An earnest attempt
Earlier this year, Broken Age perfectly captured the fun of such classics as Grim Fandango and Monkey Island. Now, 1954: Alcatraz wants to do that too. It really, really wants to. The attempt is so earnest that it's a shame the game isn't more fun to play.
The story follows two central characters: Joe, a prisoner of Alcatraz who wants to escape and be with his wife Christine; and Christine herself, a beatnik poet who needs to find out where Joe hid all the money he owes the mob. If she doesn't find that cash soon, she's gonna get whacked. Players swap between playing as Joe in prison and as Christine in San Francisco's North Beach area.
Puzzle solving that's flexible—but only sometimes
The gameplay of 1954: Alcatraz is centered around old-school point-and-click puzzle solving, complete with 3D characters against 2D backgrounds. It also has a few moments of subtle choice-making along the way. Most of this has to do with the relationship between Christine and Joe. Does Christine think Joe cheated on her? Does she cheat on him in retaliation? Does she take the money and leave him to die in prison, or does run away with him? The climax can play out differently based on the little choices you make over the course of the game. It's an interesting concept, even though it boils down to only a few different endings.
Some puzzles have multiple possible solutions, or are entirely optional, but will alter the story later. Unfortunately, since most of the puzzles must be solved a certain way, it's not always clear when there is a choice, which can be rather frustrating. The game would have benefited from sticking to either linear puzzle solving or open-ended, flexible, free-form puzzle solving. Mixing the two together, and not telling the player when to expect what, causes a few headaches.
The spacebar highlights environmental objects you can interact with, which is very convenient...especially since certain poorly-chosen camera angles will have characters blocking important items. (Since the environments are all in 2D, you can't change camera angles at all.) The environments are also full of objects that serve no purpose. Frequently I would try to interact with an object, only for the character to say, “That doesn't help me.” If it has no use, then why make it interactive?
You access your inventory with the mouse wheel, which is a really odd choice of controls. No text explained this in the tutorial, either; I only figured out how to open my inventory by accident after pushing random buttons for several minutes. It's especially confusing at first because when you move your mouse over to the left of the screen, a tab unfolds, as if to show that the inventory is accessible from there. When you do click on it, however, nothing happens. The tab serves almost no purpose, and sometimes covers up important environmental objects, making it difficult to interact with them.
Ah, another bobby pin
The majority of the game's problems are details, but there are just so many of these details that something comes up almost every minute. It could be clumsily-handled exposition, or a cat with a weird-looking character model, or a priest's hilariously awkward walking animation. It could be the same jazz song playing every single time you visit an area, over and over and over again for the entire game. It could be the game's bizarre obsession with bobby pins—Christine picks up at least five different bobby pins over the course of the game, to the point where it almost feels like a running gag that forgot to be funny.
The dialogue can be odd as well. During my playthrough, Christine would occasionally mention something that she had not yet discovered, or say that she needed to do something that she'd already done. In a scene where a character was angry with me, I was asked to choose one of the following: “Cool him down” or “Ice him.” Couldn't they have phrased the two choices differently so that they didn't sound like the same thing? Not to give this game the cold shoulder, but those aren't exactly polar opposites. I'm just glad choosing didn't make the game freeze. (Okay, I'm done now.)
A lot of little details also converge to make the pacing cripplingly slow. Despite the primitive graphics, there are long load times, and the game lags for a second when you skip dialogue, as if it's having trouble keeping up. You also cannot run, or click twice on an exit to move straight into the next screen, meaning you have to wait for the character to walk all the way to the exit. On their own, none of these things matter, but they combine to slow down the pacing considerably.
Interesting choice dynamic; it's a noble attempt at making a throwback adventure game
Bland characters; slow pace; a lot of little annoying details