I’m someone who enjoys playing a game that is out of his comfort zone. Usually it needs to be something completely offbeat as I usually want something a little insane as opposed to something that takes itself seriously. So this is where the adventure games genre comes in as a nice gap filler between my gaming in a year. It’s not a genre I usually take part in, and it’s frankly not one I particularly care for. On the other hand, I do admire the consistency this genre has in providing pretty well put together plots and providing settings that you have no chance of ever seeing in the triple-A space.

For instance, if you were to just look at the title of 1954: Alcatraz, you’d figure it has to be at most a Noir game. Maybe some kind of prison escape job, with some mixture of stealth and action gameplay and storytelling more in line with either what you’ve seen in Max Payne or something like LA Noire. In the adventure game space? The beat era. For the educated: The beat era is The Howl by Allen Ginsberg. For those of you who haven’t grown up much since the 90s: think Judy Funnie from Doug. For a much younger audience? Go to Netflix, watch Doug, and pay attention to Judy. That should give you an idea of what kind of literature and artwork are being depicted.

So 1954: Alcatraz is about an inmate named Joe, serving time at the infamous Alcatraz prison because of a botched armored truck heist. Usually, that’s not something that would get you into Alcatraz, but there’s a convenient explanation for that as well. Anyway there’s a two-pronged plot that focuses on him and his beatnik girlfriend Christine. Her part of the plot focuses on north beach San Francisco, and revolves around her trying to get out from the under the thumb of this germaphobe mobster guy.

It’s a plot that focuses on celebrating a lot of the beatnik era of writing and art in general, while also bringing these two plots together to a conclusion based entirely on whatever decisions you made over a handful of sequences. Unfortunately, it really leads you to a penultimate decision that overrules everything that got you there, which either lets Christine get away with the loot and ditching Joe, or something more in line with Bonnie and Clyde. A lot of this ultimately is a result of the story beginning with the relationship of the two leads being on the rocks.

It also really doesn’t help that playing the game can feel so uninspiring. The adventure game genre has built this stigma with the mainstream audience as the boring pixel-hunting genre, fueled by ridiculous logic puzzles that require little more than dumb luck to solve. While you don't have to worry about any random logic puzzles, Alcatraz at the least lives up to the stigma of pixel hunt fests. Most of the puzzles in the game really don’t require much thought. Christine’s puzzles focus on her hopping between areas like a beatnik friendly art café, a library, a park, etc. usually bringing one item or another to a specific character. Either that or she needs to use one of her tools to get into the area. Apparently in 1954, bobby pins unlocked every door imaginable.

Joe’s puzzles fall under a number of the same ideas, but most of them are in the more confined places you find in a prison, making his part of the game more dull to play because of how simple the environments are that he interacts in. Because, like Christine's puzzles, none of them will actually test your brain. Most of the puzzles have the correct solution in the area you’re already in, and usually in the most obvious of ways. For instance, to help Christine’s landlord who is sick, I had to get her soup, which was in the restaurant right down stairs, and finding the ability to read Chinese was simply looking for the symbol on the menu. Other times, even if you have an item the character is looking for, you won’t be able to hand it over right away, because it doesn’t fit an arbitrary time in the plot to make it all work. The landlord, while being irritated that Christine hasn’t paid her rent, is more than willing to take her records, which you can pick up fairly early in the game, but can’t hand them over until a little after the halfway point. Even after she already told you her price to be paid for your rent.

The most interesting the game ever gets with the puzzles are between your dealings with a priest. The game, when it clicks, has you bouncing from Joe to Christine, using this Priest as a conduit to get their plan in order. Ultimately culminating in Joe’s escape as well as Christine’s upper hand over her enemies as well.

Unfortunately, the rest of the puzzle solving is basic and all too often you’re being strung along by doing unrelated tasks before you can do exactly what you need to do to move the plot forward. It feels like the game is drawn out longer than it needs to be and the gameplay isn’t varied nor does it evolve enough to make its drawn out pacing work.

When it comes to the storyline itself? It relies too much on its two leads to make it all work. On one hand there’s something to admire about a plot where both leads are fundamentally awful people who kill, steal, double cross, and aren’t exactly against being selfish. Especially based on some of your decisions as a player. Unfortunately, neither of them are fascinating or at the least charismatic enough to keep you invested. Joe ultimately comes off as a brick, and Christine’s love for beat era writing doesn’t overrule her one-note demeanor either.

And that’s a shame because the game shows such genuine care for its setting. Between the authentic depiction of the era as well as the artwork (though I don’t think the 3D character models quite work with the hand-drawn backgrounds). It’s a game that gets the beat era in a way that either gives you the impression that they researched this topic heavily or are genuinely passionate about the subject and it’s disappointing that all this passion happens to be imprisoned in a poorly thought out adventure game.

1954: Alcatraz’s most valuable addition to my life was giving me an excuse to actually do some personal research on what the beat era was about. For the most part, it’s not my cup of tea but hey, that’s sort of the point of trying something new outside of your comfort zone. On its own merits as a videogame? The puzzles are mindless and won’t provide any source of fulfillment for the player. The plot is built around a couple who are more Whitney and Bobby than Bonnie and Clyde.

It’s an example of a game that doesn’t always need to be broken (think technical issues) to be a complete mess. The inconsistent visual design is more indicative of your experience than any puzzle or piece of dialogue in the game. Just when you’re about to find something you enjoy about the game something else right there will make you ignore it entirely.

 

Final Score - 4/10

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