Episodic gaming has made huge advances since the days when Valve used it as an excuse to not make Half-Life 3. Telltale Games ensured that The Walking Dead managed to get at least one decent video game spin-off and Don’t Nod’s spectacular Life is Strange had me with tears in my eyes. So, is the gimmick seeing the rise of lazy game making? Could anyone now make a game in stages and not have to worry about the flow? I’ll admit that when I heard the pitch for Blues and Bullets I was somewhat underwhelmed. An alternate history where the Untouchable Elliot Ness owns a diner and is contacted by Al Capone to help find his kidnapped grand-daughter.
I’m more than happy to report that I was a bloody idiot.
Blues and Bullets is nothing short of a masterpiece, in terms of indie developed episodic gaming. Now this is the key, I feel, to reviewing indie developed games. It will never be fair to compare the likes of Blues and Bullets to something like Call of Duty: Insert New Generic Title Here. The scale and budgets are too different, and the intention is also often wildly different. From every indie dev I’ve spoken to (with one glaring exception) I hear the same thing: “I just want people to play my game”.
Now, I’m sure that the director of Far Cry 8: Big Trouble in Little China would also want people to play his game too, but the primary goal will always be to recoup massive costs and make a massive profit.
That’s not to say that the world of indie development lacks ambition, far from it, but it also has a lot of humility, grace and politeness. A humble collective supported by the rise of the Humble Bundle.
When I fired up Episode One of Blues and Bullets I was treated to a visual treat that has clearly been handled with a lot of care and attention. With a limited colour palette (at least in general) it obviously reminded me of Frank Miller’s seminal graphic novel series Sin City, but also of The Saboteur from the much missed Pandemic Studios. Use of actual ‘colour’ is reserved for impact throughout the experience and by god it has impact. What I assumed would be L.A. Noire-lite is actually the hybrid of Bioshock, Life is Strange and The Darkness. What could have been some average procedural crime drama is actually a bloody marvellous adventure in a world gone to hell. Child abductions/murders, ritualistic crimes, betrayal, affairs and psychological breakdowns are wrapped around the game’s rotten core. Make no mistake, this is an adult game from the off and all the better for it too.
Now that isn’t to say that either chapter is perfect. Character models are a bit basic, the gunplay suffers from the usual ‘point and click game’ woes and some of the voice acting is below par BUT this is a game that has a fucking amazing story running through it. Telltale’s The Walking Dead Game has less story in two whole seasons than this game has in two episodes. A non-linear timeline works perfectly as a representation of Ness’ gradual decline into rage induced insanity on the path to redemption after a series of child abductions went unsolved and saw him lose his job. Now serving pie and burgers to a mixed bunch of clientèle he finds himself drawn into the biggest case of his life (and given that he and his Untouchables fought the war against the booze smuggling Al Capone that should give you an idea of the scale of the investigation).
It’s difficult to say too much about story driven games for fear of spoiling *that* moment but suffice to say there is a scene in a swanky airship that simply makes me wonder why BioShock Infinite’s developers didn’t think of it themselves. Above cities and under the sea you follow a trail of criminal enterprise and encounter a lot of blood along the way.
Ness is no ‘hero’ character, but your choices – yep, the team have ensured that a choice mechanic is in place – can see him on a redemptive path or one of vengeance. It’s up to you.
Two episodes in and I am well and truly hooked, and I think I am fairly confident in saying that powdered licorice has never made me smile sadly at a screen before. Nor have I found myself looking at a game like this at a conclusion:
So I shall not attempt to skirt around plot details any further. If you want a game that is both weird and beautiful; upsetting and heart-poundingly dramatic then just get onto whatever device you have and get yourself the episodes today.
Blues and Bullets Episodes One and Two are available on PC, Mac, Xbox One and PS4 now.
Episode One was purchased myself, while Episode Two was provided by the PR team handling the game.