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Alice: Madness Returns

Filed under: General — 19day @ 00:38:59

I just beat this game, and I was struck by how casually buggy it is. None of the bugs I hit were game-breaking, but I don’t think I’ve played a game (and to be fair I don’t play many these days) that was so buggy without actually trying to do things to break it. Take a speedrun for example, people play with game geometry, collision detection, lots of other crap to ‘break’ a game, for the purpose of getting through it as fast as possible. All the things that let them do that would be considered bugs I think, but here I am, playing the game as a normal player, not doing anything crazy, and I get attacked by a non-existent enemy, or bump into invisible blocks. Or worse.

As it is my way, this will be mostly a posting of several criticism, but I’ll say now, it was at least an entertaining game. The storyline was interesting, pretty creepy, the art style while a little disjointed between cinematics and actual game play was at least nice to see, it had some nice references to the first game, and had overall decent game play. It was also quite long I thought, which I guess is getting one’s money’s worth, but my time was limited so the game seemed a little redundant after a while in some sections, but overall the length was probably more than I was hoping for. And one thing I liked was that the game wasn’t all dark and dingy, like I felt some of the first game was. There were some bright and cheerfully lit areas of incredibly creepy imagery, not suitable for children.

But now on to the complaints, which as a QA I seem to focus on anyway. I’ve broken these up into style issue which are totally subjective, then issues which may just be me and my computer, and then bugs that I don’t think are anything to do with me or my computer and are just broken (which may still be about me and my computer, disclaimer). Oh, and this is on the PC version of the game of course. And is meant to be spoiler-free.

Style issues:

Endless collectibles – It seems that games these days are just the first bit that people expect. Then they want the meta games, like achievements for jumping exactly 3284 times in a play through, and of course, collectibles, without which you CANNOT BE SAID TO HAVE BEAT THE GAME, BWAHAHA, oh and also the extra content won’t be unlocked for you, you loser. This isn’t the only game to do this, but it does it in an even more irritating manner. There are several types of collectibles, but one is actually required. Actually, I guess it isn’t required, but I think a lot of the story and foreshadowing of the plot is lost by not collecting them. Which is kind of frustrating.

Sucky combat – The combat in the game is actually kind of fun… at first. It employs a lock-on system, but for other reasons it is a bit irritating to use. Not many enemies are always vulnerable to attack, many employ blocking effects that require some fancy playing about to overcome. Some of the common enemies are a bit like Boss battles in that way, which is fun. Oh, there are a bunch of them, as well as some other enemies that aren’t usually vulnerable flying around. Oh, and a bunch of constantly respawning enemies unless I kill the source of them? And most of these occur within fairly constrained arena areas, purposely locking you into an area forcing you to fight. When I played, I basically had to run around a hell of a lot before locking on to anything, and it was easier to lock-out and lock-on again hoping to acquire the target I wanted, opposed to tabbing around trying to get the right enemy, and half the time it was too late and the very narrow window of opportunity to damage the enemy was over. Even by the end of the game, with the most powerful weapons, enemies introduced in the first couple of sections would still be immune to my heavy attacks until I timed things right. Which is fine until there are a bunch of these guys running around. Further, it’s sometimes hard to tell if you are actually damaging an enemy at all.

Keybindings are painful – So the game controls with standard wasd keys, but then locks on with capslock, switches lock targets with tab, and dodge with left-shift. These are all incredibly crucial things to do in this game, especially dodge, which shoots you forward in whatever direction you are holding when you press it or face. In the heat of battle, moving my left pinky with any reliability was impossible, and I was getting my ass handed to me by minor foes. I eventually rebound Target to my middle mouse button and dodge to middle mouse scrolldown. The scroll was already being used by switching between weapons, and the loss of that was a bit frustrating, but at least now I’d live long enough to care about that. There are also known bugs with Block not being able to be rebound without losing the ability to block entirely (I would have mapped it to middle scroll up if I could), and another ability that has a very short window of opportunity that is permanently bound to the Enter Key for some damned reason. There is another ability you have to use by continually holding left-control that I didn’t remap but by the end my left hand hurt like hell.

Punishing platforming – There is a lot of platforming in this game. The first Alice game had a jump recticle that was a little silly, but made it bearable. This game does not. It gives you some other ways to compensate, which are helpful, but there are still a hell of a lot of jumps (some levels have no enemies, just a lot of platforming), and a lot of bottomless pits. The game is sort of generous in that when you fall to your death, it respawns you on a nearby ledge. It’s not a quick load as anything you had done or collected stays that way, it just respawns you. But this just means the designers felt free to make this platforming as irritating as they could, and with my stuttering issues (see below) this became infuriating.

No save – There is no way to actually save your game at will. The game saves itself as you go, but the little indicator that shows you this is easy to miss I found, and it still is a punishment to want to play for a bit and then need to quit, but losing your progress since you didn’t go far enough in the level for it to save for you. Also there is no quicksave feature, which means that tricky fights or jumps will set you back if you fail. Of course, with the death plummets, the auto respawn one would think that it wouldn’t be so bad, and most of the time it isn’t. However, sometimes the designers decide that the checkpoint to return to after a failed jump should be way back instead of what I felt was a more fair mid-area platform. And for slides, you screw those up, and you go back to the top. Oh yeah, and the respawn maintains all state, including health, so you go down slides over and over, taking little bits of damage, falling, and then starting again. Will I die this time? arrg.

Style issues with spoilers (skip this if so desired)

Bosses – That is, the lack of them. Where’d they go? Sure, in the first game they weren’t spread out particularly evenly, but there was a lot of them. Duchess, Centipede, Tweedles, Jabberwock, Mad Hatter, Red King, and the Queen of Hearts herself. The sequel? Just the end boss. And they seem to deliberately tease you with boss battles that seem to be gearing up, oh, and then there’s a cutscene that deals with it and off you go. It reminds me of Evil Dead: Hail to the King, where there was a cutscene of your dismembered hand (possessed by the protagonist now) entering an evil hole in the wall to fetch something. It was gearing up for a level… oh, another cutscene, the hand is back with the fetchquest item. There was even dialog about the things the protagonist ’saw’ while in there. A lot of this game felt like that, especially with the bosses.

Motivation – Where the hell am I going? Why am I doing this? In the first game, it was clear that the queen was the evil force to deal with. It started with more immediate concerns, getting small to follow rabbit (this is especially galling in the sequel, you can now be small at any time. Except, when it does shrink you down to have the requisite tiny-level, where you can still turn yet smaller… what?), and you have to find the elder, who takes you to the fortress of doors, into the skool, makes the potion and sends you on your way. It was a subsection of plot, but you knew that the queen, from the opening dialog with the slaves, that was the enemy. I guess in the sequel you know the enemy is a train, but even then, you’re just flitting across wonderland, doing this or that, and it doesn’t seem like any of it is actually bringing you to your goal. It’s just some stuff that happens on the way.

Missing Content – This goes back to the bosses, but it seems it was more rampant than that. Looking at some of the game progress trailers, it looked like there was meant to be more stuff, more things to do, more levels, more weapons (Alice had 9, not all of them great, but still. This game, 4. Well, there is a 5th but I could never use it in the heat of battle. And a 6th perhaps, but I’d call it more of an ability). And the weapons are nearly, but not quite, the equivalent of light punch, light kick, heavy punch, heavy kick. There is a bit more to it than that, which is actually annoying since you have to whip out the other weapon to do something when you wish you could just keep the heavy out. The game has some unlockable content, and I managed to unlock some character models, and it shows a host of enemies and a few things I think were going to be bosses that never made it to the game. Which is unfortunate, since there are very few unique enemies to fight. I don’t think more than the first game. Some of the new enemies are nearly boss battles in themselves, which is a change from the first, and was entertaining enough, but also frustrating with the combat system. In any case, it’s sort of a retroactive sadness. I definitely felt that the bosses were missing before looking into what was cut, but now, I wonder what the game would have been with all it’s combatants, weapons, and planned levels intact.

Issues that might be my computer:

Stuttering – The game was nearly unplayable when I started. Almost everywhere I went the game would stutter the display for seconds at a time. Oh, the engine would still be running, and I would die or something due to something I couldn’t see in time. Even respawning after death would cause terrible stuttering during the animation. This doesn’t seem that common, but it wasn’t unheard of. I found some advice that had me alter FPS constraint settings not exposed in the UI and make the file read-only to keep the game from reverting it, and it was mostly okay after that, but stuttering and display lag would still come up at bad times. The slides throughout the game have damaging slime on them. The slime itself is difficult to avoid I found (hit detection seemed wonky), but since takes you from one set of level to another set, whatever it is that causes it to stutter does so quite a lot, on the slide, and usually I regain display long enough to see me fly off the edge and die, and respawn, rinse repeat. And it’s not like the thing that causes the stuttering is one time… with the slides, since I restart at the top, I ‘pass through’ the stutter at the same points as well. One slide I had to try like ten times due to this issue. I looked up my video card’s suggested settings for the game, and mine were already set to lower than that. I also tried turning all the fancy shit off, and it still happened. Oh well. I jacked everything back up to see it pretty, if occasionally racked with hiccups.

Infinite Install – well, clearly not infinite, but 30 minutes to install a game might seem like it.

Fade to Dark – Throughout the game, the screen fades to black as things happen. At least, I think that’s what it wants to do. I found it fading to dark, but I’d still be able to see stuff, like Alice drifing off through the geometry, or returning to ‘game play’ mode between an in-game cinematic and a movie one. It looks broken every time it happens, and it happened a lot. The only thing I can figure is that since I jacked up the gamma a little bit (not a lot even, the game isn’t that dark to begin with) that it failed to compensate for that during the fade effect.

Blurry signs – There are a few regions in the game with readable signs, and from midrange they appeared to me to be a smudge of crap, then up close, a slightly sharper smudged text that was barely legible. Why even have the signs if this is the best it can do? I didn’t see any texture quality settings in the config UI.

Generic Graphical Glitches – I don’t know if these are just me or what. But occasionally when I tell it to pull a lever or a chain, the hands don’t actually line up with what’s going on. But it should, the game takes control and these actions are basically in-game cinematics. Also happens sometimes with the weapons, where the object is slightly out of alignment with where she is actually holding them. Lastly is her hair, it seems to tangle and twist all over like snakes, it’s actually a little disconcerting. I don’t think that was on purpose. Other fun thing is the way her dress and hair moves when you face, for example forward, and then press back, since she turns around instantly, and I guess the game’s physics is like, okay, so she had to have rotated in less than a millisecond, and the physics do the rest, which doesn’t exactly look great, but it’s not too noticeable.

Issues that I think are just the game (Bugs):

Camera Obscura – The camera in general is pretty frustrating. I find it swings around a little weird using the mouse, I could never figure out what to change to make it better. The worst though is when it suddenly turns into a fixed camera, and all my direction keys change meaning. The most horrid part of this is pressure pads that are used throughout the game. You can place temporary pad-pressers, and then have to do whatever you have to do very quickly before the effect stops. However, every time you step on a pad, it fixes the camera to show you the effect of stepping on the pad (even if you’ve already seen it) and it wastes about a fifth of your time while you try to run (sometimes outside of the view of the camera) to get to where you need to go. This, this is shit. It was only later that I realize that if I step on the pad, let it show me, then place the pad-presser, then I don’t have to deal with that. Oh, unless I have to trigger multiple pads. Sigh.

Enemy Ghosts – No, not ghost enemies, but enemies that are in fact ghosts. This guy saw it too, I hit it at the same spot, and a few others as well. It seems to occur when you kill enemies from some distance away, before they are ‘aware’ of the player. Which is exactly the way you’d be likely to try to dispatch these guys. I found that the ghosts can’t be attacked or attack you, but they can grab you (the ones that have that action). Eventually they vanish.

Suicidal Encounters – This may be another example of Enemy Ghosts, but I don’t think it was. There was a large encounter with several enemies. One of the frustrating enemies remained, that blocked all the time so it didn’t die from my barrage at the others. I target it and begin to attack, but then suddenly a cinematic where it opens up the next area, then back to my view, and the enemy is gone and the battle music abruptly stops. What the hell?

Endless Encounters – This was the most frustrating ones. I was in a section where it locked off the area into an arena and had some enemies come at me, two of them. I dispatch them easily. The music continues… I wonder around, no more enemies. I can’t move on or back since the area is sealed. I wonder around for a few minutes, and have to give up and quit the game back to the menu and reload. I go back into the area, and kill the two enemies, ah, two more now spawn, I kill them, and can move on. I did some looking around, and I’m not the only one to have encountered this issue at this point. Some are apparently stuck there since they can’t get the enemies to ever spawn. Now that’s a crappy player experience.

Premature Encounters – I admit it, I’m cautious, and it seems a few areas I was meant to enter at speed. When I walked up (not slowly, just not immediately jumping into the new areas) it triggered an encounter way off on the far side of whatever pit was there. Then as the enemies cluster around trying to figure out how to reach me, I pick them off from afar.

Locked On All the way Down – This one I think is pretty inexcusable since it comes up so often. There are some enemies that fly, you shoot them, then fall down, you finish them off. However, if you lock on, and shoot them when they are over a bottomless pit (and they are fucking everywhere) they fall, into the abyss, and you stay locked on. Maybe forever, not sure. They don’t seem to come back, and I had to disengage the lock to continue battles, but if they fell to their deaths (or simply fell to not being able to do anything after that, certainly in arena areas it seems to unlock the doors anyway) why stay locked on? This comes up a lot because these are FLYING enemies in a world almost entirely filled with BOTTOMLESS PITS. Dear lord.

Always Move Forward – This one comes up a lot as well, not sure exactly what triggers it, but I think it might be the levels that are divided by small cinematics. I found that on the load of the next level, I’d be running forward into the next pit or whatever. It turns out the game thought I was still holding the W key. I’d have to press it again to make it wake up and realize what the deal was. This happened with other directions as well. But since I’d usually be holding the key to move forward into the next section, it was often the effect of being out of control running forward.

Standing on Nothing – This happened a few times while doing the painful platforming. I’d miss the ledge I was aiming for and fall down, onto geometry that I wasn’t meant to be on. Sometimes it would just slow my fall to doom, other times it would actually stop me. I couldn’t proceed since I was still stuck in ‘falling’ animation and couldn’t jump, but I could just relax there, in limbo, until I felt like dying.

Bumping into Nothing – There are points in the game, far far too many points, where you have to fetch boxes (essentially). You collect the box and it vanishes. But I’d often find my path forward to be where the box was, and I’d continue to bump into the invisible box. After a while it would go away, but this was a little frustrating. I’ve heard of some issues elsewhere where firetraps and spike-traps, though disabled and appearing to be ‘off’ would still kill you, this sounds related.

Spawn Forward – This is actually a helpful bug, but still a bug. A number of times there would be some difficult far jump, and I would miss, but still be close enough that when it respawned me, it respawned me on the destination platform. I used this on purpose a few times when I didn’t feel like doing things properly, it’s basically a cheat. It also can trigger enemy encounters, so you respawn from your bottomless pit death, then get brained by an enemy in the confusion.

Get Stuck and Die – There are stylized levels in the game, sort of mini-games, but required to proceed. Normally when you die within them, it kicks you back to your nearest in-minigame checkpoint just like in the usual game. However, at one point, I somehow got wedged somewhere, I was still able to jump, but not move left or right, and then not even jump. I was there for a few seconds, thinking I’d have to abandon the area and reload from my last autosave checkpoint, when the game must have had stupid-detection and killed me. Yay, … wait, what’s this, I’m out of the minigame? I have to do it all over again? Why not start of my last checkpoint? I guess the code has two paths for death, normal death, and cover-your-ass death that takes you back to the autosave instead of the internal checkpoint. Frustrating none the less.

UI scatter – This one is pretty minor, but in the game’s weapon menu, the UI scatters one of the graphics elsewhere for apparently no reason. It has no impact to the game, but looks bad. This might just be me, but I can’t imagine why.

Horse Statue – There are characters in the game, most memorably a horse, solid as a statue, and looks out of place, considering most other prob-entities have idle animations. This isn’t as nitpicky as it sounds. The Horse was sitting out in a fairly prominent spot, and it really ’stood out’ by the way it just… stood.

Equip Failure – My preferred equipped weapons revert to defaults at certain types of level loading. I normally discover this at my next enemy encounter, sadly.

Cursor issue – not sure what caused it, but when I paused the game and the menus appeared, returning to game play brought the menu cursor along. Had to quit to get rid of the distraction. It has happened a couple of times in my experience.

Crates immune to gunfire – After a while you realize that the ‘crates’ around the world contain mostly good things, but occasionally spawn an enemy, and of the kind it’s hard to notice is there until you’ve lost some life. I started taking to shooting crates with a ranged weapon, and found that every now and then, one would be ‘indestructible’. That is, my shots would merely hit the side and stop. Not actually impact because there was another effect that made impacts clear. It’s as if the shots just stopped. Attacking the crates via melee weapons always worked, and eventually just did that the rest of the game.

Port Artifacts – So given the save system, I assume this is a port of the Xbox version or something. At one point in the game, it tells me to hold X to do something. I was confused, why X? I didn’t have anything bound to X to my knowledge. I pressed it. Nothing. Then I start pressing my other bound keys, until I tried Spacebar and that works. Then I look at the instruction more closely, it looked like a playstation button X or something.

Black Textures – Saw this reported elsewhere so guess it’s not just me. But on one level, a bunch of textures were solid black. Like, obvious textures, like on things you had to interact with. It’s consistent as well.

Forever locked content: I didn’t 100% the game, but it claims I 97% it. Then why is tonnes of the unlockable content still locked? The internets claim that due to cuts, it is impossible to actually unlock everything in the released product. Other sources say you need to 100% a chapter to get any content from there. Not sure on this one.

Cccrrreeedddiiitttsss – This is getting nitpicky, but I just let the credits roll after the semi-satisfying ending, and the music was over before they were done. Long over. Like the music only lasted for 10% of the credits. Oh, and the credits go on for freaking ever, and thanked EA all over the world.

Those are the ones I’ve encountered. Looking around online, like on youtube, shows people encountered bugs I didn’t even see. And this was me just trying to play the game, I wasn’t trying to find problems. As a QA, I can see how some of these might have gone. The release date is coming up (or possibly already passed and pushed back), and you find a bug where there are enemy ghosts. Does it always happen? No, and even when it does, you can move on most of the time. Fuck it, ship it. And even then, if it seemed back, hell, slip a fix into a future patch. Done and done. Which is fair enough I suppose, and despite the bugs I encountered I was still able to play the game (by far the worst one was the stuttering, and I don’t know if it’s the game’s fault, or my own computer), and it was still an enjoyable game.

But I guess I just can’t escape the mindset of a QA. Or a cynical old bastard. Happy birthday to me.

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