Daedelic Entertainment has made a name for itself over the past few years as one of the last bastions of the point-and-click adventure game. The German studio is by far the most prolific provider of the niche genre, but sadly the quality of its games is far from consistent.
1954 Alcatraz is the the team's latest release, and while it wears the Daedelic label, from the outset it’s fairly obvious this isn’t from the same team that brought us the great Deponia titles, or the visually stunning Whispered World.
Meet Joe, a small-time crook serving time for a heist gone bad. He's a bad guy, but far from the worst inmate to be found in one of history’s most infamous prisons. Joe needs to get out fast. His loot and his wife are waiting for him on the outside, but they won’t be there forever. The player must complete various tasks both within the wall of Alcatraz as Joe, as well as out in the streets and seedy businesses in wider San Francisco as Joe’s wife, Christine. 1954 Alcatraz is a new take on the prison escape genre.
Set at the height of the beatnik era, 1954 Alcatraz does an extremely impressive job of presenting the contrasting worlds of the protagonists. Joe is subject to the harshest of restrictions. Along with his obvious physical confinement, he is constantly reminded that in prison he is not human, but just another number denied hope, individuality, or even his own personality. Christine, however, lives in a world rediscovering freedom in art and individual expression, where limitations are set only by imagination and ambition.
The player can seamlessly swap between these two characters as they each attempt to complete their role of Joe’s escape plan. It works elegantly and is tied together in a compelling meta-narrative that plays on themes of trust, betrayal, confinement, and what it truly means to be free. The individual beats may not always connect, but the overall design is impressive.
Unfortunately, everything else just doesn’t work, feels half done, or – even worse – feels like a tacked on afterthought.
Graphically the game is a mess. The 3D character models run the gamut from okay to pre-alpha levels of execution, with low polygon counts, awkward animation, and dire texture work. It would take an especially gifted writer to give many of these characters life or personality.
The 2D art also suffers. For every scene that shows a stunning coffee-stained sky or run-down interior pregnant with atmosphere and attention to detail, there is another that simply looks half-finished or merely blown up from a smaller piece of concept art. It’s jarring, and it regularly destroys any connection to the world.
The voice acting is equally disappointing. While Joe and Christine are given a strong voice and personality, practically every other character appears to be voiced by either a comically melodramatic community theatre actor, or by someone without any training or whatsoever. Many a nightmare of early-’90s CD-ROM full-motion video games can be relived through significant portions of this game. It’s a shame too, as there is some great dialogue written here.
The cardinal sin of Alcatraz is that many of the puzzles feel like they were an afterthought, added in order to pad the narrative. Most of the puzzles range from excruciating pixel hunts – not seen in adventure games for the last 20 years for good reason – to logic-defying combinations of objects. Even worse, there are puzzles where part of the actual solution is obfuscated seemingly deliberately, meaning the only solution is some random combination of items, or requiring the player to needlessly hunt for a phantom item.
A compelling narrative and some well-penned dialogue simply aren't enough to pardon 1954 Alcatraz for its flawed puzzle design. This time out, Daedelic is an unrepentant offender beyond forgiveness.