After interviewing the developer and playing the demo at Rezzed, Kim was keen to get her hands on noir crime-thriller Blues and Bullets. Is it worth investigating the first episode for yourself?
|Name:||Blues and Bullets|
|Developer:||A Crowd of Monsters|
|Publisher:||A Crowd of Monsters|
|Release date:||July 2015|
|Platforms:||Linux, Mac, PC, Xbox One|
|More information:||Official website|
We first came across Blues and Bullets at the Rezzed event back in March, where we had the opportunity to interview CEO and Producer Ramón Nafria about A Crowd of Monsters’ gritty crime-drama. The film-noir visual style, impressively-detailed environments and moody characters grabbed our attention straight away; so imagine our disappointment when we were told that the game would only be available on Xbox One! Owning only PCs and PlayStation 4s between us, we here at 1001Up had to resign ourselves to possibly not being able to play this atmospheric thriller.
It was therefore with great pleasure that we recently received a press release from Martjin van Zwieten at Plan of Attack, confirming that the game had been released on Steam already and would be available on the console from 28 August 2015 as part of the ID@Xbox programme. It also advised that had won several awards including ‘Best Indie Game’ at GameLab 2015 so our hopes for the title were high. Martjin kindly provided us with a review code last week and having now completed the first episode – entitled The End of Peace – we bring you our preview.
Blues and Bullets begins with an extremely striking opening sequence: players are pulled along behind a camera that pans down a corridor while moving through the developer’s credits. Flaming torches highlight the rocky walls in their flickering light and the sound of screams and whimpering in the background, masked by raindrops, sends a shiver down your spine. It’s extremely theatrical, almost as if you’re at the cinema waiting for an old detective film to begin, and really ramps up the atmosphere straight from the start.
Eventually the camera arrives in an underground lair with an ominous figure hulking across the room, and we’re dragged deeper down into the dark to arrive at the first section of the game. Players find themselves in the body of a young girl trapped inside a cell; we’d had the opportunity to play a demo whilst at Rezzed so I was pretty surprised at this as it’s a complete contrast to later scenes, but the excellent art-style quickly made me forget where I was. Environments are depicted in an arresting black-and-white with accents of red to highlight important details and items of interest such as splashes of blood and the girl’s shoes – reminiscent of Sin City and Schindler’s List.
Red-eye icons highlight interactive objects and your first task is to escape. The tearful boy in the cell next to yours offers a hairpin with which you can break out: do you reward him for his kindness and try to rescue him too or save yourself and make a run for it? My decision seems to have had a (seemingly) slight impact on a scene right at the end of Blues and Bullet’s first episode, although I can’t say this for certain as I haven’t yet had the opportunity to play through again and make different choices. The feel here is very much of the Telltale Games’ releases but without the ‘so-and-so will remember that’ warnings – more about decisions within the title later.
The next scene takes place in a 24-hour American diner in Santa Esperanza called Blues and Bullets (‘Food to dine for!’) where we’re introduced to Eliot Ness. Yes, that Eliot Ness – the leader of The Untouchables who brought down Al Capone, to whom we’re also introduced later on in the title. Here however he has retired from the force after being unable to solve a missing children case but unfortunately it’s not that easy to escape your past: a stranger appears in the diner and tells Ness that his car is parked outside and we’re required to join him as soon as possible.
It’s somewhat confusing as to why the developer has written an alternative history for some elements of their release but not others.
A statement from the developer before the opening credits advises: “We have tried to tell a story with the utmost respect for the players and to honour all the historical characters and locations we were able to use.” It’s therefore somewhat confusing as to why they’ve written an alternative history for some elements of their release but not for others. For example, why not place the protagonists in Chicago rather than the fictional down of Santa Esperanza? Perhaps the Ness / Capone set-up was considered to be a good hook to get gamers interested in their project and indeed, it does do away with some long exposition as less character-introduction is needed. But it feels a little unnecessary and I believe I would have enjoyed Blues and Bullets if the protagonists had been people who were previously unknown.
It’s easy to assume that A Crowd of Monsters’ version of Ness is supposed to be a portrait of guilt and regret, a person who’s dragged back into an unresolved conflict from a life he left behind decades ago. Sadly though, his model seems to wear a permanent smirk and there isn’t much emotion behind his eyes; this is unfortunately true of most of the characters and perhaps their animation needs a little improvement. The protagonist may also need some new lines as frequently when looking at an interactive objective, his only response is a deep ‘Hmm’.
Queue a flashback to twenty years ago and we see a drunken Ness arrive at Capone’s mansion in order to confront him over the death of a friend. But first we must battle our way through a shootout in the grounds, the only movements necessary being taking cover and aiming at his thugs with infinite ammo. It’s possible to get hit and damage is displayed by a bloody outline around the edges of the screen which fades over time as you recover. Such action elements have a tendency not to work in the adventure genre – take Dreamfall: The Longest Journey as an example – but here it fits the film-noir style perfectly and provides a welcome break from the slower conversation scenes, despite the lack of any real challenge.
A jump back to the present puts Ness on the Hindenburg, which has now been transformed into a hotel by A. Ryan that’s a ‘monument to aeronautical luxury’ – and possibly an art-deco monument to BioShock also. Some of the best-looking environments can be seen in this section of Blues and Bullets: a Japanese garden is complete with a pond and bridge, and red leaves floating through the air make for a particularly stunning scene. The title is extremely grand and gives a feeling of open-world-ness but the camera guides players along the correct path and you never end up lost. Small negatives are awkward angles which sometimes make it difficult to see where you’re going and slightly jumpy cuts between shots, but the beautiful visuals are likely to make you overlook these.
In the presidential suite on the Hindenburg we face our old nemesis Capone once more; here’s now out of jail but wants to hire Ness instead of getting revenge. His granddaughter Sofia has been kidnapped from her boarding school despite being entered under a false name and nobody knowing who she really is. Is the girl in the first section of the episode actually Sofia? It would make sense and tie everything together nicely but the gangster tells us that she was last seen wearing a blue dress with flowers with white ballet shoes, whereas those shown earlier were red. It may only be a small detail but one I’m hoping will be explained later on rather than being revealed as an inconsistency.
Blues and Bullets tries to depict its choices as being meaningful but I’m not entirely sure how meaningful they actually are. Most resolve around your reaction to a non-playable character – will you be curious or vengeful, for example – and several reward you with a ‘you made a decision’ message signifying their apparent importance. This happens when Capone asks you to name your price for accepting his proposal, but regardless of the selection you make he says that he doesn’t give a damn what happens to him. Perhaps these decisions will reveal their true impact in forthcoming episodes but one thing is for certain: I’m sure the gangster will remember the punch I landed on his face instead shaking his hand to seal the deal.
The dream sequence is one of the most stylish sections of the game so far.
On the way back to the diner Ness experiences a sort-of dream sequence and this is one of the most stylish sections of the game so far. His thoughts appear in giant rain-soaked words below a huge moon and thugs try to shoot the protagonist between the letters, the rivulets of water that appear on the camera being an exceptionally nice touch. The one downside I would note here is that perhaps Blues and Bullets has possibly tried to be a little too ambitious when it comes to incorporating so many elements into one title. I mean, just take a look at all the things I’ve covered above: a dark cell, an American diner, flashbacks, shootouts, the Hindenburg, meaningful choices and an investigation (more about that below) – and this is just in the first episode.
During our interview with Nafria at Rezzed in March, he mentioned that the project contained a wealth of features from multiple platforms and this is very much apparent. He also told us that A Crowd of Monsters was hoping to release Blues and Bullets in May so maybe this ambitiousness goes some way towards explaining the delay. Some players have criticised the title for trying to cover so many elements and not considering whether they work in relation to each other; but I quite liked the feeling of not knowing what was coming next and the changes in pace.
Ness deduces that the person who kidnapped Sofia from her boarding school by pretending to be her uncle must have had some forged identity papers, so our next stop is at the house of the biggest forger in Santa Esperanza: Carlo Boccherini. Unfortunately however things don’t go to plan and instead of interrogating him, we end up having to investigate his death. This involves walking around a gruesome crime scene scouting for clues such as a shattered window, a broken watch and blood trails, which then appear as Polaroid pictures on an investigation board. Moving the photos to the right locations and finding links causes Ness to make inferences and new branches to appear on the board, until our protagonist finally arrives at a theory about Boccherini’s death.
Nafria was keen to point out that Blues and Bullets isn’t in the same vein as L.A. Noire but some sequences, including this one, play fairly similarly and a number of critics have referenced Rockstar Games’ 2011 release within their articles. Ness’s investigation is likely to be the highpoint for many players and the links between the clues make much more sense than those in Murdered: Soul Suspect. On the downside however, there’s little challenge as the game won’t accept an incorrect answer when it comes to placing the pictures on the board; an added penalty may have added to the gravity and seriousness of the situation our protagonist has found himself in. Additionally, the location where a new witness is hiding is obvious before the investigation is even completed.
The impaled corpse in the living room of Boccherini’s house, discarded spoon which may have been used to gauge out the victim’s eyes, occult symbol painted in blood on the bathroom and grisly alter of severed hands in the sink imply that there’s more to this death than straight-forwarded murder. What on earth has Ness gotten himself dragged into?
Put each separate element that exists within Blues and Bullets under a microscope and you’ll see they have their flaws, but something strange happens when they’re combined in this gorgeous film-noir package: they actually become rather compelling. It’s a gripping two-hour mix of L.A. Noire’s detective story, Telltale Games’ episode and decision-making nature, and Sin City’s visual style. I’m looking forward to getting my hands on episode two and seeing whether the choices I’ve made for Ness so far have any far-reaching consequences – we’ll bring you a full review once all five instalments of this episode have been released.