American McGee's Alice
by Polly





The Polly wasn't always the biggest PC gamer. Consoles have almost always been my go-to solution for interactive digital entertainment software. Aside from Diablo, Half-Life, Duke Nukem, Wolfenstein, and Doom nothing much else interested me. Sometime in 1999 or so, the computer I owned ended up getting its shit fucked pretty bad by a lightning storm and for about two years I was PC-less because I really didn't see the point in owning one. I hadn't yet developed my fetish for sock porn, you see.

A couple years later, Phantasy Star Online for the Dreamcast re-ignited my interest in the interbutts again as well as my interest in seeing what was going on in the world of PC gaming. It was then that I became aware of American McGee's Alice. Everything I read and saw about this game called out to me in a way that not many games did. Maybe it was touching on some inner-gawwwwth thing I had going on at the time and didn't know about.... Who knows? What was it that called out to me? The art style, the strange twist on an old familiar tale, and ALICE TRUCKING AROUND WITH A FUCKING KNIFE WHILE HACKING SHIT UP? Sweet Christ on a crutch, YES, YES, FUCK, YES! There was no way to escape the feeling of "I HAVE to fucking play that," and when the PC entered my life again, you can bet your ass and oversized man titties that this here game was the first thing I bought and installed the first chance I got.

Long story short, I played it and absolutely adored (almost) every second of it. I replayed it again a few years later and then it sat in my closet for seven years or more before our good pal The Hutch began Let's Playing it recently and stirred my desire to again play through the game that welcomed me back to PC gaming. After recently spending a weekend with what some may call a relic in PC gaming terms, how does old Alice still hold up? The answer is "surprisingly god damn well."

For the uninitiated (because, honestly, do I use that goddamn phrase enough?), Alice is a twisted and surreal take on the old fantasy tale Alice's Adventures in Wonderland mixed with elements of its sequel Through The Looking Glass by Lewis Carrol. This version of the tale finds Alice the unfortunate victim of a house fire that claimed the lives of her parents, sparing only her. She now resides in a mental asylum, driven into silence and bouts of madness from the guilt of being the only survivor, and is now stuck in a maze of her own dementia, represented by a bleak and terrifying version of Wonderland, where the entire game plays out. Not much of Alice's "real world" self is represented in the game, though the various themes and events that take place over the course of her journey in Wonderland mirror her real-life struggle for sanity and acceptance. I'd consider it a pioneer in mature videogame storytelling, simply because I don't remember anything that went as deep as this game did during its time and handled mature themes like survivor guilt in a classy, yet entertaining manner. Ya know, if peoples' own psychotic issues were really all that entertaining. Wait...what am I saying? DAMN IT, HUTCH!

Getting that much out of the story may be a bit of a pain, though. There's a good bit of back story to the game, and lots of other interesting tidbits contained in journal entries happening in the real world as events unfold in Wonderland, but players without the manual will not be privy to this information. I believe this information is very vital to understanding how both worlds are connected and becoming much more immersed in the story. It's unfortunate that since this game is long out of print (and FUCKexpensive) and there's no means to review this information in-game, so most people likely won't "get it" when it comes to how some things tie together. I highly suggest reading the background story section of this FAQ when playing through the game to better enjoy and understand the events as they unfold here. This information also happens to provide valuable clues toward progressing in the game should you find yourself stuck.

To describe Alice's atmosphere and aesthetics, allow me to borrow a specific exclamation from dear Hutchface's Let's Play:

"Fantasia's alive and it is pissed!"

Even today, I don't there there's anything out there that quite looks, sounds, and feels like American McGee's Alice does. It's a package that brilliantly blends the beautiful with the bizarre. The enchanting with the terrifying. Neither side of the concoction outweighs the other. For every gorgeous set piece you run into, there's always something ugly and disturbing underneath, and with every ugly and unseemly creature or contraption you encounter in Wonderland, there's also something quite stunning to capture the eye. There's a strange beauty in just how twisted this game is, and you're never allowed any sense of safety. It's a presentation that's so unique and so compelling, one simply can't help being drawn into Alice's Wonderland, only being able to look at it and say, "Yep, that sure is American McGee's Alice."

Even for a ten year-old game, Alice still looks amazing, which is something I really didn't expect to end up thinking while replaying the game all these years later. While it doesn't get by with all the flash bang, boom, bloom, shaders, and all that razzle-dazzle today's game have, what it does have going for itself is an amazing amount of character, charm, and detail in everything. I dare you to load up any stage in this game and try to hunt down every little intricate detailed texture or subtle animation in the background or enemy creatures without spending hours upon hours trying to do so. I've managed to notice new things about each area every time I've played the game, and that says a lot for the level of effort and love that went into creating it. Even areas that the player can only see for brief moments, but never actually access have little things going on. There is no neglected portion to any area of the game. It's the striking level of detail that makes Wonderland so believable and, at times, downright disturbing. It doesn't have the highest poly-counts out there, models can be a little blocky, and textures may seem washed out here and there, but those are limitations of the time that the creators of this game overcame brilliantly when crafting Alice's demented delusions.

The only part of the visual production that does sorta fall short is the animation and lack of any real impact in the action-ey bits. This is largely a problem in-game and in cutscenes that aren't pre-rendered. Though Alice has a lot of signature animations herself (leave her idle with any weapon for a few seconds) her attacks look very stiff and don't look quite as brutal as the enemies' reaction animations would have you believe. Similarly, enemy attacks lack the same oomph, and in cutscenes where there's supposed to be a lot of action or fighting going on, everything just falls flat because nothing seems to react the way it should. I'd really rather not post those cutscenes, because they are spoilers, so you'll just have to take my word for it and judge for yourself.

Moving on though, Alice's audio hasn't lost a thing with age. Each area of Wonderland has its own unique audio soundscape as well as musical selections that sound as pretty and whimsical as one would expect from a fairy tale and as tense and terrifying as something straight out of a horror movie. Again, at the same time. Nearly every track contains a beautiful melody accompanied by something foreboding and sinister lurking just underneath the surface. Just like everything else in the game, neither side is struggling to dominate, they co-exist and sound amazing. Also of particular note would be the game's voice acting, which does suffer a few meh performances and a little over-processing here and there, but remains consistent throughout. I dare anyone to try and say that performances such as Alice and The Cheshire Cat are ho-hum. You're fucking deaf if you think so, and I will beat your ass.

As can easily be deduced from the screenshots, Alice is a third-person action platformer, and for the most part it controls well enough. Alice is easy to move around the world, and though the combat isn't really that spectacular, it's functionable enough to remain fun, even if it makes the game a bit easy since every enemy killed drops Health and Willpower-refilling items. Alice has a good number of diabolical "toys" at her disposal, most seeming innocent enough, though having some deadly twist to them, such as thrown razor-like playing cards, an electric-imbued croquet mallet, and a Jack-in-the-Box that spews fire and explodes like a bomb. All are relatively easy and fun to use, but you may find yourself gravitating more toward one or two specific weapons as you near the end of the game.

Of course the next big part of the equation would be the platforming. Like any 3D game containing platforming, Alice can be a little iffy at times, but it's helped out thanks to some clever designer's idea to put in a "jump cursor." Though it isn't always available, the jump cursor marks the area on the ground that Alice with automatically jump to should you press the Spacebar to do so. Some of the more tricker jumps in the game may take a few tries to pull off, as Alice's shadow doesn't show up very well, but there's nothing too frustrating about that. It works a bit better than most PC game platforming did from around this time, so it should be fairly easy to adapt.

What can become frustrating is that there's a lack of consistency with pits. Falling into some of them simply re-places Alice at the position she originally attempted the jump from should she fail, while others mean certain death. There's absolutely no way to tell which is which without simply falling in, and that's just pretty shitty design. Even if it doesn't break the game, it's something that really shouldn't have been here.

Of course there are the usual wonk moments in early 3D gaming that pop up every now and then such as climbing, swinging, and getting stuck in geometry. All are shitty when they happen, but they were almost staples of EVERY PC game at the time it seems, so I can't fault Alice too much for these same transgressions. They don't happen enough to ever become a real bother.

I will continue faulting Alice for its god awful swimming segments. Maybe it's just me, but swimming levels can go chug a barrel of dicks, and the ones in this game can chug 'till the cows come home for all I care. They're simply not fun, the combat is fucking DREADFUL, and I DON'T FUCKING CARE SWIMMING LEVELS CAN JUST GO CHUG A BARREL OF DICKS, OKAY? ONLY ONE GAME EVER GOT SWIMMING MECHANICS RIGHT AND YOU FUCKING KNOW WHAT THAT IS?




Yep! Blow me.

Okay, so the first swimming stage early in the game isn't all that bad and is actually fun and immersive, but any stage centered entirely around swimming later in the game can go fuck itself in the ass with a truck.

Getting back on track to what's done right, level design in Alice (ASIDE FROM FUCK WATER LEVELS) is almost always interesting, creative, thoughtful, and challenging. You'll encounter many varied themes throughout your travels in Wonderland, and some of these levels play on their themes brilliantly and in unexpected ways. Again, I won't spoil anything, but the level designers were clearly a bit more creative than your typical Doom/Quake map makers, crafting excellent set pieces and well thought out puzzles that tie in to both the story and each stage's given theme.

Though each stage is almost universally well-executed, the path to progression may not always seem that evident and may become quite confusing. Admittedly, this can simply boil down to a case of a really obvious clue you missed (*cough*exploding clock*cough*), but other times you may just stumble around for a good twenty or so minutes until you figure out what you needed to do. Other times the terrain can be a bit confusing and inconsistent. While it doesn't happen too often, sometimes what may look like ground you could easily jump to may be blocked by an invisible wall, and other times, things you wouldn't think you could land on are the key to progressing through a stage. These types of problems only creep up every now and then, and again, level design is pretty damn good beyond these points, but there will be moments you want to strangle the game for not being clear enough. Or yourself for being a complete oblivious idiot.

FUCKING CLOCKS ARE ASSHOLES!

Though Alice is in no way truly difficult, there is one specific boss encounter that may drive players to tearing their fucking hair out or even throwing on God Mode just to be done with it. Anyone who has played this game knows exactly what I'm talking about.

Without spoiling anything, I'll just say that when you reach a stage titled "Royal Rage" late in the game, it will adequately describe your demeanor until you're fucking done with it. This boss is built completely on the premise of being a fucking el-cheapo bitch-o with almost every single attack it has seeming completely unavoidable and one attack that can one-shot you even if your Health meter is the slightest sliver below max. Ten years later I still have no strategy that consistently works other than PRAYING he doesn't use ANY attack 80% of the time and just farts around, but the only way to get that lucky is to quick save after every hit and then reload when shit gets hairy. This shit was just horrendously unfair and it is a game-breaker if your bloodpressure rises enough. Seriously, don't let this boss ruin your enjoyment of the game. I suggest doing anything you can to get by so that you can continue experiencing this otherwise wonderful game as you should.

Ten years later, American McGee's Alice is just as fresh, fun, and fantastic (OH GOD I AM SO WITTY) as it was the first time I played it. I know this is true, because while writing this review, I ended up playing through nearly the whole damn thing again while poking around for screenshots and wasn't bored for a second, even though I had just played it a week ago. Though there aren't many, the faults it has are absolutely brutal, but I urge anyone playing this game for the first time to do what they can to get past them and enjoy the game for the unique and immersive experience it truly is. There just aren't many games released these days that have the tender loving care put into them that this one clearly does and that's a shame, because it's the kind of title gaming needs right now.

As I mentioned earlier in the review, American McGee's Alice is long out of print and you won't find a copy for cheap. About the only way you'll get to play this game for the first time now is to either hope for a Steam re-release at some point or just acquire it through dubious methods (nothing I encourage, mind you). Here's hoping that the coming sequel can do this game justice and we're not left with another modern day cash-in on an old familiar, fondly-remembered title.






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