1954 Alcatraz Review: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

While I enjoy a good point-and-click adventure, I haven’t really partaken of any lately, especially contemporary ones. However, a shift in editorial business put the review of 1954 Alcatraz on my lap. Published by Daedalic Entertainment, who are also behind the Deponia series, you can guess when and where 1954 Alcatraz takes place, but it’s really about the story of two people caught up in the whirlwind of the Bay Area in the 1950’s.

Joe and Christine Lyons are a married couple, but like many married couples they keep secrets from each other. In their case, it’s “Where the money is hidden.” Joe is stuck in Alcatraz for armed robbery, and also because he escaped from the other prisons he’d been placed in. Someone from the mob is hounding his wife Christine to find the money from the job, but Christine doesn’t know where it is. If she can’t come up with it, her and her husband’s lives are forfeit. Controlling both Joe and Christine and switching between them at will, your job is simple: Find the money, and get Joe out of Alcatraz.

A lot of this information is given you in medias res. Maybe it’s a refreshing change from having the game spout exposition at you before you start to play, but I felt like I was told too little. I didn’t really understand why Christine had her back up against the wall from the mob from the get go. I had to piece things together, and until I did, I felt disconnected from the action.

The goals are relatively simple. As Christine, you’ll need to find the money. As Joe, you’ll need to find a way to break out of Alcatraz. There are a few times you’ll need to use each other in order to solve puzzles. The puzzles are, for the most part, solving the needs of other characters by giving them what they want.

This is the extent of the gameplay, and as you explore the environment more and more, you’ll find the pieces that you need to take you to the end of your journey. What matters in this case is the journey itself.

North Beach, The Height of the Beat movement

1954 Alcatraz
This guy is way creepier than his face would have you believe.

Christine Lyons adventures in North Beach in 1954, at the height of the Beat artisitc movement in San Francisco. This was a very real thing, and the sheer number of poets and artists that Christine runs into seem unrealistic. How many people here are bloody artists, writers, musicians? And yet, that’s exactly how it was. Christine runs into a diverse group of people of various ethnicities, gender identities, and sexual preferences. All are treated with respect and humanity, though you’ll still need to find out what they want so you can get those bloody keys you’ll need. While the setting is realistic, the characters feel wooden. The voice acting seems as if characters were reading lines, but not to other characters. It sounds like each character lives in their own microcosm, unable to be affected by the statements of other people. There’s also a lack of urgency or agency. Christine’s life is on the precipice, and the status of her husband is unknown. Yet a lot of the time she sounds not just calm, but bored.

On the other hand, Joe doesn’t have a vibrant community to explore; he’s in prison. I admit I liked the characters a bit better in Alcatraz, but the ease at which all of them talk about how one could escape from the prison seemed unrealistic. Alcatraz is notorious in the lore of real life of being an inescapable fortress; the fact that 3 or 4 people have defined plans on how they would go about accomplishing the task takes away from the mystique that this should be an impossible task. In my opinion, there should have been more buildup, with Joe coming to grips that this would be impossible, and then somehow managing to accomplish the impossible. In the end, Alcatraz is basically just another prison.

The look and feel of 1954 Alcatraz

1954 Alcatraz
It’s kinda funny how you have dialogue choices when you’re stuck in a place without choice like Alcatraz.

1954 Alcatraz features 3D characters rendered over 2D backgrounds. It took a while to get used to this arrangement, as the characters are rendered with a simplistic style that removes details in a character’s appearance to focus more on their shape and silhouette. After a short time, I came to like this approach. I think it’s appropriate for 1954 Alcatraz and what it is trying to accomplish. Of course, it also fits within the game’s budget. The game exudes atmosphere, down to the choice of lighting in each scene. It’s very deliberate, and it reminds me of why a 2D background has its advantages. This, mixed with a soundtrack that is way better than it has any right to be, becomes the major reason to play through 1954 Alcatraz.

One thing that can’t be changed with graphics is some of the bugs I encountered in the game. One example: I combined 2 8-foot pieces of rope, and got a 16-foot piece of rope in my inventory. Then I combined that with another 8-foot piece of rope, and got… a 16-foot piece of rope. Finally, combining THAT with one more 8-foot piece of rope gave me a 32-foot piece of rope. At one point, my character walked clean through a closed door. These two bugs are mostly harmless, but at one point, I ran into an issue that affected my progression, somewhat. There was an item I needed to pick up, but I was told I couldn’t pick it up yet. After I did some other tasks, nothing seemingly changed, but all of a sudden I could pick up that item. I actually had a rough walkthrough of the game to refer to for my review, and the walkthrough states that a character is supposed to tell you something, which signals your ability to pick up that item. There were also times I found items in my inventory that I swear I didn’t pick up.

Choice And Free Will

At certain points in the game, you can make some choices that affect the relationship between Christine and Joe. Will Joe go too far to break free? Will Christine be tempted by other suitors? But, in the end, it seems meaningless. Without spoiling too much, when both characters are in the same scene, you get to play as both, and choose how both characters react to each other. Which leads me to believe… what’s the point? It doesn’t take the legs out from under the story, but it makes some of the big choices seem just like linear plot points.

One nice thing about having two characters, though, is that if you get stuck at a certain point, you can take a break and go to the other character, except at certain specific points. You’re basically always making forward progress, letting your subconscious deal with it as you move on as the other spouse.

In the end, it’s a journey in a very pretty world being interpreted by those who would define beauty. I think that the more mechanical aspects of the game need work, but I can appreciate the world 1954 Alcatraz is trying to paint for me.

Ted received a review copy of 1954 Alcatraz from the publisher.

7/10+ Logical puzzles.
+ Amazing, accurate atmosphere.
+ Two playable characters alleviate getting stuck.
-Listless voice acting.
-Annoying bugs.
-Somewhat false moral choices.

Available on: PC

Version Reviewed: PC

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