Recently (3/12/2014) a new PC only game called 1954 Alcatraz was released. It was developed by the well-established indie developer/publisher Daedalic Entertainment. They had a hand in a number of well-known titles such as Machinarium (2009) and Tales of Monkey Island (2010).
This is a point and click adventure set in 1954 San Francisco. It focuses on the lives of a prison inmate at Alcatraz Island and his wife who waits for him on the shores just outside. Even though I don’t love point and clicks, I was really excited to play this game because of the setting and proposed story. But after a full playthrough, I gotta say that I had a number of issues with this game. I do not believe in pulling punches in reviews regardless of the type of studio, budget, or any other such crutch often used in the gaming industry. I judge each game I play based on what I’d like to see in games, what I’ve seen in games, and how games compare to other games old and current. Hopefully this review will help you ultimately decide if 1954 Alcatraz is worth your time.
The graphics are pretty solid, especially for a point and click game. The game uses a mixture of 2D & 3D backgrounds and interactive elements. It feels very much like playing a graphic novel at times. All the characters are rendered in 3D and they look quite good. They are cartoony in nature, but they have real character. While I might not describe them as realistic, they do feel real. They have real defining characteristics like wrinkles, misplaced hairs, and stubble. Most telling of this for me was the main male character, Joe. My first thought when seeing him was that I don’t like his face. But I don’t mean that as in I didn’t think it was designed well. I mean that I didn’t like the way his face looked like when you see a person for the first time and sometimes you just don’t like the way they look. That means Daedalic did a good job if they were able to illicit a level of prejudice in me towards a character based on his appearance when he’s the character I’ll be playing as.
There is a high level of detail in the game’s visuals. Sometimes this is obvious such as in the café level. You can see several different pictures on one of the walls, each containing a different and noticeable image. While this is completely superfluous to the story, the time was still taken to design such an intricate backdrop for an area that you spend only a minute amount of time in. But this attention to detail is even more telling in the little things. The creases in clothing, the cracks in the walls, and the crevices between records in the apartment. And as an added bonus you can play the game in “1954 Mode” so it looks like an old Humphrey Bogart film.
How things react is another important aspect of the graphics as well. There are 3 different ways that this occurs in the game. The first is through direct in game visuals where you see everything that’s occurring such as when the cat is riding on the record player early in the apartment. The second type is when you find items you need such as a magazine on the floor. In this Daedalic got a little lazy because while they show you reach for the item which is rendered, you don’t really pick it up. It just disappears and then is shown to have been added to your inventory. The third way this occurs is when you grab something from inside something else. Again the character reaches for the item, but it is never seen. The item just moves directly into you inventory.
Characters on the other hand did react well with each other. You often see characters interacting with objects and other NPCs by doing things like kissing, painting, and eating. What’s most important about the graphics in a point and click is that things are well defined so you can see the specific objects and easily find what you’re looking for. The second most important factor is how things change when the player interacts with them. In both of these categories, 1954 Alcatraz does a good job.
The game stays in character for the entirety of the story. Whether it’s conversations, cinematic sequences, or gameplay, the graphics remain the same which is important in games of all types. Often companies both indie and AAA try to cut costs by doing cut scenes in lower graphics than the actual gameplay, but that is not the case with this title. The only time the graphics are inconsistent with the rest of the game is in the opening sequence which is clearly done as a way to set the Noir mood and pace of the time period and story. For the type of game it is I’m very happy with the graphics overall.
The gameplay in 1954 Alcatraz was the hardest thing for me to judge. On one hand you have a number of really interesting and creative elements that set the game apart from other point and clicks I’ve played in the past. But on the other hand the gameplay had a ton of issues that really hurt my overall experience. Obviously we have to take into account that this is a point and click and as such there are certain things that just can’t be done and certain limits to the gameplay. You can’t go into a point and click expecting the Dark Souls experience. With all that in the back of your mind, I will try to give a detailed account of what I felt to be the positive and negative aspects of the gameplay.
Let’s start with the basics. The point and click gameplay allows you to click on a number of elements within each area. You can choose to reveal these areas by holding the spacebar, but to make it harder you can play without revealing them. Each clickable element can be right clicked for information or left clicked for action, but often you can’t perform actions on certain clickable elements and you either get the same message for both right and left click or you get a message saying that you can’t do anything with whatever you have left clicked. While sometimes the right click can be useful, it often just wastes time. You could play through the whole game by using only the left click and it won’t have negatively affected your progress in any way.
At any time you can open the info tab by pressing ‘I’ and it will show you your items. In this menu you can take out items which can then be used upon clickable elements. Often you can’t make progress unless you click the correct element with the correct item. Items can also be mixed together, which I really liked, but only in certain sensible situations. The first time you do it, you mix glass shards with a handle to make a prison shank. The handle came from a shank that you broke. That makes perfect sense and it’s cool because you also have the aspect of being able to repair items, which later becomes an important part of Joe’s character. But not all combinations in the game are as obvious or sensible.
The first time you do it, you mix glass shards with a handle to make a prison shank. That makes perfect sense and it’s cool.
The story is not linear. You have the ability to do most of the necessary tasks in any order you want and travel to any available area at will. As you progress through the game, you unlock more areas. This is nice because when you get stuck on one task you can work on others and return to it later.
As with any point and click, there are moments where you have to find things, but sometimes these opportunities are wasted in this game. An example of this is when Christine has to check the globe for clues. The dialogue focuses so much on having to remember what the clues in the globe are in a specific country, but then it just finds them for you automatically. There are a number of similar inconsistencies, such as the fact that at times you can’t steal things when people are looking, but at other times you can just pick things up with witnesses around. It’s not the fact that you can pick things up when people are looking that I didn’t like. It’s the fact that it was inconsistent throughout the game.
One thing that is definitely to be commended is the fact that Joe and Christine are different characters in the story. You can change between them at any time, but at certain places you are forced to play as one for purposes of plot. While the gameplay for both of them is mostly the same, their personalities, problems, and interactions are wholly different. On one hand you have Joe who relies on his physical prowess and ingenuity to accomplish his goals. But on the other side you have Christine who is a kleptomaniac, anti-establishment poet type. Their parts of the game are completely different and both add to the overall experience.
But at the same time, Christine’s part of the story is extremely boring. She is put in a number of interesting situations, but sadly she is portrayed in a very stereotypical way. She’s a victim caught in a struggle because of the actions of a man, Joe. While she does end up ultimately finding the loot and saving Joe, for the most part she is reacting and rarely acting on her own. And while she does have interesting interactions, she doesn’t have very interesting tasks to do. Meanwhile Joe has to do a number of varied tasks like fixing machines, building ropes, and even has a fight. To be honest though, the fight was very inconsistent and ultimately a disappointing aspect of the game, but I have to give Daedalic credit for trying, because I have never seen a real time fight in a point and click game before.
My biggest problem with the gameplay was that at times it was too difficult. Now before you freak out and ask how a point and click can be too hard, let me explain. The game has you complete a number of tasks that require you to find certain things and make certain combinations in order to progress forward in the story, but some of the tasks are just way too out there for you to figure out. For example, the first time I got stuck was early into my playthrough of Christine’s story. You had to acquire soup for your landlord, which was very easy to do and obvious. You simply had to find a spoon and then go to the kitchen and get the soup out of a pot on the stove. But then you were required to add a secret ingredient and I must say that this was the most convoluted task ever and took me way too long to get through.
The secret ingredient was located in a kitchen in a Chinese restaurant, but Christine can’t read Chinese. So you had to figure out that you needed to locate a Chinese menu in a different room and read it to get the symbols for the item, then go back to the kitchen and find the item, but only after you found the symbols. Then you had to combine the soup with the item before you could progress. Finding the soup was easy. And finding the place where the item is kept was easy. But figuring out that you needed to go find the menu to learn Chinese to be able to get the ingredient just didn’t click for me.
In similar fashion there are a number of moments where the game asks you to make assumptions and connections that just don’t come naturally. Difficulty is not always a bad thing, but it’s not always a good thing either. In this case I felt that these overly tricky moments took away from the game instead of adding to it, but as a person that doesn’t often play point and clicks, maybe I’m wrong. Overall I felt that the gameplay was ok, but not great.
The sound is quite good in this game. The quality is definitely at professional level. Whether playing with my headset or when using my laptop speakers, everything came through crisp and clear. The music is very appropriate. It’s mostly jazz and easy listening beat music from the poetry scene of the 1950s. The opening song sounds like something right out of Casablanca (1942). While the voice acting was good, some of the characters’ voices were a bit odd. Not necessarily wrong, but better ones could have been chosen. Especially with the Catholic Priest NPC. He sounded so much like a hippie beatnik, but his dialogue went against these speech patterns for the most part. This is a very subjective observation and again, I’m not saying the voice acting was of low quality.
The most impressive part of the game’s sound has to be the ambient noise. The seagulls in places near the water, the water itself when in coastal areas, and the generator humming in the boiler room. Things like gears turning when you fix them, phones ringing, and the typewriter keys are all prime examples of how the little things were taken very seriously by Daedalic in the creation of this game, and I appreciated it. It’s quite possible that the sound might be the most impressive part of this game in terms of quality.
A lot can be said about the writing in 1954 Alcatraz. Let’s start with basic plot. A man, Joe, committed a heist and was sent to Alcatraz Island prison. For a number of reasons, he decides to make an escape, but the most important one is his desire to be with and protect his wife, Christine. At the same time his story is happening, Christine has an adventure of her own. She is being hounded by a corrupt business man for the heist money and is threatening to kill her if she doesn’t come up with the loot. She is also responsible for helping a number of friends with their problems and preparing for Joe’s escape from prison and their escape from town. As a basic plot, the writing is quite good and was honestly the main reason I wanted to play the game. Along with the basic in-game plot, the opening sequence is also very good. In just a couple minutes with a few lightly moving images you get a long, dramatic back story of the current situation. And it’s also filled with lots of real emotion.
One of the best things about the plot is the fact that there are multiple outcomes. Joe or Christine can actually be left behind or killed. Throughout the game you have to make choices and figure out certain things. But specific decisions can lead to devastating outcomes. Even at the very end of the game, Christine can still choose to take the money for herself and leave Joe. But at the same time many of your decisions don’t really have a consequence even though the game leads you to believe that they will. For example, there is a moment in the game where Christine can choose to have sex with an ex-boyfriend while Joe is in prison. If you choose to do this you are shown that your love meter has dropped a number of points, but ultimately it has no noticeable effect on the game’s outcome. This mechanic is wasted because not only does it not take advantage of a number of possible other outcomes and dialogue, but it also cheapens every choice you make because you really have no idea if it even matters at all or if just certain big decisions make a difference. Arguably the same is true of real life, but the difference is that I don’t see a meter move up or down when I make decisions in real life so I’m not necessarily led to believe that anything I do actually matters like you do in the game.
There’s also a number of moments that you think are going to happen or be able to happen if you choose to, but never do. A good example of this is right at the end when you’ve killed a prison guard and you approach his wife’s apartment. She sees you and invites you in while you are trying to make your escape. While the smart decision is obviously to just keep moving and ignore her, which you do automatically, I was unhappy with the fact that you didn’t have the option to join her in her apartment, which is a playable area previously in the game. On a number of occasions I was unexpectedly forced to do something I wasn’t planning on doing or couldn’t do something I was hoping to do.
As with many games, the dialogue and observations are repetitive and come from a central branch that only slightly deviates outward. What’s nice though is that there is a lot of background information that can be gained by talking to a number of characters. But the order in which you address certain issues and make certain conversation choices has no real bearing on the conversation in most cases which is a shame because when you are actually playing the game you often feel like they will.
I was impressed by the sheer number of interactive elements in the game. As with most point and clicks, there is dialogue for every clickable thing in the game. In fact, almost everything has 2 sets of dialogue: one for the information button (right click) and a separate one for the action button (left click). There are a few moments where these are the same, but for the most part you get to hear 2 separate things.
My favourite part of the game as far as writing goes is the historical realism. Both in the plot and in the dialogue, Daedalic really did a good job of recreating that time period and location. And they made sure to include the raunchy, politically incorrect stuff as well. There’s sex, violence, racism, and alternative life styles all contemporary with the time. There’s a moment where you have to help a gay couple get back together after a fight. At one point you meet a couple guys having sex in a park hidden in the bushes and they ask you (Christine) to join in. Racist speech is thrown around a number of times in completely realistic fashion. As Joe you are made aware of the fact that you are black a number of times by the fact that certain NPCs won’t interact with you and some even call you racial slurs to your face. These are just a few examples, but there are many more. As a student of American history, I was very impressed with the game’s realism in this area.
My favorite part of the game as far as writing goes is the historical realism.
Probably the biggest flaw with the writing and the reason I dropped its score significantly is the lack of consistency with whether or not you are the player(s). At times the player says “I” when you make decisions and when the player is talking to himself/herself. This is the usual way that games are made because the developer wants you to identify with the character and really start to feel like him/her. But while this is happening, NPCs always refer to the character by name, rarely using the word “you” as an address when starting a conversation. Even when you put your own name into a game like with The Legend of Zelda titles, the NPCs usually use the name you entered to address your character. That’s the normal way to do it.
But in this game the fourth wall is constantly being broken. Often do the playable characters talk to the player directly, thus damaging the player’s suspended disbelief and pulling him/her out of the world of the character and treating him/her like an outsider. While it would be completely fine for this to be done for the entirety of a game, it’s not really acceptable when being interchanged with the game treating you like you are the character. Daedalic should have stuck with either one or the other instead of mixing the 2. It very much feels like something that was simply overlooked if not blatantly ignored while playing the game. While the content was good, the execution was severely flawed and for this reason I was unable to give this game a good writing score.
As with all games that allow you to make decisions that ultimately affect the outcome, 1954 Alcatraz automatically has replay value. To get the full plot experience, you would need to play through it at least 2 times, but technically there are a number of ways to end the game other than both or even just 1 character getting away, so the game definitely has a good amount of plot-based replay value. As far as gameplay is concerned, you gain nothing from playing it more than once, but that’s the case for basically all point and click adventures.
After playing 1954 Alcatraz all the way through, I have to say that it didn’t meet my original expectations. It had its moments, but ultimately I didn’t love it. About half way through the game I was already getting bored with it. It’s not that it’s a terrible game, but between the slow pace and the many flaws, it can get old very quickly. Especially if you aren’t into point and clicks.
While the game does have replay value, I can honestly say that I have no interest in playing it again. The game is ok, but for the $20 price tag on Steam I would have to say it’s a pass. If it was $10 or less I’d say go for it, because you can probably get a max of 6 – 10 hours out of it so you’d be paying in the range of a dollar an hour, which isn’t bad.
- Solid Graphics
- Historically Realistic Dialogue
- Multiple Endings
- Great Sound Quality and Music
- Inconsistent Gameplay
- Slow Pace
- Inconsistent Writing Style
- High Price for Length
2,5 GHz (Single Core) oder 2GHz (Dual Core) 3 GB RAM, Graphics card: GeForce 200er/Radeon 300er/Intel HD 3000er or better
6 GB HD space