by Jonathan Fortin
reviewed on PC
As a resident of San Francisco, I was puzzled by this game's recreation of 50's-era North Beach. There's a big emphasis on beatnik culture in that Christine and her friends talk a lot about it, but they don't seem to ever mention any famous Beat authors or musicians by name. While Christine visits bars and bookstores, she doesn't seem to be aware of such North Beach beat hangouts as Vesuvio (a bar frequented by Jack Kerouac) or City Lights Bookstore. The streets are also remarkably flat; perhaps in the 50's North Beach had yet to develop the slopes and hills that make it a hike to walk through today.
Frequently I found it difficult to not call the game's logic into question. Guards are always within earshot of Joe when he openly discusses escape plans with other inmates, but they never seem to hear him. There's also an incredibly absurd scene where a corrupt guard brings Joe into his apartment to fix his TV for him. The guard's wife is there, but the guard seems to have no problem with leaving the two of them alone in the living room, even though Joe is not handcuffed and has a shiv in his inventory. This game expects us to believe that this guard is so dumb that he would leave his wife alone with a convict without even cuffing the convict or checking him for weapons? It's unbelievable!
The timeline is also highly confusing. It's meant to take place over the course of one day and night, with Joe's action happening during the day, and Christine's during the night. But late in the game you manipulate a character into smuggling information in and out of prison, allowing Christine and Joe to communicate with each other. These proxy-interactions would only be possible over a series of days, which makes the entire timeline nonsensical.
Trying to go forwards; ending up backwards
There's a noble attempt at having LGBT characters in the game, but it's not executed very well. There's a gay couple that a priest has secretly married, even though this seems unbelievable in the 1950's. One of the side quests involves helping the couple reconcile when the younger man is no longer attracted to his much-older husband because “he's too old and wrinkly and it just keeps getting worse.” It really doesn't sound like the relationship will work out in the long run, but we're supposed to get them back together and hope for the best anyway. We even do so with a poem and a flower, because that's what gay couples like, right? Right? The gay characters just end up being cartoonish stereotypes, which goes against the entire point of featuring them in the first place.
There's also a Chinese woman whose awkward voice-acting turns her into a racial stereotype, and a transgender prisoner named Chiquita. Nobody in the prison actually describes Chiquita as transgender—they simply act as though she is a woman, even though she is in a male prison, and the audience is left to realize the implication. The prison seems to find her gender identity or completely feminine appearance quite unremarkable, which stretches believability. In the 1950's, a majority of people had never even heard the word “transgender”; even today many people are ignorant about the concept. One must imagine that Chiquita would face tremendous harassment in prison. But we don't get any glimpse into the life of a transgender inmate in the 1950's. Indeed, Chiquita is barely explored as a character, used only to help with a quick puzzle and for optional prison sex. So basically, she's a sexual object that serves Joe rather than an actual character with any struggles of her own.
Similarly, Joe (who is black) would have faced incredible racism in prison, and this isn't explored in the least. There are a few mentions of skinheads who “won't talk to him,” but that's it. By going to such lengths to fill its cast with racial minorities and LGBT characters, the game seems to want to make a statement about political equality. But instead of using the time period to explore such meaningful subject matters, it presents a strange fantasy 1950's where racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia are extremely muted. In so doing, it actually disrespects minority groups by undermining their struggle.
All of the above is primarily the result of the game's greater problem: its characters just aren't that developed. They serve their purposes in the story and have broad personality traits, but they always feel like cardboard cutouts, not real people. Unfortunately, when you're dealing with LGBT and minority characters, this results in cartoonish stereotypes.
In the best adventure games, even the side characters are memorable or unique. Who could forget Manny Calavera's bonkers coat check girl Loopy, or Murray, Monkey Island's eeeeeevil talking skull? Alcatraz's characters could have shined, and they could have made that political statement too. But for that, they needed more personality.
Missing the point
Here's the thing about adventure games: nobody plays them for the gameplay. Sure, there's a certain pleasure to be found in the puzzle solving, but people really play them for the story, the characters, and the humor. Adventures have a gameplay style that allows them to focus on these things more than other genres. In action games, action must be the focus of every mission, which can get in the way of character development. RPGs can feature excellent stories and characters, but stats, loot, and monster-slaying are usually just as important. Adventure games, on the other hand, focus squarely on story.
Unfortunately, that also means that for an adventure game to work, the writing has to be amazing. The writing of Alcatraz is fine—just fine. It goes through the motions and hits the notes it has to. But it's never amazing. The game isn't laugh-out-loud funny like Monkey Island. It isn't visually imaginative like Grim Fandango. It isn't powerfully heartbreaking like The Walking Dead. It's just there, as though it wants to be great, but thinks it can only do so by being mediocre.
You'll want to escape from Alcatraz all right, but not in the way that's intended.
Interesting choice dynamic; it's a noble attempt at making a throwback adventure game
Bland characters; slow pace; a lot of little annoying details