Game review: Blues and Bullets – Episode 1: The End of Peace

In the episodic game, world-weary Eliot Ness is hired by former foe Al Capone to find the gangster’s granddaughter. With its noir themes, multiple gameplay styles and nods to classic games and films, it’s off to a good start.

In Blues and Bullets, Eliot Ness is drawn out of retirement to track down his former foe Al Capone's granddaughter. Courtesy of A Crowd of Monsters
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Blues and Bullets – Episode 1: The End of Peace

A Crowd of Monsters

PC, Xbox One

Dh18 for Episode 1 or Dh73 for the five-episode season

Four stars

It’s 1955. Eliot Ness, the former leader of the legendary Untouchables, is persuaded to come out of retirement to investigate the disappearance of the granddaughter of his old nemesis, Al Capone.

Meanwhile, a satanic cult is abducting children in the fictional city of San Esperanza.

The visual styling for Blues and Bullets, a new, episodic game from developer A Crowd of Monsters, is somewhere between Max Payne and – with its distinctive visual style, about which more later – Sin City. In terms of story, it is pure noir – recalling the worlds of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler and Chinatown – as an alcoholic detective follows a trail of evidential breadcrumbs. Then it throws in a dose of alternative-history weirdness for good measure.

Not many videogames are brave enough to forego full-colour visuals in favour of stark black and white, but Blues and Bullets does just that, literally and thematically noir in style.

However, the monochromatic visuals of the game engine are dotted, mottled and streaked with red. This approach highlights, and makes you appreciate, some details in the graphics you might otherwise miss – lens flare, the streak of light that surrounds a neon lamp and a femme fatale’s lipstick.

The art-deco look also evokes BioShock, which gets a sly nod. A surrealist interlude sees the protagonist battle brilliant-white enemies amid massive slabs of sans-serif text – this is a visually ambitious game.

The game mechanics borrow from Rockstar's police procedural L A Noire, and Telltale Games's episodic adventures (The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, The Wolf Among Us et al).

First, there is detective mode, in which you piece together the clues to a murder. There’s no way to get this wrong – which lessens the challenge, and hence the fun, but that may change in later episodes.

Then there is a third-person rails-shooter mechanic, which is also more of a point-and-click affair than a complex gameplay challenge to complete.

There’s also the type of decision-­making through dialogue you will be familiar with if you have played any of the Telltale Games titles (your words and actions may have consequences).

A few quick-time events are also thrown in for good measure to test your button-pushing skills. The ambitious L A Noire proved disappointing because it threw together a series of disparate game mechanics, none of which were individually fun – even though the storyline gave the player the feeling of watching a sequel to L A Confidential.

It's too early, after a single episode (there are four more to come), to say whether this will also prove to be the case with Blood and Bullets. The voice-­acting is entertaining. Fans of The Witcher series will recognise Doug "Geralt of Rivia" Hunt as Ness.

And there are some very attractive-looking environments (I played the Xbox One version), including an imagining of what the Hindenburg zeppelin might look like if it had been taken over by the Jumeirah Group circa 1940 and converted into a seven-­star art-deco hotel.

It’s also hard to tell at this stage whether the story is any good or not – the first episode is a bit too short and in a rush to show off all of its different mechanics.

We get verbal jousting, a detective novel, a period piece, surreal and stylised flights of fancy, hammer horror and action sequences, all wrapped up in a three-hour package.

Many of the details were enjoyable, and I've long loved narrative and choice-driven game​s such as 2005's Fahrenheit (also known as Indigo Prophecy) and this year's Life Is Strange (the fifth and final episode of which is due out in the next few weeks) – but I'm undecided whether Blood and Bullets is good because it is similar in style to them, or good in its own right.

One caveat for more sensitive gamers – this game is gruesome. Weirdly gruesome. The final scene is horrific, since it involves violence against children.

A common trick in this genre of game is to make you complicit in the violence by forcing you to choose what happens to whom – who do you save, who do you sacrifice? In this case, it’s somewhat off-putting – and I have a pretty strong stomach.

Critics probably shouldn’t complain about gruesome imagery in videogames, since each generation seems to get more inured to grossness than the one that came before it. But you have been warned.

artslife@thenational.ae