Preview

1954 Alcatraz Preview (PC)

Daedelic Entertainment are certainly having a busy time of it at the moment. With turn-based fantasy Blackguards gearing up for a full release, other adventure titles The Night of the Rabbit and The Dark Eye: Memoria released last year and various other projects incoming, the German studio is forging a schedule that's almost as busy as that of fellow adventure game pioneers Telltale Games.

The studio's latest title, 1954: Alcatraz , is set in 1950s beatnik San Francisco, and more specifically the famous island prison of the title. There's two main characters to play as, young married couple Joe and Christine. Joe's in prison. A score went bad, and he had to ditch the loot. His young wife Christine is still on the outside, but so are his old gang. And they want the stolen cash.

This is Joe. He has a head like a big foot

The game doesn't make an immediate impact. Alcatraz 's visuals are cartoonish, the characters caricatures who sit ever so slightly awkwardly against pretty hand-drawn backgrounds. Combined with some fairly lacklustre animations, it lacks the cohesive art style of something like Telltale's pulp noir The Wolf Among Us . It's functional and nice enough to look at, but it's a shame that the visuals, especially the facial animations, aren't more immediately striking. The audio fares better, with decent voice acting and a neat jazz soundtrack rooting the game in its setting.

As the game starts, we quickly find ourselves in Joe's cell. Joe's task, at least early on in the game, is to escape from prison. To do this, you've got to make alliances, steal or craft necessary items and somehow put a plan into motion undiscovered by the attentive prison guards. Christine, meanwhile, has to keep gangster Mickey and his enforcers at bay, while finding Joe's stack of cash.

The most interesting thing about the game's story is the amount of control you have within it. There are various ways to circumvent given problems, each with their own drawbacks and advantages. Take one early scene for example. Joe is trying to slip a message to his wife, but the prison's visiting lounge is watched over by an attentive guard. Most adventure games might have a single, somewhat arbitrary solution involving a convoluted mixture of items for you to rub together. Here, however, there's a couple of things you can do.

The hand-painted backgrounds are lovely, but the unremarkable character models don't sit very comfortably with them

First, you might use your makeshift shiv to snip a fellow prisoner's telephone connection, causing him to think his spouse is ignoring him, and sending him into a fit of rage. Guards distracted, chance to talk, but you've damaged your home-made blade. Not good. That might have come in useful later. Say, instead, you call in a favour from the very same prisoner. He creates another distraction, willingly this time, and again you get your private chat. Of course you now owe the lunkhead a favour in turn, which might turn out to be an even bigger problem.

Christine has more freedom on the outside, obviously, but she has similar decisions to make and problems to solve. She can visit several locations on a world map of San Francisco, piecing together scraps of information in order to find out exactly what her husband has been up to. That's something I liked a lot, actually, the concept that this married couple have a lot of secrets they're hiding from each other.

One thing to mention is that you end up with a lot of items. As Christine it felt like I was carrying around a small charity shop in my handbag. These items are all organised in a tab that you can click to bring up, making sorting through them slightly easier, but I suspect many people will find themselves confused by the sheer number of odds and ends picked up, a lot of which don't have an immediately obvious function.

Planning an escape with a fellow inmate

Typically adventure games suffer from a lack of replay value. There's not much fun to be had retreading over old puzzles, the solutions to which you already know. Alcatraz aims to provide a solution to this by offering multiple ways to progress, all of which change the story to some degree. How extensive these changes are, and how much they'll come back to bite you later on, we won't find out until release. With multiple branching endings available, if Daedelic Entertainment can follow through on the concept's potential, and the brief glimpses in the preview build turn out to be indicative of the final product, this story might be one worth revisiting.

That's really the biggest draw in 1954: Alcatraz . From the brief session I played through, there weren't any particularly memorable characters that stood out, and the plot doesn't really kick off in the way I'd hoped - there's a little too much familiar adventure game busywork for my liking. That said, the potential for multiple different endings are intriguing. I like the idea that you can either slowly turn Christine and Joe against each other, or work together to outsmart your enemies. The setting is well realised, too. It's fun exploring the relaxed, cool but slightly seedy world of 50's San Francisco to the smooth jazz soundtrack, and combined with the potential of those branching storylines, that’s enough to keep Alcatraz on my radar. There's no official release date as yet, but expect it to hit sometime in early 2014.

Anticipated Feature: Seeing just how much those early decisions come back to haunt you, and how the multiple endings each play out.

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