There are a few things that a point-and-click adventure game needs to be considered good: a compelling story, an intriguing cast of characters, and a set of puzzles to ponder. Finally, it needs a good setting, and while things like technical presentation aren't that important, they can certainly help. 1954: Alcatraz has some of these elements, but it doesn't know how to put them together in a meaningful way.
The opening cinematic, told in quick pencil sketches, sets up the tale of Joe, a man who steals an armored truck full of money only to have it blown up in a crash. He says he's the lone criminal behind the plot and is sent to the infamous prison island of Alcatraz after he tries to escape from Leavenworth Penitentiary. Here, we learn the burnt money was counterfeit and Joe has the real stash hidden somewhere in San Francisco. Meanwhile, Joe's wife Christine is being badgered by Mickey, Joe's former partner in crime, concerning the whereabouts of the stash. He gives her a month to find it. Joe tries to escape from the seemingly inescapable prison while Christine tries to find the money so she and Joe can run away to Mexico.
From a story perspective, the setting is pretty interesting. While there isn't much that can be done in a prison that hasn't been done before, it is still a backdrop that's rarely used in video games. The use of San Francisco is even more exciting because of the time period. The beat generation was beginning to have an influence on the area, and what were then considered traditional norms were being scrutinized. Though it gained more prominence in the 1960s, the ideas of free love and drugs and feminism were slowly taking hold, and being around at the genesis of that makes for a nice backdrop to a seemingly traditional story.
The truth is there's nothing here that takes advantage of the location and time period, save for the fact that Alcatraz is a functional prison instead of just being a tourist trap. Issues like race and sexuality aren't a focus, and you see a story that is practically interchangeable with any other time period and place, with the exception of some occasional era-specific slang.
Also disappointing are the characters, both incidental and central to the storyline. Very few of the side characters exhibit any personality beyond the tropes they've been given. To name a few of the one-note characters you'll meet, there's the creepy ex-boyfriend who can't seem to let go, the tough convict who wants you dead, a couple who fights all the time, and a detective determined to hit on you. The other incidental characters seem like blank canvases that are never filled in, and they're easily forgettable once you no longer need their assistance. The main characters almost fall into that same singular track but gain some depth thanks to a forced subplot that questions their fidelity to one another.
The gameplay is very much in the same vein of most Daedalic Entertainment titles. All of the clickable items can be revealed by hitting the spacebar. Left-clicking an object lets you interact with it while right-clicking lets you analyze it. Hitting the I key or using the mouse wheel reveals your inventory and lets you combine items. This is also where you can switch characters on the fly, which is a new gameplay mechanic. The idea is that both characters have their own adventures to tend to, and because the puzzles for each character are different enough, players who are tired of one setting or get stuck with one character can easily switch to the other character instead of being stuck on one puzzle. Granted, there are times when Joe's progress is completely dependent on where Christine is in her story, and there are fewer of these situations for Christine, but you'll get an equal amount of playtime with both characters.
Like any point-and-click adventure game, 1954: Alcatraz uses lots of puzzles to challenge players. It's common to gather a part in one area and use it on another object somewhere else to get something working, and having multiple choices of dialogue when conversing with someone is also expected. What makes this stand out is how most of the puzzles use common sense instead of something abstract and obtuse to confound players. This is especially true in the San Francisco sections, where using bobby pins to pick locks is acceptable, as is using a menu at a Chinese restaurant to figure out where ingredients are stored. The prison sequences have some abstract puzzles, but they're used sparingly. The items that can be combined make sense, and their uses are even more logical. It is surprising to see in this type of game.
There is a drawback to this, and that is in the difficulty of the puzzles. The move to more logical puzzles is welcome, but it also means there isn't much that'll stump you since you immediately know what you should be doing. Some of the bigger puzzles take place over multiple screens and locations, and you'll have to backtrack, but the lack of real challenge means the game can be finished rather quickly by genre standards. This lack of inherent challenge could've been glossed over with dialogue that has branching pathways that result in different outcomes. Some of that exists, and some of the puzzles have different solutions, but that doesn't happen enough. Worse yet, there is an illusion of branching whenever you come across situations where marriage fidelity is questioned, but none of it has much of an impact on the end of the journey. Only one choice has the power to change endings.
With so much going against it, 1954: Alcatraz remains enjoyable thanks to the main characters. Even though they aren't very developed, their main focuses are strong enough to push the player forward. Their personalities make them likeable people, and each choice they're given makes them intriguing enough. It also helps that the light and breezy dialogue outweighs the sometimes-dark plot, and that contrast makes a story that's worth going through, even if it is slightly predictable.
Graphically, the game is at a crossroads due to the two different styles it uses. The backdrops are done in a flat 2-D style that looks very much like a painting, with some framework sketches still visible in the colors. While the scenery isn't overly busy, it does a good job of blending movable objects with static scenery. Some games suffer from this, as it makes it painfully obvious what can and can't be interacted with. The character models are modeled in 3-D and done in a caricature style instead of a realistic one. It doesn't clash with the 2-D art much, and once you see enough characters, you'll get used to the style. What you won't get used to is how poorly these characters animate and act. Move them to a screen edge for a transition, and you'll see them walking in place as the screen fades to black. Some scenes have them caught in the scenery, such as when Christine leaves a building but gets stuck at the front door. Characters try to grab and manipulate objects that aren't in their hands, and watching their lips move while speaking is painful as they flap their lips without corresponding to their speech. There are enough of these gaffes that the overall visual qualities suffer.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, the audio is near-excellent, and a great deal of that praise can be attributed to the soundtrack. The modern movie feel makes up a very small part of the score, but the rest of it is comprised of some era-specific jazz and classical, lounge, and Chinese opera. It helps sells the idea of the era, even if the rest of the game fails at this. Elsewhere, the voice acting from both major and minor characters is good, and while there are hints of some characters moving into cheesy territory, the game never reaches that point, making the dialogue worthwhile.
Despite doing a number of things right, 1954: Alcatraz doesn't feel special. The characters are intriguing but ultimately one-dimensional, and the story fails to take advantage of the time, location, and the branching paths idea. Though most of the puzzles use common sense instead of asking players to use obscure logic, they feel easy and there's the sense that the title isn't very challenging. Combined with a less-than-stellar visual presentation, 1954: Alcatraz doesn't reach its full potential. Adventure fans may enjoy this, but they'll also feel that this could have been much better.
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