There are many wonderful things about Alice: Madness Returns. Just look at the jailbait urchin heroine herself -with her beautifully rendered hair swishing this way and that, or her ever-changing dress glowing like a deep sea fish when underwater.
Then there's the Wonderland around her: rampaging cathedrals built into the backs of trains, a communist dormouse whose Dobby-like voice trumpets worker death throughout the Hatter's mechanical kingdom, skull-faced playing cards built out of punctured, bloody sackcloth... this is truly a dark, fascinating place. The graphics may be a smidge dated, but the art style and the imagination make up for it in spades. (Or, if you're of that persuasion, hearts.)
That though, is all there is. Everything you'll enjoy in Alice: Madness Returns is skin-deep. The broken Wonderland overlay starts out fantastic but a few hours in the law of diminishing returns kicks the game into a nosedive, down a rabbit-hole and deep into platform purgatory. Each (hugely lengthy) chapter is bookended by interesting deviations in Victorian London where Alice knocks around with evil solicitors, tricksy psycho-analysts and black-eyed prostitutes, while confrontations with the familiar Wonderland cast are invariably top notch, but everything in-between rapidly becomes a dirge of leaps, jumps and bullshit widget-collection.
As a base to build on, the combat in Madness Returns is inarguably entirely solid. Alice's main weapon is the melee Vorpal Blade - yet soon toys like a Pepper-grinder machine-gun, a Hobby Horse hammer and a Teapot cannon get added to the arsenal. You're encouraged to really mix up your moves throughout, gradually learning the attack routines and frailties of a full cast of black slimy 'Ruined' enemies, red-eyed Cyclops teapots and cigar-chomping crabs, while Alice's meaty attacks do occasionally feel something approaching badass.
This sensation, however, rarely lasts for long - endless enemy repetition, poor camera lock-on in busy fighting arenas and hugely punishing checkpoints when you perish will make you want to break things. (Given that you're potentially sitting quite close to a relatively expensive TV and console set-up, this is quite the bad thing.)
In between the girl-powered brawling, though, is three dimensional platforming that belongs to another age. A rubbish age at that, when we all had bad haircuts and a proportion of us were afraid to talk to girls - let alone delicately jump them between invisible platforms. Alice is thrown up on jump-pads, hovered up on gusts of air and finds herself racheting/inhaling various machines to mess with the environment again and again, and again. The puzzles are universally one-note and the platforming unchanging throughout - whatever the current shade of the game's wacky wallpaper.
There's more padding in Madness Returns than a Wonderbra factory. Levels never seem to end, and even when they do your reward of a few brief moments of warped mock-Carollian charm is soon followed up by the same level in a different costume. Side-on platforming, side-on shooting and even a spot of Guitar (well, Oyster) Hero attempt to revive you interest - but your brain activity is still in constant danger of flatlining.
It doesn't help matters that Wonderland's characters refer to Alice's previous exploits (in a decade old, largely PC game) as if they happened yesterday and are in no further need of discussion. Sure the forerunner, American McGee's Alice, does come attached to new 360 and PS3 versions of Madness Returns (so in terms of pure gameplay hours this certainly can be seen as a good deal) but those playing Madness Returns alone will still feel narratively short-changed. Returning rabbit-hole pioneers almost certainly get the best treatment, while the underlying story itself (a gradually unravelling mental murder mystery) simply doesn't grab as much as it should.