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Adventure Game Roundup #2

Once again, dear readers, I have plumbed the depths of Steam’s wide selection of adventure games in search of excellence.  I’ve recently completed another three titles and can offer up my impressions below.  As always, all three are reasonably priced and range differently in duration – as little as 4-5 hours, as many as 9 or 10.  If pointing and clicking is your thing, you’ll probably find something to like about at least some of them: 

 

1954: Alcatraz 

Published in 2014 by Daedalic Entertainment and co-developed by Irresponsible Games, 1954: Alcatraz is every bit the period piece that the name would suggest.  The backdrop is the seedier side of San Francisco, including the infamous prison out on The Rock. 

The player takes alternating control of married couple Joe and Christine – while this isn’t the first time I’ve seen this mechanic at work, the circumstances are certainly quite unique.  Joe has been imprisoned at Alcatraz for his involvement in a truck heist – Christine, who’s hand are by no means clean, struggles alone in the city.  As the story advances, the scene shifts back and forth between Joe’s escape plans and Christine’s efforts to help him while also trying to survive her own situation. 

While ostensibly on the same team, both Joe and Christine have kept a number of secrets from one another.  Not everyone in their shared circle of friends can be trusted.  Determining the location of the stolen money and managing to avoid conflict with Joe’s partners-in-crime will require some tough choices – several of which will affect the ending of the game. 

The tone of 1954: Alcatraz is equal parts mature and comical – there is certainly enough challenging material here to underline that, despite the cartoony nature of the art, this is not aimed at a younger audience.  One the graphical front, the game is somewhat dated for a 2014 release, with admittedly nice looking backgrounds paired with occasionally awkward 3D character models. 

The voice acting is average, at best, but the inclusion of a period-accurate beatnik and jazz music soundtrack really sells the experience.  True to the classic mouse-drive adventure titles that came before it, 1954: Alcatraz can’t resist having a few mind-bending, obtuse puzzles, and a few more solutions made worse by inconsistencies.  One desk or cabinet can be searched with a single click – a second or third might require exhaustive checking of each drawer.  Expect to visit the same location three or four times hoping to trigger an event in an arbitrary order to succeed in advancing the plot. 

While I’ve seen better written, better acted, more polished adventure game experiences, the interesting setting and story hook elevate 1954: Alcatraz just above what would otherwise just be an average experience.  I give it a lukewarm recommendation to fans of the genre. 

 

Face Noir 

Phoenix Online Publishing has put out more than a few notable adventure games, including one of my personal favourite indie releases, The Last Door.  I had recently purchased one of the higher profile titles in their stable, Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller but before I tried that I wanted to get to a game that had been collecting dust in my library for a while: Face Noir. 

Like 1954: Alcatraz, this is a game in which the setting and time period plays a big role – specifically Depression-era New York City.  The player controls world-weary gumshoe Jack Del Nero as he seeks to unravel a mystery concerning a murder and a little girl.  Despite his character’s adherence to just about every well-worn private eye cliché one could expect, he does manage to remain an interesting and quirky protagonist. 

Much of the game takes place at night and true to the noir genre the colour palette is appropriately dark to match the mood.  The story isn’t all drudgery, however, and if one can look past the occasional insensitive racial stereotype and constant Italian curse-words there are some wry jokes that land.  An absolutely fantastic jazz soundtrack rounds out the ambience of each scene and manages to elevate a game that is otherwise visually unremarkable. 

Gameplay in Face Noir is a mixture of familiar point and click adventuring paired with detective work that involves connecting facts in a notebook.  This process serves to advance dialogue options and ultimately the plot; while certainly not as complex a system as the one featured in L.A. Noire it does set the game apart from its indie contemporaries.  A few puzzles are notably frustrating but the low point comes in a baffling, top-down controlled sewer maze section that seems to have been added purely as an exercise in padding out the run time. 

If you can get past the highly uneven voice-acting, relentless detective novel tropes and muddled brown/grey graphics, Face Noir can be a moderately enjoyable experience.  It is worth knowing that after the odd, existentialist final act, the game ends on a cliff-hanger of sorts.  As developer Mad Orange appears unlikely to ever actually create a sequel, you’ll need to accept upfront there isn’t a completed story on offer here before investing your time. 

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream 

Seldom have I encountered an adventure game with stranger source material than I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.  Adapted from Harlan Ellison’s 1967 apocalyptic science fiction short story of the same name, the work was a joint effort between the author and developer The Dreamers Guild.  Many years after its 1995 release, its rights having been abandoned by the original publisher, Night Dive Studios would re-release the game for download on GOG and Steam in 2013. 

As in the short story, IHMNAIMS centres on the tortured existence of the last five humans on Earth, prisoners of a vindictive super-intelligent computer called ‘AM’.  Having wiped out the rest of humanity, ‘AM’ takes out his hatred on the unfortunate circle of protagonists.  Expanding on the fairly threadbare background of the five human characters presented in the short story, each is put through a disturbing scenario of ‘AM’s’ creation.  A chance at redemption is dangled in front of them, though each is unsurprisingly skeptical of their captor’s true intentions. 

The “victory” conditions in IHNMAIMS are complex, and fairly unique for the adventure genre.  Each character has a spiritual barometer, and selfless, moral acts taken by the player in each character’s section will improve the overall chance of defeating AM in a sixth and final gameplay segment.  Brazen attempts to commit suicide to escape ‘AM’s’ clutches will simply be thwarted and result in progress being reset. 

There are at least 7 different endings and none of them are particularly rosy, even if one could objectively be described as the best.  The author himself has said the only true goal of the game is to play it as ‘nobly’ as possible to completion, as opposed to merely surviving.  Though admittedly the game does delve into some very interesting, difficult moral and ethical questions and its ambition is laudable, several factors will severely hamper one’s enjoyment. 

There are a wide variety of annoying or actual game-breaking bugs to be found in at least half of the chapters.  Pathfinding issues can cause characters to be stuck while crossing screens, and items that have shifted location can still be interacted with.  One particularly awful section requires the player to advance from screen to screen in an arbitrary order to succeed, with no awareness of unseen triggers for events.  Expect to be consulting a walkthrough to spare yourself needless frustration – or at least to verify if what is stumping you is in fact a puzzle or just a bug. 

For myself, perhaps the biggest obstacle to enjoying IHNMAIMS is the involvement of Harlan Ellison himself: both a reprehensible person and an author for whom I have little time.  Finding out that he voices the role of ‘AM’ just about put me off trying this game altogether.  Perhaps I should have listened to my gut feelings on this one.  Despite some unique features, creative touches and a charming 90’s midi-soundtrack, I found this game largely an unpleasant chore that I could not wait to finish and uninstall.  Unless you’re an Ellison fan, I would recommend you steer clear. 


 

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