Games 6/21/11: Alice: Madness Returns, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D, Red Johnson's Chronicles

Alice: Madness Returns
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Windows PC
From: Spicy Horse/EA
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood and gore, sexual themes, strong language, violence)
Price: $60

In the land of video game characters who have recently returned from extended leave, all the headlines belong to Duke Nukem.

But if you want to read the real success story, you’d best train your eyes on Alice, whose comeback validates not only her place in today’s gaming climate, but the legitimacy of a genre — family-friendly platforming wrapped inside a bloody, deranged, M-rated shell — that hasn’t had much representation in the 10-plus years since “American McGee’s Alice” came, left its mark and went.

At its core, “Alice: Madness Returns” plays by many of the same rules that governed its predecessor, splitting platforming and combat roughly down the middle and spreading it out across a lengthy (15 hours, give or take) journey through some large, diverse and creatively sovereign interpretations of Lewis Carroll’s imagination.

Also like its predecessor, “Returns” doesn’t exactly conceal its developer’s weaknesses. Its graphics are, purely technically speaking, dated in spots. Alice occasionally moves awkwardly and sometimes gets stuck on something for a brief moment. The combat is a bit unwieldy, the camera occasionally squirrelly.

Some players doubtlessly will take issue with “Returns'” length as well. Considering it takes roughly three hours to clear each area and how much of that time is spent doing different mixes of the same things, a request for more environments and less time in each certainly isn’t unreasonable.

But these gripes look awful small in the face of everything “Returns” does so much differently than just about every game in existence that isn’t its own predecessor.

The unwieldy combat, for instance, is forgivable in light of Alice’s one-of-a-kind arsenal. Her bloody blade returns as her default weapon of choice, but how does using a hobby horse for more thunderous attacks sound? How about a pepper grinder that fire grains of pepper like bullets, or the Clockwork Rabbit, an adorable time bomb that distracts some enemies while Alice multitasks against others? The controls aren’t perfect, but they’re good enough, and the imaginative weapon design paves the way for similarly imaginative attack styles.

The rest of “Returns” — which overwhelmingly keeps players in Wonderland but also provides glimpses into Alice’s dreary real-world life — benefits from similarly uncaged levels of imagination and confidence. Beyond simply being large enough to hide numerous optional secrets and accommodate more ambitious platforming segments than its predecessor could handle, the worlds Alice visits provide a magnificently colorful departure from the same old bleak real-world environments while still outclassing those bland locales on the macabre scale.

“Returns” gives each world its own visual voice despite keeping the gameplay fundamentally similar throughout, and the disparate designs give the game guidance while also keeping things stylistically unpredictable. Bridges made from playing cards form as you cross them. A ship captain who is a cross between a turtle, camel and cow offers a ride while flying shark skeletons give chase. Wasps made of ink weird samurai swords, trains with cars made of cathedrals soar like planes around you, living paintings briefly turn the game into a 2D sidescroller, and even the “normal” people in Alice’s real world look like living caricatures.

The continuous stream of detail and surprise works in concert with some excellent voice acting to tell a terrifically original tale of a girl gone mad living in a world gone madder. “Returns” repeats a lot of tricks across its existence, and to a point, it repeats tricks it first played 11 years ago. But when no one else is doing what this one does so strikingly well, the misgivings don’t stand a chance at mattering.

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The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time 3D
For: Nintendo 3DS
From: Grezzo/Nintendo
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (animated blood, fantasy violence, suggestive themes)
Price: $40

It’s easy to be cynical about yet another remake for a new system whose library consists almost exclusively of games you could already play on another system or in another era.

But there exists an extremely short list of games that not only circumvent the cynicism, but fully justify the conditions that make all these nostalgia trips possible. “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time” doesn’t simply belong in that lineup: It bats leadoff.

If you’re reasonably familiar with the original “Ocarina,” you likely also can predict what developer Grezzo did to freshen it up. But predictable or not, the enhancements address the areas where “Ocarina” needed the most cleaning up, and in all but one optional instance, they toe a perfect line between necessary modernization and respect for what already was.

For starters, a game that looked solid in 1998 now looks terrific in 2011. The new “Ocarina” is the recipient of a ground-up graphical asset remake that fully conforms to the original game’s style but significantly improves both the quality within those assets and the fluidity with which they come to life. Drab, flat textures are reborn with considerable detail, and the original game’s choppy framerate — which made it increasingly difficult to play as 3D animation standards improved over the years — is smooth and rocksteady.

Though you still can fully enjoy the visual makeover without activating it, “Ocarina’s” utilization of the Nintendo 3DS’ glasses-free 3D tech is the best showcase yet of the system’s most glamorous selling point. It’s still a superfluous gimmick, of course, but seeing these classic dungeons, towns and overworlds transformed into dynamic virtual dioramas is a visually stunning validation of that gimmick’s existence.

Perhaps “Ocarina’s” most important benefit comes from having access to a touch screen. Buoyed by a menu layout that fixes what ailed the original game’s menus, the bottom screen provides quick access to items, maps, the ocarina and even Navi, which means you’ll spend far less time pausing the game and descending through menu screens instead of actually playing.

On the “something for everyone” front, the infamously obtuse Water Temple has received a slight dose of visual user-friendliness that, along with the streamlined menus, should please fans who shudder to think of returning to that stage. Wholly new players, meanwhile, can ease the learning curve via a series of hint movies that are tucked inside stones more experienced players can simply pass by and ignore.

“Ocarina’s” only major misfire comes from the incorporation of the 3DS’ gyroscope, which allows players to move the actual device to aim certain weapons and alter the perspective while in first-person view. It’s haphazard compared to simply using the joystick, and not simply because you’re breaking the 3D perspective any time you have to move the whole device and drastically alter your view of the screen. Fortunately, though enabled by default, this feature can be disabled.

The other arguable drawback comes with the inclusion of “Ocarina of Time: Master Quest,” which Nintendo originally released in America as part of a limited-edition Gamecube “Zelda” bonus disc. The quest itself, which remixes the original “Ocarina” dungeons and changes some of the puzzles, is a terrific bonus for players who mastered t
he original quest but may never have experienced this version before. Unfortunately, the only way to access it is to finish the original quest first, so if you’ve tired of that quest and were hoping to just straight into “Master Quest,” no can do.

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Red Johnson’s Chronicles
For: Playstation 3 (via Playstation Network)
From: Lexis Numerique
ESRB Rating: Mature (blood, sexual themes, strong language, violence)
Price: $13

If “L.A. Noire” is the yang of detective adventure games, consider “Red Johnson’s Chronicles” the yin. Instead of recreating 1940s Los Angeles in meticulous, freely explorable detail, “Chronicles” designs its own bizarre (but mostly static) world that’s a mix of old-fashioned, futuristic and something out of a Eastern Bloc comic book. Instead of a straight-faced narrative with a deep back story, “Chronicles” gives us a stock detective story that benefits instead from the setting and a likable cast of semi-cartoony characters. Paramountly, though, “Chronicles” keeps it classic in terms of its gameplay elements. Most of the unique scenery you ingest will be seen during pixel hunts for clues, while the usual array of adventure game puzzles accompany found pieces of evidence. Interrogation, meanwhile, comes down to dialogue exchanges that test your memory comprehension instead of your ability to psychologically break suspects down. “Chronicles” isn’t entirely old-fashioned: Its visual presentation and interface are very polished, and its method for handling evidence — most puzzles are integrated directly into the evidence, which you manipulate freely as a 3D object until you find the riddle — is really clever. Just know what you’re getting into: “Chronicles” provides a healthy return on investment with a good 10 or so hours of content, and the challenges hit far more than they miss, but if the sudden saturation of adventure games has left you fatigued, the unique setting and clever touches won’t totally overcome the feeling of familiarity you’ll experience here.