1954 Alcatraz: review

  • Format:PC
  • Unleashed: Out Now
  • Publisher: Daedalic Entertainment
  • Developer: Irresponsible Games
  • Players: 1
  • Site: www.daedalic.de/alcatraz/en/

50s San Francisco was something of a hotbed for both art and vice, and with the notorious Alcatraz prison just off the coast it’s a wonder that it took so long for someone to build a game around it. Irresponsible Games have done just that with the latest point-and-click adventure from Daedalic Entertainment.

The game immediately sets the scene: The opening cinematic tells our protagonists’ story set against a song that perfectly encapsulates the ’50s – or at least the version of it that’s seeped into the public consciousness via Hollywood’s rendition of cocktail bars. The in-game art here is a mess though and comes across as lazy scribblings on a napkin.

Fortunately this isn’t true of the game itself. A distinct and evocative art style provides characters with some instant personality: Christine’s design screams “artist” with her beret and faux-French appearance, so it’s hardly surprising that she runs a poetry magazine. While the characters are given large and expressive features, it’s a tragedy that they aren’t utilised very well.

The artwork as a whole is great including some beautiful hand-drawn backgrounds, somehow making locations easy to relate to in spite of being set sixty years ago. This is thanks to how much personality they’re given; the coffee shop has a wall plastered with leaflets and artwork that were more likely collected by the owner over the years rather than pulled from a Starbucks warehouse.

It’s a shame that the animations undo some of this great work: Characters never exude any personality, just standing still to deliver their lines. Some are also just completely broken, particularly in Joe’s parts of the game where animations abruptly cut out during conversation, voices coming from shut mouths.

The writing is something of a mixed bag. While the cast are given some endearing eccentricities that draw you deeper into the world – such as “That Author” who ceaselessly types every spoken word as part of his novel – they are shallow beyond this. It’s a wonder that they aren’t simply named “The Creepy Guy” or “The Artist Girl” in some cases.

For the most part, characters are scripted realistically while maintaining some 50s flair in some of their mannerisms. There are two scenes where this doesn’t hold true, however; one in which Joe is sat in his cell speaking to nobody, and another in which Christine shouts “Someone trashed our place” upon walking alone into her apartment. These unnatural lines do a lot of damage to the immersion delivered elsewhere. Alongside this, the solid voice acting is hindered by lines delivered with an ignorance of direction or context. A “what” of exasperation makes no sense when the context is of shock.

The lead characters are realistic thanks mostly to their faults: Christine’s drug use is mentioned early on and the player can choose to at least entertain the notion of infidelity for her. It becomes obvious quite early on that Joe is not only guilty of the crimes for which he’s serving time, but is in fact a career criminal – though one who is devoted to his wife.

While much of the writing is entirely forgettable, Christine has a sassy sense of self-awareness that brings about some amusing encounters. Her eccentric referral to her inventory as sentient objects who “won’t team up” is also pretty charming.

There are stories here and there that give the world a sense of existence prior to the game’s story unfolding such as the legend of a shark with one fin, doomed to circle Alcatraz forever. These myths, along with characters having real reasons for not speaking – “he only speaks to whites” – give the world a lot of authenticity.

The same can’t really be said for the middling plot. It has potential, but it languishes in dull storytelling and one-dimensional characters. There are no compelling scenes outside of the grand finale, though even that is followed up with a poorly written and rushed send-off.

There’s a recurring theme of separation in 1954 Alcatraz, represented best by Joe and Christine’s marriage buried in well-intentioned secrets – now split by a chasm of uncertainty and the knowledge that there’s no happy ending; thoughts of a free life are stifled by the fact that they’ll either be apart forever or on the run. Outside of a couple torn apart by age, the theme isn’t capitalised on enough given what little else is going on.

The soundtrack plays a strong part in the game, enveloping scenes in a 50s-laced brand of whatever vibe is appropriate that transports you from your chair and into the game’s world. Noir, mobster seediness, or downbeat scenes are given a strong underline thanks to the music.

The gameplay is standard: You point, you click, you combine items, and you solve puzzles. You’re also given the ability to switch between Joe and Christine, your actions with each affecting the other such as getting Joe out of solitary confinement. These puzzles manage to avoid being convoluted or frustrating. Christine can’t read Chinese, so she has to grab a restaurant’s menu to match up symbols. The problem is that there’s not a whole lot to challenge your problem-solving skills; everything is quite straightforward.

There’s also a little less player agency than would be preferable: In one part of the game Christine talks to an artist to try to figure out his background, but there’s only ever one option to choose from while she pats herself on the back for being clever. The ability to be wrong would have added some depth to the gameplay.

1954 Alcatraz is an absorbing dalliance into a well-realised world at times, but it’s one that relies on visuals and music to carry its rather mundane plot and shallow characters. Fans of the genre might view it as a briefly entertaining joy ride, but it certainly won’t bring in any new players.

critical score 5

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Written by Adam S

Hailing from Parts Unknown, Adam grew up with a passion for three things: Videogames, anime, and writing. Unfortunately his attempts to combine the three have yet to form Captain Planet, but they have produced some good byproducts.

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