I love The Untouchables, it’s one of my favourite films of all time and the Prohibition is an era of American history I’ve always found fascinating. The Mafia, the many branches and families forming syndicates and boozing up the dry nation against the very few cops they couldn’t buy. It’s amazing stuff really. I’ve watched documentaries, films, TV series and now played a games with those characters.
Blues and Bullets is a third person adventure game set twenty years after the fall of Al Capone at the hand of Elliot Ness and his Untouchables. I first saw it at Rezzed 2015 and recently received a press code for both of the currently released episodes. As you know very well, I don’t review episodic titles until the full season releases, but that doesn’t stop me from doing a nice preview and talk about the episodes and tell you what I thought about them…and share a metric ton of images from my playthrough.
Blues and Bullets—by the way awesome name for a Noir game—sees Elliot Ness retired in the town of Santa Esperanza as the owner of the Blues and Bullets diner, where his pies are a sensation. In flashbacks during Prohibition, he’s still on Santa Esperanza and A Crowd of Monsters, the developers, mention they were as accurate as they could with the people and places they had access to, so Santa Esperanza is the Chicago replacement.
But it’s not historically accurate either as this takes place in an alternate history—which is fairly obvious as the characters didn0t live the lives we all know they did—one where the Hindenburg still exists, aloft the city as a giant floating hotel.
At the start of the game a burly black man called Milton visits Ness and brings him a single bullet, one he left in Capone’s house twenty years prior. Meeting his former archenemy the retired and sickly Mafioso hires Ness to find his granddaughter, mentioning he doesn’t care what happens to him as long as the girl is safe. Someone kidnapped her and he wants her back and safe.
We actually see the girl several times in the story, particularly at the very start of the game when we meet the many children trapped by a strange cult whose members were deer skulls as masks, torture and kill children they fear have “been bad.” The little girl we see, who we later identify or at least guess to be Capone’s granddaughter, takes a lockpick from a small boy and attempts and fails to escape. It’s a dark scene that sets the tone for the episodes to come. Violence against children is one of the things I dislike the most so this opening scene and all other featuring this “cult” made my skin crawl. I’m actually impressed at how easily they made me feel uncomfortable but in doing so I instantly connected with the little girl and empathised with her, wanting to keep her safe and on her captors’ good side.
The game isn’t just dark but moody and between the locations you visit, the amazing music and the way the story goes it feels like a classic Detective Thriller mixed in with a Spy one at times. You visit a Russian submarine disguised as someone else. How more Bond can you get? But there’s also a lot of introspection, distrust on allies and enemies alike and gruesome murders so the Noir detective story atmosphere is also there.
This opening scene also shows us what the visual style is like, completely black and white, as you would expect in the 50s but with some colours showing, such as Elliot Ness’ red tie, or a yellow butterfly outside the dungeon where the cult holds the children, or the copious amounts of blood you see as the game progresses and things turn darker. I would have liked more colours showing than just red, but aside from that yellow butterfly and some fireworks you see in the distance from the Hindenburg hotel, the only one you ever see is red, bright shiny red.
Blues an Bullets, while incorporating other mechanics—more on that in a bit—I primarily third person choice-based adventure, where you’re presented with multiple options on dialogues and actions and the game records and alters events depending on what you picked. But it’s closer to Life is Strange than it is to Telltale’s own brand of storytelling games. The reason for this is that while it features choices it also has some very interesting deductive puzzles. At certain stages in the episodes you have to investigate crime scenes or an evil lair to find clues, then you pull up your deduction board and put the clues in the right place as if pinning photos to a board and thus figuring out how things happened at the scene, reconstructing it all based on the evidence. It’s fairly cool though in the first episode it’s underutilised and even in the second you only have two of these, when I personally would’ve preferred to see more of these analytical moments, perhaps with more clues to match with a given investigative branch. The investigations themselves deal with some of the darker elements of this alternate world and I really mean dark.
Blues and Bullets also has shooting elements. The first one is during a flashback that Elliot Ness has of breaking into Capone’ house in a drunken stupor that makes it hard for him to walk but somehow still makes him perfectly capable of aiming a gun and takin out half of Capone’s security on his own without breaking a sweat. These third-person shooting moments are on-rails, meaning you just have to clear the current wave to advance. To be fair, the first one felt tacked on and didn’t quite match the tone of the flashback, particularly considering that Elliot Ness could barely walk yet was gunning men down like Rambo. The second one happens during a very cool and poignant self-reflection scene where Ness delivers a fantastic and very Noir monologue about the city and how corrupt it is and how it used to be a good place until Capone arrived. As he mentions the Mafioso and his men, you have a shootout with these imaginary mobsters. It feels odd, and once again slightly out-of-place, interrupting the strong monologue to shoot at some random mooks.
In episode two, the shootings make a lot more sense in the context of the story and characters. I just hope they up the challenge in them for the coming episodes as these don’t pose any difficulty. It’s almost impossible to die in these and once you have an NPC shooting partner later in the episode, you don’t even have to take part in the shootouts, because even with their terrible aim, they’ll eventually whittle down the enemies.
The game also has copious amounts of quick-time events and button mashes to perform actions, such as fighting. But the punches, kicks and other moves lack any weight or speed behind them so the combat feels staged and fake, breaking immersion tremendously. This is much more apparent in episode two than in the first one. Also, I hate quick-time events…and I think most of us do at this point.
The last spot of weirdness in mechanics was in episode two, where a nightmare sequence turns the game into a first person exploration horror. You move, open doors, follow the hallways to reach the next set of disconcerting imagery. While the sequence itself is awesome and has some evil voiceover of the darker parts of Ness’ subconscious, it clashes with the playing and visual style of the overall game. Having said so and even the previous paragraphs, I do applaud the attempt of mixing things up.
I immediately recognised Elliot Ness’ voice actor, Mr. Geralt of Rivia, Doug Cockle. I recognised him because he’s doing the same voice. Now, before you call foul play I will say one thing. A Noir video game or film or TV series without a detective with a gravelly voice is missing something, you need that voice, that Geralt voice, so I’m not even a bit bothered by it, because it just works so well.
I just wished some of the conversation choices made sense. One of the recurring ones is “Irony,” where instead of saying something ironic Ness just throws out a non-sequitur or a random insult. It’s not an irony.
Finally, while the visual style is phenomenal and feels like a proper Noir, with deep shadows hiding dark secrets and the feeling you’re being dragged along against your choice, the characters lack any convincing facial animations, including lip-sync. The latter is particularly bad, but to be honest not enough to ruin he experience for me. I don’t usually mind this kind of thing.
Overall I’m really digging Blues and Bullets, and while I always like it when developers try to mix things up and add new mechanics to a formula, A Crowd of Monsters needs to make sure the additions fit with the overall gameplay, and the tone of the game they’re playing. The lack of challenge in the shooting segments, and the endless waves you fight in episode two become rather silly and detract from the moody story and wonderful Noir atmosphere they’re crafting.