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1954 Alcatraz (PC) artwork

1954 Alcatraz (PC) review

"[Disap]Point & Click"

There’s this really thin line that all the best adventure games very carefully walk. At the heart of their conception, there are weird and wonderful puzzles that you need to crack in order to progress. Some puzzles play it straight and logical, some are imbued with cartoony silliness, but they all have to be difficult enough to solve for the player to feel satisfied at their achievement, but also not so difficult that the player feels they’ve hit an impassable wall and gives up on the game forever. It’s a really tough line and it’s massively rare for even the most beloved point & clicks to maintain this ridiculous standard throughout. 1954 Alcatraz does not have those concerns. It rarely even tries.

Sometimes, the puzzles you need to solve are so straightforward and easy that it feels more like you’re playing a visual novel rather than an adventure game. Then, there are moments that will send even veteran campaigners running off for an online FAQ, but these are often borne from janky transitions between solving a puzzle and obtaining a solution. Sometimes 1954 gets things arse backwards and you find yourself in a patch of plot you probably shouldn’t be witnessing yet, with very little idea of how it pertains to the continuity. But that doesn’t really matter either; if the puzzles are regularly phoned in, then at least Alcatraz has a decent pop at consistency when it comes to the rest of the game.

Fall foul of the hallowed difficulty line either way, and a good enough setting or plot can still save your game. The early seasons of Telltale’s The Walking Dead contained almost arbitrary puzzles that presented little in the way of reward for completing. But it was carried by the constant threat of losing any of its brilliantly relatable cast that the strong writing bonds you with over a very small amount of time. On the other end of the spectrum, the original Broken Sword contained a puzzle so frustratingly difficult that it’s earnt its own Wikipedia page. But people persisted and broke past it because they wanted to advance the deep historical mystery the bumbling American tourist protagonist kept stumbling through. Both games presented a plot you invested in and a cast you cared about.

1954 Alcatraz achieves neither. Despite hedging its bets by splitting its tale between a convict trying to escape Alcatraz Island, and his wife trying to find his ill-gotten loot to pay off homicidal mafia goons, both threads are woven into the same bland, boring tapestry where nothing of interest ever happens. This is a game filled with mob goons, convicted murderers and dirty police, and still manages to be habitually dull. This is further hurt by the bewildering ability to make the cast completely unlikeable. Joe’s a convicted armed robber, but the game never makes its mind up whether it wants to portray him as a hard-nosed career criminal or an honest guy trying to recover from one big mistake. It’s not like 1954 gives you the freedom through his in-game choices to decide for yourself; it simply has him bounce from one extreme to the other depending on which best fits the poorly written situation he finds himself in.

Christine follows the same convoluted archetype. When you meet her, she’s openly brooding about how much she misses her incarcerated husband, and how devoted she is to him. Then, only a sparse few scenes later, she has the option of banging her neighbour. What’s frustrating is that in a better produced game, making the pair so unrelatable and unlikable should have been a masterstroke. You shouldn’t like Joe; he’s an armed robber with a long history of violence who makes it clear he’s not above assault or murder to further his own means. You shouldn’t like Christine; she’s a materialistic floozy constantly prepared to hurt, steal from or sell out the people she purportedly cares about. In just about the only commendable mechanic 1954 Alcatraz advances, you can unlock different endings by making choices that either alienate the couple from each other or… not so much bring them closer together but not screw over their already broken relationship any further?

Except some of those choices are so poorly explained you don’t know you’ve struck a blow against the couple’s marriage until after you’ve done it. Even if you somehow manage to work your way through all the dark side decisions, the game offers you zero indication that you’re on that route until the ending options are jarringly dropped on your lap. And, frankly, once you get there, who cares? I’m not really that invested in seeing if two unlikable jerks stay with or betray each other, or if they get away with their index of crimes. I’m not interested in arbitrarily snoozing through my-first-point-&-click calibre puzzles. Or controlling ugly, lurching 3D models that slowly meander around the screen just to make sure everything is even further dragged out. It’s reasonably stable, only crashing a couple of times in my seven hours playthrough, and there’s a cute moment where a cat sits on a record player and goes for a casual spin. I guess there are worse adventure games out there. I’m really struggling to end on a positive note here; can you tell?


EmP's avatar
Staff review by Gary Hartley (February 10, 2019)

Gary Hartley arbitrarily arrives, leaves a review for a game no one has heard of, then retreats to his 17th century castle in rural England to feed whatever lives in the moat and complain about you.

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jerec posted February 10, 2019:

Best tagline. I see I'm not missing much with this game, I know it didn't grab me after what little I played. You're right about that fine line these games walk with difficulty (and I'm sure different players have their own opinions there).
I guess you play these games so we don't have to.
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Masters posted February 11, 2019:

I concur. Great tagline -- one of the best I've seen in a long time. Good review too. It's always difficult to review these types of games. You run the risk of spoiling events or not saying enough. You straddle that line rather well here.

It's very strange that you'd plug someone else's review though. It's just... not you.
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EmP posted February 11, 2019:

I don't know why I felt I had to go back and beat this one; I had several false starts where I played a bit in and found absolutely no interest in continuing. Maybe I thought, as it was a Daedalic game, then it might get better. It didn't.

Thanks for coming through and dropping feedback, Jerec. I can honestly take solace in the idea that I suffered this game so others didn't have to.
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jerec posted February 11, 2019:

EmP played 1954 Alcatraz for our sins!
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EmP posted February 11, 2019:

Marc sneaks in there with the stealth post. I might have missed it had you not mentioned you'd posted on IM four hundred times.

I've played worse adventure games than 1954, but I've not been angry enough with myself to review them as of yet. Filimore's an awful, awful game and the easiest to hand to make that point. Could have gone with a Myst review, I guess, but that might have been controversial to people who don't know better.

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