Lewis Carroll goes all goth n' gore.
Alice has been living for some years in an orphan house, laying immobile on her bed, staring at the ceiling with empty eyes. Pressed against her chest, she has a stuffed bunny rabbit, the only thing to survive a fire to which she lost her house and her parents.
One stormy night, the rabbit suddenly speaks: "Save us, Alice!"
Next thing she knows, she's falling through the rabbit hole, down into her own mind, into the Wonderland.
Alice will find a dark parody of the fantastic place she loved so much as a child. She's asked to save the Wonderland by its tormented inhabitants.
Soon enough, she'll learn her own sanity is at stake.
First, I assume you live in planet Earth, meaning that at least ONCE in your life you read, someone read to you, watched Disney's cartoon, or by any other mean know about Alice In Wonderland.
Legend has it that Alice In Wonderland is a story that Lewis Carroll made up on the fly, dedicated to a girl he loved —Alice Lidell—, and it was meant as a timekiller for spring walks in which he allowed himself to level with the child within himself. Or maybe the guy was a clever pedophile and used the funny stories as a bait to lure his prey in. It depends on who you ask, you know how people is, what with the internet and all.
In any case, Alice In Wonderland eventually became a classic bedtime story, and it's considered by some as a masterpiece in absurd humor as well; so much so, that Carroll wrote a sequel of sorts called Through The Looking Glass, in which he puts a much stronger emphasis in the absurd, with a more intellectual-ish storytelling.
American McGee is, according to my researches, either an amazingly talented artist and one of the masterminds involved in the design of the monster hit game Quake
III: Arena, or a pompous self-absorbed snot who designed a couple of mediocre levels and got fired from id. Again, take your pick.
American McGee's Alice is a 3rd-person perspective action game based in the Quake III engine, with lots of shooting, a healthy dose of jumping puzzles, a moody, dark atmosphere, and lots of references to both Carroll's stories.
These stories are especially loved by pseudo-intellectual teenagers all over the world, like, artsy goths and such, which makes McGee's version like a wet dream come true, what with the grim-looking red-haired Alice wearing a blood-stained apron, and holding a knife with a blade as long as her own arm, and all.
Most fights end up with more or less explicit shots of gore that, while admittedly gratuitous, don't feel all that wrong in the general atmosphere. It's certainly the only choice you'll ever have to slash a poker card in half and watch its guts coming out as it sprays blood all over the floor, I can tell you that much.
Even though Alice works fine as a regular action game, I strongly
suggest to get a nice edition of both Carroll's classics (you can find them everywhere in the internet) and read them before playing the game, to catch all the funny references. It's worth it.
So, the game.
The first thing that SHOCKED me about Alice is the visual aspect: The graphics are simply superb, enough can't be said on this matter. Everything from the sweet background image of the main menu, all the way to the design of the bizarre last boss, is the true definition of eye-candy.
The environments are stuffed with fancy special effects and all kinds of small details that bring to life one of the most imaginative gameworlds I've ever seen. Every level is radically different from the previous one, and they all look equally good. Often times, I found myself just wandering around aimlessly, only to enjoy every little detail around.
It's worth to mention that I played this game in a PC equipped with a Celeron 366 CPU, 128MB of RAM, and a TNT2 M64 video card, and with all the details set at top, the game performs quite smoothly, stuttering only in a couple of really crowed fights.
The characters match the gameworld perfectly. Take for example the Cheshire Cat, with his sickly thin body, his abnormally long neck, and his pirate earring; or the freaky children that wander around at the skool, sporting different metallic torture devices attached to their heads, with their constant and disturbing laughter.
Much like it happens with the backgrounds, almost every single living character that shows up is a work of art in its design; the bosses deserving a special mention for their impressive and threatening looks and, often, their massive size.
Regarding gameplay, the best part would be the combat sequences, not only because the control interface is simple and smooth -after all, it's Quake III from a 3rd person perspective, with the added attractive of a smart crosshair-, but the weapons are really original, and a pleasure to watch in action; they're all hand-made toys, twisted to have some lethal effect or other, including a deck of cards that explode in contact and a jack-in-the-box that summons small fire-spitting flying demons.
The jumping puzzles, on the other hand, while at times are presented in rather imaginative designs, for the most part are forgettable --if not plain annoying.
The voice acting, at least the spanish dub, is really good. Considering how lame spanish voice acting usually is, this cast was a pleasant surprise; even more so considering the game's story is not that relevant.
The music tracks exhale a strong feeling of magnificence and melancholy, which works great to support the dark and oppressive atmosphere the graphics depict; with some particularly strong moments, like the Lake of Tears.
The story is presented with in-game graphics cutscenes, and while it's not ground breaking Pulitzer-material, it's certainly enjoyable, especially with the aforementioned voice acting; and even more so when it starts becoming clearer that the characters of the stories are mirroring people Alice knows from real life, and the whole adventure is revealed as a metaphor of her own fight to regain sanity.
The conversation with the Caterpillar has to be one of my favorite moments in the game.
The main complaint I have about this game is its linearity.
I enjoyed playing the game, and I'm pretty sure I WILL play it again soon, but I definitely would have liked a more appealing challenge, maybe in the form of puzzles, or even some adventuring to do (and no, running errands for some Papa Smurf lookalike does not count as "adventure").
Basically, all you have to do throughout the game is jump from platform to platform, swing on some ropes, climb some ledges, and -of course- kill pretty much everything that moves. Every now and then you'll be dealt a tete-a-tete with some large, bad-ass foe, which you'll have to spank for a while in order to move on.
Rinse and repeat.
The enemy AI doesn't exactly shine, and fights are only a challenge when you're heavily outnumbered, and in a couple of boss fights.
The platform puzzles can get quite annoying since Quake III was clearly not designed for this kind of gameplay, and getting Alice to land and stand on certain especially small platforms can become too tricky to call it "fun".
The levels give a first impression of being gigantic worlds with lots of paths to explore, but this is yet another title that fools you on that regard, quickly revealing itself as a strictly one-lane ride. There's always the one path to walk, and there are just a few secret areas, that aren't that secret either.
If you missed any of the dialogues, it really doesn't matter, since the story is purely cosmetic. The dialogues play in cutscenes with no player intervention, and they won't be of any real help. You don't even need to remember anything that was said; you just wait for them to shut up, and then keep doing your jumpin' n' shootin' thing.
One final personal quirk: I didn't like the part they gave to the Mad Hatter and the March Hare. It's true, their scene is very effective in its attempt at being disturbing, but those are by far my favorite characters in the original story, and I think they would've deserved something better, something that made them truly memorable --like they did with the Cat.
The Bottom Line
I loved this game. It's all linear, the enemies are really dumb, the platforming can become infuriating, and whether you follow the story or not won't make a difference in the end; but I really enjoyed playing it.
If nothing else, the graphics alone are worth giving this title a try, characters and gameworld are well-designed and they're different enough from one another as to assure you will never get bored with the views. Also, the game performs incredibly smoothly, even in the lowest-range PC.
The story, while practically useless, is enjoyable, and those who own both books -or at least remember the stories and the characters- surely will enjoy this därk version.
Bottom line, the game is fun to play and nice to look at, and following the story adds a whole new dimension. It successfully managed to get me to play all the way to the ending without losing interest at any moment. Once I finished the game, even though the final animated sequence is honestly awful (which is especially sad, considering how good the intro is), I felt satisfied. What else can a gamer ask for?