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 provides 6-8 hours’ worth of competent point-and-click inventory puzzles. Those looking for anything more—a spark of life, perhaps—should give it a pass.
The setup: Christine and Joe were newlywed lovebirds in beatnik-era San Francisco, until a robbery gone bad landed Joe on The Rock. While Joe hatches a plan to escape the island, Christine tries to find her husband’s hidden loot before the local gangsters get their hands on it. The player can switch perspective between Joe and Christine basically at will, though given how the story and puzzles are constructed, it’s pretty obvious which one you’re supposed to be controlling at a given time. There’s also not much you can do as one character until you’ve completed the immediate tasks confronting the other.
While “1954 Alcatraz” supplies the ingredients for a suspenseful lovers-on-the-run caper, the final product lacks much narrative tension or momentum. Most of the game is taken up with Joe and Christine fetching objects across their respective maps, with little sense of time passing or danger building (essential elements in a thriller, no?). There are no surprises in the story, and the supposed threat from the mob always feels very distant. The prison break—when it finally comes—is ludicrously simple, lacking in any sense of danger, and over before you know it. The lack of urgency in the story may be partly due to the absence of a fail-state (it’s impossible to die in this game), but is mainly due to the slackness of the plot construction.
Another major problem with the narrative is that Joe and Christine’s relationship is never adequately developed, despite forming what’s supposed to be the emotional core of the story. The game informs us that they’re in love, but we’re never given much sense as to why they feel so strongly about each other, let alone why they’d risk everything to be together again. I mean, it’s not difficult to see why Joe is attracted to Christine: she’s cool, literate, a fashionable social butterfly; her sequences have a certain life that the rest of the game lacks. Joe, on the other hand, is wooden, a blank slate, and just kind of… there. It’s hard to picture him as either a beatnik or a bank robber, much less holding up his end of a conversation with the vivacious Christine. I realize that opposites sometimes attract, but in the few scenes where we see Joe and Christine together (I counted only two), their dialogue is purely functional and lacks any sort of spark that would have motivated me to see them reunited. The game ends (minor spoiler) with Christine deciding whether to stick with Joe or take off on her own. This should feel like a momentous decision, but given how little time the game spends developing their relationship, her sudden dilemma feels tacked-on for its own sake, and either decision she might make feels equally arbitrary.
As for the actual gameplay, the puzzles are straightforward and mostly simple, though there are a couple of harder ones along the way. I got stuck a few times, mainly because I wasn’t clear on my immediate objective. Pressing the space bar lights up all of the hot spots on-screen, so pixel-hunting isn’t a problem. The graphics are reasonably pretty, though some people don’t like the 3-D modelling effects. (Personally I didn’t mind them, but I wasn’t terribly impressed with them either). The voice acting ranges from blandly competent to very good, and the jazz score is terrific. Side characters are amusing but under-utilized, and the ‘50s-era San Francisco bohemian setting is enjoyable to explore. Though the game’s tone is generally light, there are some references to drugs and sex that, while never explicit, might deter parents from letting younger children play the game.
While I’m not recommending “1954 Alcatraz” to anyone but die-hard adventure game collectors, I do respect the developer’s attempt to make a narrative-driven game with an unconventional story and setting. If the developer can someday marry their appetite for risk-taking and decent grasp of puzzle design with a better focus on narrative buildup and character development, they might produce something really memorable. “1954 Alcatraz”, unfortunately, is not that game.
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Time Played: 10-20 hours
Difficulty: Just Right