A robbery gone wrong, a missing stash of loot, mobsters, police, and Beat poets all angling for the same prize, and two lovers separated by prison walls and the San Francisco Bay. 1954: Alcatraz is a point-and-click adventure game that encompasses all of this and more.
After its near-death in the 2000s, the point-and-click adventure genre has been going through a recent resurgence. With Tim Schaefer’s successfully Kickstarted Broken Age well on the way to completion, and with games like Amnesia, Gone Home, and the Frogwares' Sherlock Holmes games pushing the boundaries of the medium, the classic adventure game is all but back.
Falling squarely into the more classical style of adventure games is 1954: Alcatraz. You start by taking on the role of Joe, an inmate at Alcatraz who may or may not be guilty of an armored truck robbery but who is most certainly guilty of escaping from a lesser prison. Very early in the game you meet Joe’s wife, Christine, and from then on you can alternate between controlling Joe on Alcatraz as he tries to engineer an escape attempt, or Christine who’s moving around North Beach trying to find Joe’s stashed loot and keep the mobsters off her tail at the same time. You can change characters at your leisure, allowing you to change up the scenery should you get bored or stuck. Indeed, sometimes changing character is the correct answer to getting stuck.
The puzzles in Alcatraz come from interaction rather than from traditional puzzles. Think more Monkey Island and less Myst. You won’t be finding any sliding tile puzzles, but do be prepared to listen to everything a character says to know what items you’ll need to bring them in order to get them on your side. In fact, this is true of most puzzles in the game - there are very few puzzles that are solved with environmental manipulation; most of them are essentially fetch-quests.
I had some troubles with the controls in 1954: Alcatraz, although nothing too frustrating. One of the most common issues is that you can access your inventory by clicking open the manila folder that appears when your mouse is on the left edge of the screen. Occasionally, the game will put either an object or an exit point on that left side of the screen and so you may accidentally open your inventory when trying to leave a location. Another specific instance with the controls comes from the fact that your most basic control is your mouse: right clicks “look” at something, while left clicks “interact” with something. You’ll find rather early in the game that the right click is almost useless because whenever you left click something, your character will usually give you as much description as if you had right clicked it and then either take the item or comment on it accordingly. So when, in the middle of the game, there is a dialog option that will only open once you’ve right clicked everything in the room, it’s the sort of thing that you can easily miss.
All of that being said, if you’re not terribly seasoned when it comes to adventure games, 1954 could easily be a good jumping on point for you. The puzzles aren’t super obvious, but there also aren’t any insanely cryptic or random logic puzzles that somewhat characterized the medium in the 90s. I found that most of the time it was obvious how I would eventually solve a puzzle, just not how I would solve it yet.
The narrative, I feel, leaves a little something to be desired. Throughout the game, but especially in the early parts, the dialog doesn’t feel very cohesive. The 1-on-1 interactions very much give the impression that the lines were all recorded line by line and not in a conversational way with both actors present, which may well be true, but I prefer it when I can’t tell. Also, the only plotlines that aren’t centered on the robbery and the breakout are centered on the fidelity of the two main characters. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that it just feels underdeveloped here, which wouldn’t have been a big deal if it didn’t then play a potentially big role in the ending scene of the game. All of a sudden, in the final minutes of the game, Christine wonders what she should do, and it’s an uncertainty that up to this point we haven’t seen out of her. I would have preferred to see this aspect of her character either developed more, or left out altogether. Not every game needs to have a good ending/bad ending dynamic. In the words of the immortal Marge Simpson: “It’s an ending, sometimes that’s enough.”
1954: Alcatraz clocked in at around four hours. With a $20 price tag, that seems a bit steep, but it is an enjoyable romp through a fairly pretty environment inhabited by interesting characters. Ultimately, for a hardcore point-and-click player, this might be one to pass on, but if you’re not as experienced or you’re looking for a more casual adventure experience then 1954: Alcatraz is an enjoyable game that shows a lot of potential from a young development studio.
This review is based on a digital copy of 1954: Alcatraz for the PC, provided by the publisher.