1954: Alcatraz has a quintessential set up, with Joe locked up in Alcatraz after being caught during a heist and his subsequent escape attempt as he tries to get back to his wife and save her from the attentions of the mob.
You see, Joe’s playing a very dangerous game, with the mob suspecting him of having stashed the loot for himself and putting pressure on his wife, Christine, to get to it. For them to live happily ever after, both have to find their way out of sticky situations and figure out how to solve the numerous problems that face them.
The game splits in two, with Joe on the inside putting together a plan to escape and dealing with prison rivalries while under a guard’s watch, his skills as a general handyman helping him to get around the island. Meanwhile, Christine isn’t much freer, with the mob and the cops breathing down her neck as she rushes around San Francisco’s North Beach trying to unravel the web of deception Joe wove between himself and a cast of caricatured friends and enemies.
It’s during a short prison visit that you start to shape the story, as Joe and Christine snatch a moment without guards listening in to talk about the sensitive matter of the loot. It’s here that you can choose to confide in her or to keep secrets in an effort to keep her safe. That decision and various other choices alter the way certain events play out, and it’s really up to you whether you work to a happy ending or drive them apart.
In general, the game is your standard point & click adventure. You roam from place to place, talking to people and solving various puzzles along the way. In Alcatraz’ case, it’s quite heavily reliant on making full use of the inventory system, combining items to make something useful and taking things from one area to another. It can get quite complex in that regard, seeing you traipse back and forth to find something you missed, but in general it’s not too tricky to discover what you’re after.
It’s unfortunate that it falls down in some aspects of the presentation. Compared to some of the recent major releases in the point & click genre, it can’t match those production values. The 3D models of the characters are heavily stylised, but don’t quite manage to blend in with the often beautiful painted backgrounds and environments.
Similarly, animations can be quite crude, while the voice acting and delivery often leaves something to be desired. There’s also a strange time disconnect between the two stories, which sees Joe working during the day and Christine at night, despite events ostensibly occurring in parallel and certain characters travelling between the two.
But it actually does a really good job where the game is at its most ambitious, in having your decisions working their way into the story as it unfolds. Many of the key plot points remain, such as Joe’s escape plan always being the same and the game always leading to variations of the same climactic moments, but your choices help to shape how these will pan out.
In a pleasing shift from the norm, these are very rarely signposted as major events, mainly because very few of them are. Moments of infidelity, acts which would most clearly drive Joe and Christine apart, are the most obvious points, but there’s a more subtle distinction between the decision to pick a lock to gain access to a friend’s cafe and asking the cop that shut the cafe down to reopen it, or not giving a certain item to someone. You can easily skip by many decisions like this without even realising it.
The problem is that it can sometimes stumble on this complexity. Joe is dependent on Christine’s intervention at several points, requiring her to interact with the handful of characters that appear both on Alcatraz and the mainland. However, I was able to reach the final moment on Christine’s story and leave Joe’s side trapped at a particular point, forcing me to reload an earlier save and try again.
When it does work, though, it is quite an interesting dynamic that flows well from one side to another. Excusing the deus ex machina at play in the story, switching between Joe and Christine helps to inform your next goal and objective for each without relying on a hints system – though one would have occasionally been helpful – and manages to experiment, with you an all-seeing puppet master in whose hands their fates have been placed.
It’s a shame that the game as a whole doesn’t quite live up to the quality of recent point & click games, because Alcatraz is an interesting experiment in narrative delivery that tries to push interactive storytelling onwards as it works your decisions into a down to earth take on a prison escape story.