Blues and Bullets Episode One: The End of Peace PC Review
I was not sure what to make of this one for a very long time. Going in blind, I was expecting an episodic cop vs gangster tale, but got significantly more than that. Blues and Bullets certainly has that draw to it, but it is wrapped up in so much more it can be hard to take in. The first look players get into the noir-tinged world is being placed in control of an unnamed girl held captive by demonic looking characters. Then we quickly skip to a diner scene with players in the shoes of owner, Eliot Ness of Untouchables fame, serving patrons. From there, we make a time jump multiple years into the past in which we see him drunkenly causing destruction in a shooting spree. Suddenly Al Capone appears.
With so much happening in such a short timeframe, my first impressions were that this game has a tendency to be highly scattershot, and this certainly seems to grow much more apparent as the hours pass. That is most certainly my biggest issue with the content, but there are things to like too.
There is a whole lot going on in the world of Blues and Bullets, but not much effort goes into explaining it. This is certainly not a realistic account of the life and times of Eliot Ness, it is very much a fictional alternate reality affair. Many times throughout the adventure, you are asked to accept very weird goings-on at face value, with little to no backstory to soften the blow. Whilst it seems unfair to criticize a game that goes out of its way to offer so much content to players, the fact that a fair amount is unappealing is an issue that needs to be talked about.
It all too often feels like the locations of Blues and Bullets have been built around Eliot Ness – instead of him existing in a vast world. Ultimately this was immersion breaking for me, as I was continuously left with the notion this world was highly manufactured rather than lived in. It sometimes felt like I was walking around movie sets filled with diligently placed props, and this made it hard to relax and enjoy the sights as I played.
There are certainly parts I aggressively dislike. Ness seems to be a good character, but he also has an uncanny compulsion to insert snappy one liners during serious story beats. Making tactless puns at a gruesome murder scene is just not right, but similar moments happen all to often. He also makes a joke upon seeing a girl hit with a knife during a failed magic trick. Both these incidents occur just as the game had managed to build up a nice air of mystery, and I was starting to get invested. It feels like the episode always wants to handicap itself by forcing bad narrative choice on players.
It’s not all bad though, Blues and Bullets has moments where it shines. A gruesome murder scene that evolves into a compelling clue hunt is the game at its best. This section sees Ness alone in a room, lost in his own thoughts, and searching for clues. As the pieces are put together, the storyline advances and develops alongside. Ness and I were solving the crime together as we collected the evidence and brought the findings together. This was the perfect example of story and gameplay going hand in hand, and shined a light on how good this series could be. Sadly this wonderful section of gameplay just so happened to be followed by a QTE, where one misplaced button press meant instant failure. Yet another step in the wrong direction as Blues and Bullets was starting to impress.
Away from that, gameplay is very straight forward, offering directions at every turn and leaving little chance to snoop around. There are limited items you can interact with within each area, and they are emblazoned with a big red eye symbol to make sure you know they are there. Whilst gameplay mostly consists of wandering and talking, there are a few shootout sections where the game automatically places Ness in cover, then you takedown two or three enemies and are automatically moved to the next area. There are even red barrels to shoot!
Voice actors that have worked on the likes of The Witcher 3, Alien Isolation, and Mirror’s Edge are playing a part in this series – with the voices of both Faith Connors and Geralt of Rivia on show. The voice work is serviceable, but I would not class this as any of their best work. Crucially, the emotions do not always match up to the scenes. At times it feels like recordings were performed separate to the rest of development, with the actors not fully aware of important details they needed to do the work correctly. On the more pleasant side of things, Blues and Bullets boasts a fun theme song that falls somewhere between actually great and merrily over-produced Eurovision-alike nonsense.
The grayscale visual look, with sporadic use of colour, has been done before – particularly in comics and on the big screen. Frank Miller’s Sin City is an obvious touchstone, which itself draws heavily from film noir. It’s a look that definitely works, as it manages to hide the flaws expected from an indie game with limited budget. You may have played game’s with a similar style in the past – The Detail, MadWorld, and Neverending Nightmares. Seeing a shot of the city backlit by the moon as the rain falls is quite the visual treat. Other moments where scenes are emblazoned with vivid red really makes the game’s visual stylings pop.
As the episode draws to a close there is discourse on the matter of race and colour that comes across a bit heavy handed. I understand where and when the game is set, and dealing with these real issues makes the game more realistic, but they definitely do not get the tone right. Furthermore, issues relating to sexism appear to be wholly sidestepped, as are the other less savory parts of 1950’s Americana. If you are going to dip your feet into such issues, do it right and don’t pick and choose what to shine a light on.
I feel like Blues and Bullets will be an episodic series that improves as it goes – at least I hope it will. The main issue I had with Episode One was that in its eagerness to please too much was shown to players too soon. It’s attention deficit like tendency to jump from one thing to another without letting the audience savour the current situation was almost ruinous to the overall experience.
With one episode behind me, I feel like the series may be too rough in far too many areas to heartily recommend to all, but regardless there is something compelling about it. Whilst it is not always wise to gamble on future events, now that introductions are out of the way, hopefully the series can grow, and learn to better present its unique offerings in future episodes. I am happy to stick with it to see where it goes.