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American McGee's Alice (Mac) artwork

American McGee's Alice (Mac) review

"Forget Walt Disney's sanitised version of Alice in Wonderland, and return to the roots of the Alice mythos by entering the bizarre, insane and violent fantasy world, created by Lewis Carroll's febrile imagination, and recreated here, in American McGee's Alice. This is a third person platforming adventure at its very best, and for adults only. "

Forget Walt Disney's sanitised version of Alice in Wonderland, and return to the roots of the Alice mythos by entering the bizarre, insane and violent fantasy world, created by Lewis Carroll's febrile imagination, and recreated here, in American McGee's Alice. This is a third person platforming adventure at its very best, and for adults only.

Although the game was released in 2000 for the PC, Aspyr (who specialise in converting games for the Macintosh) released it in 2001, and I played it on a Macbook with no technical problems at all. However, and this is only one of a couple of minor negative points, and part of the reason for not awarding it a full 10/10, the game is extremely difficult to find. There are many PC copies available, but in all my searching across the internet I only found a single expensive copy on sale, and that was in America. So, if any one is still interested in playing American McGee's Alice for Mac, I would recommend buying it as part of a pack of three horror games called "Leave the Lights On", which also contains Bloodrayne and Clive Barker's Undying. The game has an ESRB rating of M which it certainly warrants.

As soon as the screen loads you know you are going to be in for a treat. The game begins with a story sequence concerning poor Alice. She is now an adult in an insane asylum, and lies half comatose on a bed, clutching a white rabbit toy. She then begins to explore the crazy mixed up world of the white rabbit, the Cheshire cat and all the characters from Alice in Wonderland, in an attempt to defeat the Red Queen and regain her sanity. Card guards and red roses are her enemies, along with various other strange and malevolent creatures, and her task is to traverse the peculiar and twisted world of the "skool", the library, the herbaceous border and other warped locations.

Although this is really just a sophisticated platformer, it is tough. Alice only has a knife at the start, and this can be used to throw at her foes or slash them. Soon she acquires other weapons including a pack of cards (useful against flying enemies), a croquet mallet, and fire-throwing Jack in the box. There are magical dice too, but I am afraid that I found the necessary tricky moves to get them too hard to accomplish, so I can't comment on their usefulness. Enemies are tough to vanquish with these slight weapons, and the flying ones can be a particular problem to target and defeat before they have hit her hard. However the controls can be changed to suit your preferences, and once I had understood how to do this, the game became a little easier.

Actually it is not as bad as I am making it out to be, as I failed to appreciate the simple delights of the quick save feature. Once I mastered these controls, things progressed much more quickly. In fact, without the quick save the game would be well nigh impossible. I altered most of the default settings, something I never do on a console game, and I guess this is the best way to tackle a computer game with no add-ons. I experimented a bit with the controls until I got the set up that worked best. However the flat mouse cannot be changed and sometimes it was tricky to control Alice as she turned and twisted and ran. I also got lost in the scenery on more than one occasion and had to restart to escape. This my only other criticism of the game.

The controls options screen is as weird as the rest of the game. There is a picture in sepia tones of a medical model of a head with four areas highlighted. Click on one and you can alter the controls, another the audio, options and video settings. Despite this facility, playing a game on my laptop for the first time was a challenge, and getting used to moving my finger on the flat mouse, while at the same time pressing another key with the left finger to move forwards or sideways, caused Alice to die more times than the Cheshire cat had a clever thing to say.

This cat is your guide, and can be called upon at any time to offer a hint that may or may not be useful. He is cadaverous in appearance, and speaks in riddles with haughty clearly enunciated English tones. In fact, all the voices in the game are excellent and as English as they should be. Alice herself has the upper middle class tones of the well-educated, supercilious, self assured young English woman. She is dressed in traditional Alice garb of a blue dress, with a white apron and neat shoes. And she can scream to make your blood curdle when she dies, as I am afraid she did all too often in my game. As I said this is not for the faint hearted. I found it so hard, that it took me days of trying again and again to jump from ledge to leaf and not fall in the water and get attacked by vicious fish. Well, which form of death do you prefer for Alice? Drowning, with the awful choking gurgles, bloody ruin from the fish, or maybe just stand on the ledge and get fire stones dropped on you from horrid insects until you succumb in a nasty mess.

The game screen isn't a mess at all, as it is very well laid out with a red vertical bar on the left showing Alice's heath, and a blue bar on the right showing her magical strength, which is required to use the special weapons. Although this can diminish quickly, it replenishes automatically when she is standing still or moving. Her currently equipped weapon is shown too, and this can be changed by a key press. Her life bar is red and can be refilled by red hearts left by defeated enemies, and found at various places during the game. The screen showing your progress is a joy to behold. It is set at an angle, and depicted as an old fashioned early twentieth century film or photography screen with knob presses for saving and loading. The game is divided into chapters and each chapter has 6 levels within it. These can be seen at a glance and you can scroll back to the earlier chapters to see the screen-shots for each level and replay them if you like. If you decide to quit, an extremely ugly and huge gnome like head of the Mad Hatter appears, mocking your choice.

As befits this perverted wonderland, the design choices are inspired. A "skool" house sits suspended in space gently rocking from side to side, and surrounded by broken walls. Wheels and machines clank and spin in a distorted mine shaft. Plants groan and tremble, leaves slowly fall from the sky, malicious ants bury in the ground and then pop up unexpectedly. Mushrooms can snare you, and large enemies can simply stomp a boot and cause the ground to give way when Alice is little in size. Huge caverns pose dangers of falling, and library books form floating steps to higher ground. The colours are in keeping with the period and story, with sepia browns and sickly reds and dirty greens. Everything looks real and yet it is a warped reality. Speech is shown within a small sub-screen, and there are many amusing enigmatic and creepy cut scenes which lead from one part of the story to the next. These can be disabled if you have seen them before, by a press of the escape key. And there is no map or anything to intrude on your immersion in this madness. Except, of course, frequent death. Hee-hee.

Although the puzzles are usually not too hard to figure out, death, the surroundings and enemies, can distract your attention. But the platforming is hard, with many jumps and swinging ropes and risky ledges to navigate, but there is a helpful device which lets you jump onto a set mark of two white feet. Each level has its own challenges, for example: having to swim close to the mock turtle who twists turns unexpectedly, all the while avoiding falling masonry and fighting fish whilst trying not to run out of air. Jumping into air fountains that inflate Alice's skirts so she floats, finding the right ingredients for the shrinking potion, or running down a twisting path while chased by a big rock. The basic elements of any platform game are present but in nightmarish form.

As you might expect, the music is also fit for purpose. It is non obtrusive, yet eerily appropriate and unsettling. It uses high chanting voices and violins to create an atmosphere of tension and strangeness, with a hint of the nursery in the clinking of a xylophone and tinkling bells. All this is suffused with a range of extremely odd and creepy background noises, of creaks and rustles, faint screams and discordant percussion. Other nice touches are the creak of a rope, the splash and "Ow" when Alice falls into water, her blood curdling death scream, and the tolling of a bell when you change screens on the menu page. Lovely stuff.

American McGee's Alice successfully translates a strange, fascinating and funny children's book, into a strange, fascinating and funny video game that is not for children. If you know the book you will love the game. If you don't, you will want to read it. This is one occasion where a computer game enriches and does homage to the world of books, and we are all the better for it.

threetimes's avatar
Community review by threetimes (January 27, 2009)

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Lewis posted January 28, 2009:

I absolutely love this game. I don't know if I own it any more. I really hope I do because, as you said, picking it up ain't easy these days.

(Though marking it down for this is one of the most preposterous things I've heard in a long time. Gwah?!)

But yeah. What a brilliantly crafted game. At heart, it is just an action-platformer. But the quality lies in its wondrous art design, fabulous script and fiendish puzzles (the latter unfortunately compromised by a few arbitrary lever-pulling exercies). It's also deliciously spooky, and at times gloriously odd. What about that bit that sees you open a door only for you to appear at the beginning of the same corridor? And then you go back through it and you're somewhere else entirely? Lovely stuff. Well ahead of its time.

I might have to go track this down again. I wonder if it's just brilliant in my memory, or whether I'd still love it.

(What do you mean by "the voices are good, which they should be as they're English," by the way?)
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EmP posted January 28, 2009:

This game has existed (and placed high) on my "games to play" list for an age. I should get back on the search for it.

Good review, though I agree with Lewis: it was a peculiar reason to knock a point off the score.
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threetimes posted January 28, 2009:

I was so pissed off with the fact that it had taken me months to track down a copy. I mean, even if a game is great, if no-one can find a copy to play the thing... Point taken though.
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wolfqueen001 posted January 29, 2009:

We have this game for the PC. Our dad got it because it seemed strange. Well, it is strange. I haven't played much of it, since I think we were really young when he got it and he was like "Not for you". He did let us watch, though. >_>

Anyway, I've been hearing about the new American McGee title about the Grimm brothers. That one looked neat, too. And it's probably more accurate than the fantasized fairy tales we hear, since I believe the true Tales were quite gruesome.

Which brings up another point I was wondering... Is the real Alice story kind of dark, too? If it's a children's book, I'd imagine it can't be as dark as Rouge made it, but I also know it's not the cartoony fairyworld that Disney made it. I should read that some time.

Also, I find it odd that the genre listing on the PC is "First-Person-Shooter".... =/
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Lewis posted January 30, 2009:

Well Lewis Carrol was a big fan of the smack, wasn't he?

(Well, Opium. But still.)

The book's quite political, actually. Less gruesome than McGee's version, more complex than Disney's version. It's also heavily metaphorical, rather than being a straightforward fantasy tale. But at the same time, it was written for his friend's daughter Alice, who wanted to imagine herself on a wild adventure. So it ain't particularly unsuitable for the whippersnappers.
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bloomer posted January 30, 2009:

Wolf, why do you find it odd that it's listed as a first person shooter, when mechanically, that is clearly what it is :)

And it is a fine first person shooter, but I don't think that's why we remember it. As others have been saying, it has a unique design and aesthetic, that give it a sense that lft it beyond being just a member of a genre. Sometimes it's stymied by genre. That is, a lot of the wackness is in the cutscenes and ideas for levels. But few FPSes are even concerned with this kind of subject matter in the first place. It has some terrifically sad music too, by Chris Vrenna. You can get the soundtrack on itunes.
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JANUS2 posted January 30, 2009:

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is dark only in the sense that everyone in wonderland is absolutely mad.
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Lewis posted January 30, 2009:

Mechanically, at a push, it could be a third-person shooter. Its camera kind of prevents the description of FPS, though, doesn't it?

I'd still say it's more of a platformer with an emphasis on combat, though. Some of the "weapons" are inspired.

Vrenna's a musical genius.
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wolfqueen001 posted January 30, 2009:

Yeah. Alice seemed more of an action-adventure / platformer type to me. And it's classified that way on Gamefaqs (though that may not be the most credible source, but still).
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bloomer posted January 30, 2009:

Actually you are both totally correct and I was having a brain collapse. But then what I said after - I realise that's why in my memory it still feels FPSy, because it's so weapony and killy.
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EmP posted January 30, 2009:

There: edited and pimped out with funky new info, yo. Now the info panal is complete -- and fly.
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zippdementia posted January 30, 2009:

My thoughts on a few things:

The game is pretty awesome, graphically, but gameplay-wise I found it left a lot to be desired. But then, I tend to have problems with computer games, as stated elsewhere. I know some of my problems were around crashes and what not. I'd really have to play it again to get down to the nitty gritty of WTF I'm talking about.

That said, I distinctly remember the bosses being annoying battles of attrition in which the player just aims at them a lot and wishes they had a visible health meter. I also remember the level design getting very old and the platforming elements not... working so well.

On more concrete ground, I can definitely say it's THIRD PERSON SHOOTER not FIRST PERSON SHOOTER. It's from a third person perspective, for one thing.

I can also say that Lewis is pretty much spot-on as regards the original book. I disagree with this review that the Disney version was lighter. The truth is, the Disney version is much more OVERT than the book, which is fairly innocent. You never get the sense of homesickness, isolation, loss, or fear in Alice's book personification that you get in the Disney version. The book is mostly about Alice in a farcical romp, replete with word games and silly characters.

If I recall, Through the Looking Glass is much darker.
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threetimes posted January 31, 2009:

Lewis: (What do you mean by "the voices are good, which they should be as they're English," by the way?)

Not what I wrote: "In fact, all the voices in the game are excellent and as English as they should be." They should be English and they are.

And I thought of the game as a platformer. If it had been a FPS I wouldn't have played it, but third person action fantasy will do very nicely.
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threetimes posted February 20, 2009:

Update, in case anyone doesn't know, apparently Alice is getting a revival. By EA.

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