1954: Alcatraz – Preview

Title   1954 Alcatraz
Developer  Daedalic Entertainment & Irresponsible Games
Publisher  Daedalic Entertainment
Platform  Windows PC
Genre  Point-and-Click Adventure
Release Date  Early 2014
Official Site  http://www.daedalic.de/en/game/1954_Alcatraz

Everybody makes mistakes; it just so happens that criminals make the worst of them. To that end, society decided to take those guilty of the more heinous acts and lock them up in the same place.. However, man has a desire to be free, and some who find themselves incarcerated can’t wait for the duration of their sentence to taste fresh air again, so the more cunning will eventually attempt to break out. There was one prison situated on a small island a mile off the coast of California that was considered inescapable, despite fourteen attempts to prove otherwise, with one infamous attempt in June 1964 leaving the FBI to conclude that the prisoners drowned before reaching land, although there is much speculation surrounding whether that was indeed the case, or if they succeeded.

Even though the prison has been out of commission for half a century, a successful escape from Alcatraz could be thought of as the ultimate puzzle, and early next year a genre known for containing the most fiendish will see one of its own attempt to solve it. From Irresponsible Games’ Gene Mocsy and Daedalic Entertainment comes 1954: Alcatraz, a title which not only attempts the impossible, but could potentially be the greatest adventure game of the year.

Developed over four years, this point-and-click epic will see players take control of Joe, an inmate at the famous island prison serving forty years for armed robbery who, naturally, wants out. Starting on the day of his wife’s monthly visit, Joe begins to put his plan into action, and from the off you can easily tell why this is going to be something special. While almost every other entry in the genre forces you down a linear route where only one solution is correct and experimentation will only lead to lines divulging why you can’t do what you want to do, you can almost hear 1954: Alcatraz scoffing at such a limitation.

In the opening scene of the preview build there were so many possibilities offered to the player that you could easily lose yourself in the choices on offer. Sitting in the canteen with some of his fellow inmates, Joe could talk to them about their attempted escapes to avoid the same mistakes they’d made, deliberately antagonise them, or even let loose and ‘show them what for’ with your glass shiv. Quite literally, every choice I could think of with the inventory at hand was catered for, and even came with unique murder animations for each person I decided to off, as well as your own eulogy for when the guards found out and subsequently put a permanent stop to your murderous antics.

Those who chose not to stab their fellow prisoners, but to work with them instead, would also become privy to both the resource managing and bargaining systems; Joe’s not the only person in need of help in the prison, so offering them something they want can allow us to use their services later. For example, the player could either eat their breakfast before moving on, or opt to go hungry and stash it in their overalls to give to someone else in greater need in exchange for something useful. The caveat is that Joe only has a limited number of resources, and so while he could easily hand over an item to someone else and make their lives easier, it could become disadvantageous later on if it transpires that whatever you gave away would have been perfect for the situation at hand. However, the flip-side to that is another one of this title’s greatest features – many of the puzzles won’t rail-road players into a single method, and will instead will come with multiple solutions.

To further demonstrate this, the next scene took us to the meeting room where Joe was reunited with his loving wife, Christine, for their monthly visit. Separated by a division in the middle of the room, only able to communicate through telephones, and being ruthlessly guarded by security, it’s not the most romantic of reunions, but it’s one that Joe needs to take advantage of in order to spring his plan into action. Before you can do anything, however, that guard needs to be out of earshot, and there are several methods that the player can employ to make this happen. Within reach is one of your canteen buddies, and also the key to your guard-related problems as, by employing his services (willingly or otherwise), he’ll soon be able to distract the security and leave you in the clear to plot your daring escape.

Earlier, in the canteen, you could have made a deal with him to create a scene and provide you with ample time to be alone with your wife, or you could also antagonise him until he lashes out, which will also cause him to forfeit his wife’s visit prematurely. Wishing to continue playing as a loner, the solution employed was to use the glass shiv to cut the man’s telephone wire, causing him to believe that his wife was ignoring him, sending him into a rage and a flurry of death-threats so intense that he has to be taken away and put back in his cell. However, doing so also caused our make-shift weapon to break, no longer providing us with the safety and protection that is sorely needed in a place like Alcatraz. “I hope that doesn’t come back to haunt us later” teases Gene, knowing full well the implications of what our decision would have brought us were we to play further into the story.

Yet, to use any other strategy would also have sent me second-guessing my actions, as maintaining relationships with the other inmates is an all-important part of making sure that Joe’s escape plan goes off without a hitch, with several pivotal moments in the story dependent on how you’ve treated others throughout the story. For now, it was time to focus on his most important relationship of all – his marriage. Before we can even reveal our plan, Christine has a pressing matter of her own to deal with – mobsters know that Joe stashed all the money from the armed robbery that put him in Alcatraz, and they want it. Once again, there are numerous choices available to you, and this time most are potential clues you can give her as to the whereabouts of the missing loot, including its location and who else may know about where it’s being kept. The guard comes back to whisk us back to the cells, but it’s not over yet, as the action now joins Christine as she returns to civilisation and is cornered by the aforementioned criminals.

Our story isn’t just confined to Joe’s adventures in Alcatraz, but also reaches outside the boundaries of the iconic prison as players also have to take charge of Christine to uncover Joe’s ill-gotten gains before anyone else. As the thugs prepare to extract the information out of her, Christine can respond in one of several ways, whether it be delivering the information without struggle, coyly attempting to seduce the slimy mobster, or threaten him, each garnering their own response and remembered for later points in the narrative. From this point, players are free to swap between husband and wife at will to tackle the puzzles that lie ahead of them in any order; if you so wish, you could finish Christine’s storyline before you even begin to tackle Joe’s. With San Francisco at her disposal, there are no real constraints forcing you to start in one place or another, and later on in the story Joe will be able to roam Alcatraz at his leisure, allowing both sides to solve their “three trials” in any order and any manner you choose.

It’s not just the gameplay that I find so tantalising – thanks to its multiple solutions, alternative endings, unprecedented freedom, and the multitude of mechanics at play – but also the expansive and diverse cast that permeates this adventure. Alongside Joe and Christine is a myriad of colourful personalities that include a well-meaning priest and the Birdman of Alcatraz in their ranks, but expect him to be like his mentally-deluded and historically-accurate self rather than his romanticised Hollywood counterpart.

Even better is the fact that 1954: Alcatraz has one of the more LGBT friendly roster of characters around, including a transvestite prisoner and a gay couple who Christine must reunite by the end of the story, with Mocsy’s intention that none of these characters are stereotyped or unfairly mocked, and instead given three-dimensional personalities. This progressive nature extends to the treatment of our protagonists as a mixed-race couple, with the prevailing attitude reflected in the actions and reasoning of some cast members, but never overwrought or patronising in its application. In essence, it’s not just incredibly progressive with its approach to the long-established point-and-click formula, but also boasts a mature storyline with intelligent portrayals of people from all walks of life.

Even with all of that out of the way, there’s still so much more I find myself wanting to wax lyrical about. There’s the fact that Mocsy tirelessly researched Alcatraz and the fifties landscape to keep the action historically accurate, the way that the metal detectors reflect their real-life equivalents and will sometimes fail to work – letting you risk the chance of getting through them with illegal materials going undetected – the optional side quest where Christine can find out if Joe’s been unfaithful to her in the time they’ve been together, and even the soundtrack performed by a live orchestra and a jazz band.

Releasing early next year, 1954: Alcatraz isn’t just an amazing take on the point-and-click genre, it’s a full-blown evolution which – if there’s any justice – could completely revolutionise adventure games in the years to come. Every detail I hear leaves me waiting for its release like a prisoner counting down the days to parole, and I’ve been told how both endings will play out, yet I still want to play through twice and see everything that each has to offer. Without even a moment of hesitation, this was one of the first titles that pops into my mind whenever I’m asked what my highlights of E3 and Gamescom were. To say that Daedalic have a masterpiece on their hands is doing it a disservice; 1954: Alcatraz could genuinely prove to be one of the greatest adventure games of the last decade.

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