1954: Alcatraz review - page 2

The Good:
  • True-to-life setting and time period rarely explored in adventure games
  • Good variety of locations
  • Great music
The Bad:
  • Puzzles lack variety and are too easily solved
  • Story never really takes off
  • Iffy production values make the game seem rushed out the door
The Good:
  • True-to-life setting and time period rarely explored in adventure games
  • Good variety of locations
  • Great music
The Bad:
  • Puzzles lack variety and are too easily solved
  • Story never really takes off
  • Iffy production values make the game seem rushed out the door
Our Verdict:

1954: Alcatraz has a great premise, but the execution falls flat.

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Okay, but is it fair to expect such a cartoony take on this subject matter to do so seriously? Its artwork does suggest a light, family-friendly game, but some surprisingly adult humor and situations pop in abruptly. For example, click an unassuming hotspot in Washington Square Park and men having illicit sex behind the bushes invite Christine to join in. Stuff like this is offbeat and sometimes unexpectedly funny, but also self-conscious, like the edginess has been incorporated to prove a point. The biggest in-your-face example is the gay couple whose lover’s spat Christine needs to resolve before she can get a key piece of information her husband left behind (because his boyfriend just left him, the poet she’s pumping for information is simply too morose to help her). It’s a tried and true adventure game scenario, and the over-the-top gay couple isn’t any worse of a stereotype than the Italian mobsters or the thuggish convicts or Christine’s beatnik friends, but when the two reunited lovers spent the second half of the game too busy sucking face to engage in conversation, I did have to wonder if they were included for shock value.

Christine is the type who has a lot of friends willing to trade favors, and such trades make up most of the puzzles in her half of the game. The idea here is that Joe has left behind clues she needs to decipher to find something he left for her before going to prison, but that aspect of the game is woefully underutilized, with much of it “solving itself” before your eyes. For example, in their early conversation at the prison, Joe gives Christine a hint for where to find something he’s hidden in their apartment—an item she needs to locate and a specific activity she needs to perform on it (reiterated a couple of times just in case you missed it). But when Christine gets home, a simple click on the item reveals the hidden clue, with the activity carried out automatically. To make things worse, the clue you find there—a diagram of a hidden safe— doesn’t provide any further information, can’t be looked at in close-up view, and never comes into play.

In another odd sequence, Christine must talk a gallery owner into accepting her friend’s painting into an exhibition. The set-up is ripe for a Monkey Island or Sam & Max-style dialogue puzzle with the player picking up on cues in the owner’s answers and figuring out which of several dialogue options are most likely to change his mind. But during the entire seven-round exchange, Christine has exactly one dialogue option each time it’s her turn to speak. This isn’t a puzzle at all, but it easily could have been and seems like it should have been. These and many other points in 1954: Alcatraz suffer from a sort of chicken-and-egg dilemma: was a conceived puzzle abandoned, or initial ideas never fleshed out? Either way, unrealized opportunities like these leave an unfinished taste—as if at a certain point the developers got bored or ran out of time, shrugged their shoulders and said, “Good enough.”

At least Christine’s gameplay has some variety: she’s wined and dined by a one-eyed police detective, gossips with a lounge singer dressed as a mermaid, fumbles around in the kitchen of a Chinese restaurant to prepare a bowl of soup for her landlady, cavorts with beat writers and artistes, and ultimately outwits the mafia. But Joe, a mechanic by trade, is saddled with basically the same task over and over: use a spare part he found lying around to fix something that’s broken. His meatier task, of course, is to figure out his escape, but for an inescapable prison this turns out to be way too easy. Every convict he talks to (right in front of the guard, no less) has an escape plan, and in short order Joe collects instructions for exactly how to execute it. He ends up in a cell easily escaped with an item he finds—once again—just lying around, and being discovered by a guard with his cell door open or leaving open the cell door of the infamous Birdman of Alcatraz has no consequence. (I suspect the guard thing was a bug, but that’s not much consolation. As for the Birdman, maybe he’s come to love the place!) Through it all, I didn’t feel Joe’s desperation. Obviously, people in prison want to get out, but the game doesn’t go far enough to show why Joe, in particular, is so driven to risk his life for it. Without that motivation and desire for self-preservation nipping at our heels, we end up going through these motions to escape from Alcatraz simply because this is a game about escaping from Alcatraz.

Similarly, the story promises powerful conflicts for an interracial couple separated by the bay and barbed wire, but doesn’t deliver. Christine keeps bringing up that her marriage isn’t socially acceptable, and Joe takes the brunt of a mild slur or two, but these issues are essentially glossed over. If 1954: Alcatraz’s developers weren’t afraid to show a gay couple making out or pass along prison gossip about a convict having sex with a guard’s wife under her kitchen sink, they shouldn’t have been afraid to confront the social issues Joe and Christine surely would have had to contend with in 1950s America. Along these lines, my favorite scene was one where Christine visits the Alcatraz ferry pier at night. There’s nothing to do there except to look out at the prison lit up across the bay and pine for her husband; when she leaves, her return to the world map comes with a heavy sigh. The artwork and music and Christine’s few lines of wistful dialogue get the loneliness of Christine’s situation just right. It’s a glimmer of promise—a sign of what might have been if the game had been less about running errands and more tightly focused on the people involved.

Apparently a few choices made within the game can change the tenor of Joe and Christine’s relationship and even impact the ending. But unlike in something like Heavy Rain or The Walking Dead, where such choices had me agonizing over what to do and curious about what might have happened differently, 1954: Alcatraz’s inclusion of such choices was either too subtle or not compelling enough to spur me on to a second playthrough.

Though I didn’t encounter any show-stopping technical issues, multiple dialogue bugs marred my experience further—glitches like a line not spoken (so you miss it if subtitles are off), or lip-synced to the wrong character, or a complete non sequitur that seemed like the wrong line played at the wrong time. (Daedalic was still fixing bugs when review copies went out, so I can’t say for sure if all of these issues still exist in the final version.) Then there were logical annoyances, like when Christine’s landlady demands she pay the rent but Christine inexplicably can’t use the money she’s just gained access to and needs to trade an item instead. Or when Joe using an item meant to modify telephones on a telephone inside the prison yields the response, “That can only be used on phone lines.” This sort of thing is a common pitfall in adventure games, especially when gameplay is nonlinear as it is here, but such issues contributed to the iffy production values that had been nagging at me since that first sloppy intro sequence.

Even though I was disappointed with 1954: Alcatraz, there were lots of bits here and there that I appreciated—the setting, the background art, the concept of switching between two characters whose goals are related but who can’t see or talk to each other about what they’re doing. I enjoyed the music, especially the jazz theme performed by a nightclub singer, and the more melancholy variation that plays in certain scenes. Another example of great audio occurs when Christine goes backstage at a Chinese opera; the screeches and cymbal crashes drifting in from the performance provide subtle situational comedy to an otherwise straightforward scene. And though none of the puzzles really wowed me, I did like that some had alternate solutions. In the end, though, the intriguing adventure rooted in 1954: Alcatraz’s authenticity just couldn’t overcome the loose storytelling, blah puzzles, and an overall lack of polish.


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What our readers think of 1954: Alcatraz


Posted by Not-So-Serious Sam on Oct 25, 2018

Admirable ambition, flawed execution


For a game about two lovers plotting a prison break while evading the mob, "1954 Alcatraz" feels oddly devoid of passion or excitement. Adventure game addicts with money to burn might get an unremarkable fix from it, since it's reasonably polished and...

Posted by Palemaze on May 8, 2014

Classic P&C in all its valour, but story is disaster


Just finished this game and I must say it was over a month of coming back and forth to it. Story is just a simple disaster. It hits everything - black/white couples, gay merriages, sailors shagging in San Francisco parks, priests and prisons and link to...

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