Adventure games are always interesting, because they are much more versatile when it comes to where the game is set. I mean, it’s hard to imagine a first-person shooter that takes place in 1950’s San Francisco. While I’m sure there are some people out there who wouldn’t mind blowing the heads off a few Beatnicks, I don’t see it as having any mass appeal. Still, when you think about, the setting seems perfect for a game. The struggle of one man to escape Alcatraz while his wife dodges the mob on shore seems like it could be a fantastic movie/book/TV show. Yet here it is in an adventure game. That’s just nifty.
The game begins in jail. You play as Joe, a con who got sent to Alcatraz after robbing an armored truck and escaping Leavenworth. That’s kind of a good thing though, as his wife, friends, and the missing loot from the heist are just a few miles away in San Francisco Bay. However, his wife visits him and drops a bomb. The mob is threatening to kill her if she can’t find the missing loot by the end of the month. The story takes turns between Joe and Caroline, in and out of jail, in order to bust Joe out and help the couple make a getaway.
The setup is interesting enough, but the setting ends up being the real star of the show. Running around San Fran as Christine is great because, just like at the time, there are a number of different types of people milling about. I mean, there aren’t many games out there that have you playing as one half of an interracial couple that helps resolve issues between a gay couple. You do that kind of thing in this game. More importantly, things like race, gender, and sexuality are handled casually. There are no derogatory comments, slurs, or anything. In fact, the only character in the game that seems to have a problem with any of it isn’t given any lines! If nothing else, the game deserves some credit for this. Diversity in gaming should always be rewarded.
The story itself is actually pretty good, although the voice acting doesn’t do it any favors. There are multiple possible endings and scenarios that depend on your actions. Some of these actions are obvious. If you choose to cheat on your spouse, that might cause an issue or two. However, some of the choices are almost impossible to see beforehand. For example, there’s one puzzle that has two solutions. One of the solutions negatively affects your relationship. The ending sequence isn’t vastly different though, and the puzzles won’t change based on your actions. Still, it’s interesting enough that two people can play through the game and have some major differences.
If there’s one problem the game has, it’s that everyone seems far too laid back. I get that perhaps that kind of attitude was par for the course in those days, but Christine doesn’t seem nearly worried enough about the mobster breathing down her neck. She seems mildly inconvenienced at worst. The same goes for Joe. He acts as if breaking out of the inescapable prison is just something people do every day. Part of this is the voice acting, but part of it is the nature of the game. There’s no rush, and no way to fail. It kind of kills the tension.
Visually, the game is dated, but looks good nonetheless. The 2D backgrounds are the star of the show thanks to gorgeous art and and strong lighting. In contrast, the 3D character models can seem a tad bit out of place. To make up for a low polygon count, they rely on odd shapes to give each character a unique definition. It works to a degree, and at least you’ll never forget which character is which. There are certainly plenty of better looking point-and-click games out there, but Alcatraz looks as good or better than most.
I’ve mentioned the voice acting a couple of times already. While there is a decent attempt to get a strong variety of voices and convey emotion, it isn’t successful. In particular, Joe and Christine are just way too laid back. They only seem to get even remotely emotional during a couple of sequences. I mean, Christine just doesn’t seem to care all that much when someone is pointing a gun in her face. It seems odd. The music, however, is a definite hit. There’s this beautiful recurring jazzy lounge song that is particularly memorable. The only bad thing I can think to say about it is that the club you visit only ever seems to play that one tune. The game also knows when to keep the music silent. For example, San Francisco is alive with music from radios, gramophones, and live singers. However, Alcatraz itself is almost as silent as the grave. It creates a nice contrast that helps sell the different worlds the characters inhabit.
If you’ve ever played a point-and-click game before, you’ll know just what to do here. You can switch between characters on the fly, and each has their own inventory to work with. All you need to do is click on things to move your character, add items to you inventory, and talk to the various people you encounter. When you get stuck, that’s when it’s time to dig into your inventory. For example, a locked door is no match for that bobby pin you picked up. Some items can be combined to create new ones, allowing for a few puzzles that are a tad more complex than usual.
As a way to keep the game more accessible to people, you can tap the space bar to reveal every object and/or person you can interact with. This helps a lot, as you won’t have to click around like a maniac to make sure you’ve found everything in a room. However, this mechanic is completely optional and the game is perfectly playable without it. If you’re some kind of purist or perfectionist, you can avoid it altogether.
Another neat mechanic is that you can use both mouse buttons to click on objects. Left-clicking will interact with an item/person, while right-clicking will clue you into your character’s thoughts on that item/person. This allows you get to hints as far as what to do, and takes a lot of the guesswork out of the game.
With the multiple paths the game follows, there actually is a way to completely miss some sections of the game. This can result in items never being used. For example, I created a smoke bomb out of materials I gathered in the prison hospital. However, I ended up never needing it. I’m sure there was some use for it, but I never found it. Likewise, I used an item in a way that cleared up one of my problems. However, doing so was completely optional. If I hadn’t figured out how it worked, the item would have stayed in my inventory until the end, and a sequence at the end of the game would have worked out differently. While this mechanic can be a bit frustrating at times, it’s also pretty nifty, and gives the game a bit more replay value.
Speaking of replay value, this game is certainly ahead of the pack in terms of adventure games. The main story is probably only four to five hours long, and there are those multiple endings to consider. Now, you can use multiple saves to see some of them, but you’ll need to make different choices along the way to see them all. There are also achievements that can only be earned if you make certain choices, so that is something to consider as well. On the other hand though, the bulk of the game will be the same on a subsequent playthrough, so it all depends on how much of a perfectionist you are.
Short Attention Span Summary:
1954 Alcatraz isn’t going to light the world on fire and create a vast demand for point-and-click games. However, for fans of the genre, it is a solid game with a great hook. It features classic gameplay, interesting puzzles, great art, and a fun soundtrack. The story will be hit or miss, but you’ll more than likely be hooked until the end. Really, my only real problem with the game is the lackluster voice acting. Even that is better than average for the genre. Overall, the game is certainly worth a look.
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