Would you like some tea with that?
People who read the stories or saw the movie (which I assume is everybody) know that Wonderland is rich with characters. The Mad Hatter, The cheshire Cat and of course the Queen or Hearts are all wondrous examples of interesting characters. McGee saw the opportunity to have lots of interaction with characters and jumped straight for it, creating an adventure in which you truly get to know the people around you. Psychonauts also did this and both games harvest the fruits of their labor, a game like Alice in which you regularly talk with other characters fascinates me more than anything else, sure there are dozens of games where you see characters talk in cut-scenes, but I prefer the Navi-like approach to how the Cheshire Cat works in this game a million times better.
Wonderland can be described as a place where everything is weird and unpredictable and it's nice to see that the conversion to a more horror-themed world has not done any harm to that fact. Whether I am watching Alice paint trees in the Disney Movie or fighting my way through the Wonderland Forest in this game, I always feel like I am somewhere new, somewhere where everything is unpredictable. Behind every corner could be another weird contraption or some kind of uncanny creature.
This game set out with the goal to make something disturbing, did it succeed? Yes, very well in fact. While I wasn't scared, there were times when I had to smile at how well the game succeeded. Death animations are a very satisfying example, the first time I took my knife to a card-soldier and cut off his entire top-half was quite amazing and unexpected. The game is also very clear on the topic of death and often main characters would be killed like they were nothing at all, no build-up, no silent hints, just one quick move and they are done for. Area design can also get rather freaky and at one point I was walking through a hall seemingly made of Human flesh. Good stuff.
A lot of games have the problem that their characters move insanely slow, something that might seem like a nitpick, but I always get rather bored when I need to traverse long areas and Marcus Fenix is taking his sweet time to do it. Resident Evil is also a great example and Raz was also very slow unless he was levitating. I usually don't hold it against a game, but here I feel like praise is deserved. Alice runs and quite fast too, this makes it less painful to platform around with her and it gives the game a good sense of flow.
She also uses several interesting weapons that gradually get better as you progress in the game. At first you get to handle a petty little knife and a set of cards, none of which are likely to kill the final boss for you. Later on through you will get the Ice Rod which freezes enemies and the Diabolical Dice which spawns very strong demons into the field. Most weapons really fit the Wonderland-theme and especially some of the later weapons clearly displayed the fact that American McGee used to work on a Quake game.
A nice balance between platforming and fighting keeps the game entertaining to play for me. Very long sections in which I either fight or jump across platforms usually bore me, I need a bit of variation to keep myself interested. In Alice you might be climbing up a hill while enemies hurl boulders at you, once on top you fight your way through some of the bastards before having a conversation with a character and leaving for some more platforming. The two elements are also nicely combined, so it doesn't feel like the game is pulling a big lever every time you need to switch and instead everything mixes seamlessly.
You know what makes Alice in Wonderland my favorite Disney movie? The Cheshire Cat, oh damn I love that pink bastard. I already mentioned that he functions as a Navi-type character in this game, meaning that he follows you around on your adventure and gives you advice or insight into the story. The voice-actor they hired to take care of everybody's favorite kitty is also really enjoyable and you can just hear the pleasure in his voice. With some genuinely good writing backing it all up, we get one of my favorite characters in all of video games.
While the weapons are very much entertaining, the combat clearly wasn't meant for it. The game runs on the Unreal Engine, which as far as I know is more of a shooter-affair and not really meant for a platform adventure game. This results in very poor hit-detection and even when you hit an opponent it's very hard to tell if it did actual damage. Enemies don't really flinch whenever you hit, but only about 1/10 times and at all other times you are left wondering if the weapon is working. This makes combat rather clunky and a dodgy aiming-system doesn't help fixing that either.
Platforming is also rather imprecise and Alice tends to slip a little bit. Whenever I had to go through a platform-section, I would decide beforehand at which points I would save real quick before continuing because falling halfway through a huge climb can be very aggravating. When the problem is not slipping, it most likely ends up been falling through platforms, something I experienced a lot when standing on the edge of something.
Talking about saving a lot, that didn't function too well either. The save-system is very standard, but there is no way to override old saves, every time you save it makes a new file. At first I didn't realize this, so before I even grasped what was going on I had thirty save-files and I had to delete every single one of them by hand. Auto-saves are also rare and suffer from this same problem.
I don't really like games that are too open, especially when I end up getting lost or worrying endlessly if I am missing out on some kind of secret, but Alice does it wrong on the entire other side of the spectrum. In this game there is barely anything to explore, it's a strictly linear path with adventure ahead of you and dead enemies behind you. Even if there is a side-path or you find a hidden area, it can only contain the basic power-ups. I remember that in the sequel to this game there were a few collectibles which fleshed out the story some more, that would have spiced up gameplay a bit in this title too.
The Bottom Line
Some of the more observing readers might be wondering: "Why do you like this game, while you absolutely hated Zelda: Fallen Sage?" and that's a perfectly good question. Both these games do the same thing, they take something from my childhood and give it a mature re-imagining. Where Alice shines though is that there are also more comical and enjoyable moments in this title, such as the commentary provided by the Cheshire Cat, whereas Fallen Sage was an endless river of depressing events. This game ends with a very uplifting cut-scene that makes you feel like you truly conquered the obstacles you were faced with and Fallen Sage ended with a plot-twist leading up to an unnecessary boss-fight which completely ruined what would otherwise be a sweet ending. This game also does the conversion to a mature story right and we get to help Alice overcome her sense of guilt, thus addressing the subject of depression and traumatic experiences in a mature fashion, instead of more melodrama like in Time's Menagerie.
Who is this game for you might ask? Well, I keep seeing a lot of Goths play this game and many teenagers who grew up with the story seem to like it as well. If you are interested in a game that truly captures the style of the classic PC-platformer, then either this or Psychonauts would be a good choice, depending on what kind of atmosphere you are looking for.