Game Review: Blues & Bullets: Episodes 1 and 2 (PC, PS4, Xbox One)

Murder, kidnapping, the occult, what else do you need? Blues and Bullets is an episodic narrative driven noir detective game that will take players into some very dark spaces. Developed by A Crowd of Monsters, Blues and Bullets was originally a Steam Greenlight project, but is now available on most systems. Set in an alternative history of post prohibition, players will step into the shoes of Elliot Ness who has fallen from grace since his days as head of the task force charged with enforcing the Volstead Act and bringing down Al Capone.  This dark tale will draw players with a strange mystery and striking visual design.

Narrative

The story of Blues and Bullets is loosely based on The Untouchables, a memoir turned acclaimed film about the life of Elliot Ness. During prohibition Ness, lead a task force to enforce the Volsted Act, with a special focus on stopping Al Capone. During prohibition, Capone had grown an empire which floated on illegal liquor. Ness’s memoirs paint a picture of  “a handful of incorruptible young men” against a criminal empire.

It features historical characters such as Ness and Capone although there are a number of artistic liberties.  For instance most of Ness’s men are killed and he losses his war. The more creative liberties include communist submarines as major set pieces and a bizarre cult kidnapping children for reasons (as of yet) unknown. The narrative paints a picture of a defeated Ness on the road to redemption through as he uncovers the mystery of a missing girl.  The story is told almost entirely in black and white, reminiscent of classic gangster and noir detective films.

Blues and Bullets weaves a tale about revenge, alcoholism, adultery, murder, kidnapping, cultists, and even communists. This story is dark and graphic, but the mystery is intriguing. The story takes place in the fictional city of Santa Esperanza over two time periods, before and after Elliot Ness’s fall from grace. The Younger Ness is not without his own drama, but has his life blown apart when several of his men are ambushed and killed, pushing him to the brink. Older Ness has retired to work in a diner, but is still fighting the demons of his past.  When his old enemy asks him to find his lost granddaughter, Ness is plunged into a strange and gruesome mystery.   Blues & Bullets Crime Scene

Gameplay

Very similar to Telltale games, Blues and Bullets is an episodic, decision-driven adventure. As players progress through each chapter, they will be presented with choices such as the types of responses to give other characters. Although, with only two episodes currently available, it’s hard to determine how much key decisions will affect the resolution of the game.
Blues & Bullets Al Capone

Players explore Ness’s world and find clues too. In these detective moments, players must find clues to fill in Ness’s crime board and explain what happened.  You will need to find all the clues to finish the board and move on. The board is completed by matching the clues with the question they answer.  Playing detective is a lot of fun, but perhaps too easy. Players can’t fail and there is no penalty for missing or mismatching clues. This makes for easy achievements, but may not be satisfying for those who seek to be rewarded for perfectionism.

Blues & Bullets crime board

Blues and Bullets also features action sequences. Some such as quick time driven fight scenes and others firefights with Santa Esperanza’s criminal element. The firefights are cover based and very basic, but they work well within the game context.

Blues & Bullets Firefight

Performance & Graphics

Blues and Bullets is fairly non-intensive on PC. Only requiring a minimum of 4 gigs of ram and Direct X 9, it will run smoothly on most computers. Facial animations occasionally feel stiff but there are no visual anomalies and the game plays smoothly.

The stylistic contrasting visuals make the game feel like an art piece as much as a adventure game. The game is done almost entirely in black and white with crimson accents. It’s like a classic noir detective movie, and the flashes of color draw the eye effectively.

Audio

The voice work is quite good. All the characters from Ness to the missing children are well performed. There is a wide array of cast each with their own distinctive voice. Ness, who you will hear from more than any other, convincingly conveys his stress and frustrations well.  Blues and Bullets offers solid sound design from gun fire to the nuanced sounds interacting with objects around a crime scene. The most effective audio, however, is the game’s soundtrack. Blues and Bullets music is dark and haunting, perfectly matching the it’s tone.

Blues & Bullets Decisions

Additional Thoughts

Blues and Bullets offers players an intriguing mystery. It is visually impressive and functional solid, although I would have like to see more of a challenge when it comes to the detective process. Uncovering the mystery is incentive enough, as each episode ends with more questions than answers.

Where it fails to fully satisfy is the decision system. Decisions seem to only have minor effects on the story progression. This is true for observing items in the world as well. Items that can be missed offer no significant incentive, as the information collected does not alter the story. Items that are important cannot be missed at all. Although, there are only two of the five episodes available, so it is possible the payoff will be in the long term. A more significant concern is the timeline between episodes. Episode two was released this March, almost eight months after the first. This can, however, be attributed to the developers porting the game to consoles and OS X. Hopefully, Episode 3 will be out sooner.

The game is stunning and offers players a good mystery, but lacks complexity we have seen in other episodic narrative titles. The series is also incomplete without a clear timeline for the final three episodes. This means in its current state it is very short and may leave you frustrated with more questions than answers about what is going on in Santa Esperanza. The visual style is likely to draw you in quickly and the narrative keeps you engaged. There is plenty to appreciate for all types of gamers, but fans of Telltale games will particularly enjoy the gameplay and mature story.

Score: 7

Blues and Bullets’s first two episodes are available for PC, PS4, Xbox One, & OSX.

Images © A Crowd of Monsters

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