Blues and Bullets review

Blues and Bullets: Episode 2 - Shaking the Hive review
Blues and Bullets: Episode 2 - Shaking the Hive review

Take me straight to Episode 2!

Episode 1: The End of Peace

The first episode of Blues and Bullets: The End of Peace is an impressively stylish release from Spanish studio A Crowd of Monsters that appears ready to compete for the throne of current choice-based adventures. It boasts incredibly high-quality production, an outstanding flare for the dramatic, and an almost total lack of challenge or difficulty. It is breathtaking to look at, extremely well-voiced… and in some ways is barely even a game. What it does bring are two types of interactive experiences that I love: the ability to play as an actual historical figure in a different era, and the ability to play as an old-fashioned good guy.

That good guy is Eliot Ness, the real life Chicago police officer (technically classified as an Agent in the Bureau of Prohibition) who led the group of nine agents branded the Untouchables—so named by the media for their supposed inability to be turned by bribes or threats. Their work led to bringing down Al Capone, one of the most legendary gangsters in American history, all before Ness reached his thirtieth birthday. In real life, Ness had what is best described as a checkered career after the end of Prohibition and the fall of Capone, and he died relatively young at age 54, by that time so historically anonymous that no Chicago newspapers reported on his death. It was only through books, television, and the classic 1987 movie The Untouchables that Eliot Ness became an actual legendary figure.

That wouldn’t make much of an adventure game, so Blues and Bullets instead takes the real-life Ness and moves him into his retirement years in the fictional metropolis of Santa Esperanza. Here, Ness is enjoying a peaceful life as owner and proprietor of a small diner, making small talk with his regulars and talking tough occasionally to troublemakers—and apparently trying to think about his earlier violent run-ins with Al Capone and his gang as little as possible. Until one day, when a messenger brings Ness a reminder of the past he can’t escape from, and Ness quickly finds himself plunged back into a very dark, very disturbing criminal underworld.

You’ll see just how disturbing the evil portrayed is very quickly: the plot centers around what appears to be a child abduction ring; a frightening enough concept, but the game’s prologue puts you in the character of one of the abducted children, wandering around your cell, reacting to your captors and an upset fellow prisoner, and ultimately making a choice that could have very serious negative consequences. It is an absolutely terrifying sequence to play as a kidnapped child, exploring a horrific dungeon while other children plead for you to not endanger their lives. Despite the script being written by Josué Monchan, best known for his work on the Runaway series with Pendulo, there are virtually no light or comic touches to be found; this game is one hundred percent deadly serious and gets the heart racing even before Mr. Ness is introduced.

Although Eliot Ness and Al Capone are as real as the city of Chicago, the city of Santa Esperanza and Ness as the proprietor of an American diner are entirely fictional creations, and the intriguing alternate-history angle is taken to even further extremes—in this world, apparently the Hindenburg itself never exploded; rather, it’s been preserved and turned into a rather impressive floating luxury hotel where the elites of society tend to congregate, and where certain recently-freed crime kingpins are running the vestiges of their empire from. Granted, I never actually spent any time inside the infamous real-world dirigible, but I find it very difficult to believe that it could possibly have been large enough to house such an expansive social gathering, let alone an entire Japanese garden. Even more suspension of disbelief is necessary to accept the cable car in place to carry all these patrons to and from the sky, but the awe-inspiring aerial view of Santa Esperanza is worth every moment. Those who crave historical accuracy will be driven nuts by these liberties, but the game is nothing if not brave about its setting.

A vital element in maintaining the illusion of a real world in surreal circumstances is the voice acting, and thankfully the professional acting of this game is a great strength. The voice of Eliot Ness is Doug Cockle, whose name might be familiar as the actor behind Geralt, the titular Witcher from the popular RPG series. He is fantastically well-cast, with just the right amount of grit and anxiety for an emotionally-tormented retired detective deeply invested in a very troubling mystery. Across the board, the supporting characters are equally well-voiced; of particular note are the rather insane villains who show up in two different scenes, one of which is the incredibly gruesome, troubling ending sequence that I can’t encourage you enough to make sure you don’t play with children around. (In fact, you might not want to play it if you have young children, period). Never a distraction, the voice acting is a positive in every scene, which is a doubly impressive feat for a debut adventure from a rather small studio.

Blues and Bullets recommends a gamepad for playing, with an interface that will be very familiar to any fan of recent Telltale story games. It is possible to play with a keyboard, but using an analog stick to control Ness’s walking movements feels much more natural. There is only one button used for interaction, and automatic highlights make it very obvious where the infrequent hotspots are in any given scene. The dialogue sequences feature some familiar moments of choice, which wisely involve selecting general emotional tones rather than picking from specific lines. These decisions have a clear impact on the flow of that specific conversation, but rarely did I encounter any choices that appeared might really change the overall story (though to be fair, I only played through the episode once).

Sometimes the only choice I felt like I was making was how long to walk around and enjoy the visuals—a surprising outcome for me, since I was immediately skeptical upon seeing that the game borrows the black, white, and blood-red aesthetic of Frank Miller’s Sin City. Although a minimalistic neo-noir color motif like that can be stylish if used correctly, in the wrong hands it creates a world that is bland, or even difficult to properly see. No such worries about Blues and Bullets, which is exceptionally drawn and animated throughout. There is always so much happening in the surrounding world, especially the amazing scenes inside the Hindenburg hotel: a truly living environment full of people talking to each other, walking around, and creating an incredible sense of reality. Water and rain effects are amazingly lifelike, and the natural animations of arms and legs moving are impressive throughout. The camera also moves with a great eye for drama; the final scenes at an eerie dock are preceded by a gorgeous, lengthy camera pan of the entire area.

The game uses its visual prowess to great use, if you’re a fan of grotesque and scary horror. Standing out from the black and white backdrops, the game drips with dark red blood, particularly during two scenes. One of them is the game’s lengthy “action” scene, a cover-shooting diversion that flashes back to the first Ness-Capone confrontation (which I’m sure was significantly less casualty-ridden in real life) and is the game’s weakest scene; it’s nearly challenge-free and provides almost no legitimate chance of being killed, while you freely explode the heads of waves of henchmen in the goriest fashion. It’s a nice reminder that adventures trying to blend in other genres should stick to doing what they do well, but it ends quickly enough and is thankfully a one-off for this episode.  

The other deeply unnerving scene is the game’s central set piece: an attempt to visit an informant at his house, only to find that he has been found first by someone with bloody intentions. Someone, or something, that has labored to commit murder in the most horrific, revolting, gory manner possible. Those with weak stomachs need not apply. The blood spatters throughout this scene are straight out of a 1980s Troma movie, but the game’s dialogue is so self-serious that the tone of the scene is truly disturbing—ultimately in a positive way for the suspense factor. This scene also features a brief action-y sequence in the vein of The Wolf Among Us: a series of quick button-presses per the onscreen button prompts to avoid attacks and properly counter-attack. The fight scene is easy enough, ends quickly, has no random elements, and restarts almost instantly with each death so it’s hard to really consider it the same kind of diversion as the ludicrous “Assault on Al Capone” scene.

Other than these harrowing scenes of violence, the game features one extended puzzle that is the only real moment of classic adventure-style intellectual challenge. While exploring the grisly murder scene, you examine the surroundings to accumulate clues, which pop into your mental “inventory” for you to then piece together to provide the answers to such questions as how the killer got in, where the body was moved from, etc. I would hesitate to call this much of a challenge, though, as all you really need is a good eye for detail as you’re walking around to avoid missing any clues. Actually figuring out which category to associate with each clue is no real difficulty at all, and once that’s done, Ness’s inner dialogue will answer all the burning questions without you having to reach an independent conclusion.

That’s really the only drawback of The End of Peace: it’s essentially just an interactive movie with one out-of-place action sequence. It involves walking around and finding hotspots, and there is quite a bit of dialogue and emotional choice, but none of it seems to have any potential lasting impact on the game’s storyline branching. Coming into the game looking for a challenge or a traditional adventure could leave you feeling a bit underserved. But if you approach Blues and Bullets looking for an incredibly stylized, bleak neo-noir murder mystery with some horror elements that takes some amusing liberties with history but still lets you play as a legit good guy, you’ll love every minute of the two-hour first episode and, like me, you’ll find yourself eager for the next episode.

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