice. So anything to do with Alice is owned by EA.”
Development of Alice started in December of 2008, and so far it looks fluid. The art is astounding, dripping with detail. Madness Returns honestly looks to be a labor of love.
The game starts out 11 years after the first title, with Alice having been released from a mental ward and currently under the care of a psychiatrist in an outpatient program.
However, the trauma she endured due to her parents’ deaths continues to thwart her recovery, so she slips back into Wonderland for escapism. Due to her present insanity though, the place is a mess, and she must both set things right and find the true cause of her parents untimely demise.
Upon entering Wonderland, you will find it is a very colorful, a beautifully rich world despite its run-down state – this mirrors the degradation of her mind. The demo we saw started off in an area leading to a courtyard in the hedge maze where Alice had to do double jumps across a crevasse and land on invisible, moving playing cards. Lucky for her, she can see these cards in a special visual mode.
Once across the crevasse, Alice entered a courtyard full of card soldiers and used her Teapot or Hobby Horse to destroy the enemies. There are various types of soldiers, and a large globular creature with porcelain masks attached to its body, so you will need to figure out which weapon works best against them.
Do you shoot them with your Pepper Grinder, or do you uses your Hobby Horse, which looks like a knight chess piece, to bash them? The Hobby Horse can change into a spiky mace, and the Pepper Grinder shoots like a machine gun. The Teapot also shoots an acidic substance which helps when you need to eat a hole in walls; or an entity blocking your path.
There are also rabbit bombs which resemble wind-up tin toys. These stun enemies long enough for Alice to run up and bash them around a bit before the stun wears off. Alice’s handy parasol can be used to block attacks, and one mustn’t forget her butcher knife and dash attacks.
With all of this gadgetry at your disposal, you would be forgiven for thinking you are going to enjoy another 30-40 hours running about Wonderland and setting things right. However, according to Berg Alice’s adventure will be shorter this time around.
“One of the things we heard from fans of the first game was that the game a got a little long, and maybe even a little tedious,” said Berg. “But that was the style of games back then. A 30-hour product was a valuable proposition. That proposition has sifted somewhat, but you’ve got to provide some depth in places that we weren’t able to before and compress it. It’s got to feel more satisfying, have more movement through the story, make it just as complex as Alice is complex, and give people a sense that they are engaged. We’re hoping that it will last somewhere in the 10-12 hour range.”
Berg was unable to comment on whether DLC would be released for the game or not to lengthen it, and was unsure whether EA plans to release a demo or not.
“EA has plenty of marketing plans around the game, but they have not exposed the totality of the plan to us, and I am not sure that I can respond either way for them.
“We are very excited [to release] Alice. The studio is in Shanghai and I am the only one in San Francisco, so I get to go out there every three months or so and it’s great how this has come together.
“The junior people in the studio have really stepped up on this. We are always trying to be respectful to the property. Alice is such a wealthy, fertile property from the imagination of Lewis Carroll, and we feel a responsibility to respect him and respect people’s feelings about this incredibly engaging young woman. This adds not only to the satisfaction of doing it right, but there’s the anxiety of, ‘Will she be received the way we want her to be.’”
“We’re hoping that it will last somewhere in the 10-12 hour range.”
Once the enemies in the courtyard were defeated, Alice opened up a gazebo, inside finding her father’s spectacles. His disembodied voice, which she hears replaying in her head as a memory, tells her never to turn down desert or tea. A little bit after this, a large, scary card bursts through the wall of the hedge maze and into the vast courtyard she has been battling in.
Luckily for her after hopping across a mushroom or two, she finds a cake, eats it, grows massively tall – like skyscraper tall – and stomps the giant card soldier into mush.
Alice is different all over this time. The PC version will also see a digital release while the console versions will be a boxed product. The original Alice was released only PC, but it was initially designed to go on PS2.
“We thought it should go on a console,” said Berg. “But we were all worried that it was a mature game, and most people’s idea of Alice was a child’s product. We didn’t want to confuse the market, so we thought we’d release it on PC first and then maybe put it on the console, but obviously that didn’t happen, so it was released on PC only.
“It went on to sell 1.5 million copies.”
The game is scheduled for PC, PS3 and 360 on June 14.