Developer: A Crowd of Monsters
Publisher: A Crowd of Monsters
Platform(s): PC [REVIEWED], Xbox One
Release Date: July 23, 2015
Price: $4.99 USD ($19.99 for the full season)

Blues and Bullets is all about atmosphere. Like many of the noir films that inspire it, Blues and Bullets tries to fill you with a sense of unease at the dark things that thrive on the periphery of every day life. From cult murders to child abduction, Mafia leaders to corrupt police, the first episode throws a slew of noir and detective genre standards at the player, all while wrapping it together in the story of retired detective Eliot Ness. And while the tone is sometimes inconsistent, with dialogue that occasionally verges on laughable, it’s largely an enjoyable experience, thanks to the palpable sense of dread carrying on throughout the three hour play time of the first episode.

This is, at times, a bit manipulative. The opening scene puts the player in control of a child trying to escape what appears to be a subterranean dungeon, while another child begs to be let out lest he be “punished.” We don’t see the conclusion of this scene yet, but there are few things more harrowing than the implied kidnapping, torture and murder of children. Despite it being a relatively cheap narrative trick, the scene does hit its mark, giving the events that follow more urgency and more weight than they might otherwise have had.

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The pace takes a bit of a break as it cuts to Ness, the protagonist, who is currently running a diner. We learn repeatedly, through groan-inducing dialogue, that he makes very good pies. But while at his diner, he’s contacted by an old enemy, Al Capone, a criminal Ness helped put behind bars. The story makes liberal use of historical figures, with both Ness and Capone being based upon their real-world counterparts, but changes the history and adds in a number fantastic elements. In this story, Capone, now free, lives in a hotel aboard a massive airship that Ness must slowly plod his way up to for a meeting. Unsurprisingly, it turns out the boss’ grand daughter has gone missing, and he needs Ness’ help to find her.

And this is where the game begins in earnest, as Ness sets out to uncover the whereabouts of the missing children. It quickly becomes clear that the game’s use of black and white with red highlights was a wise choice. The graphical fidelity is fairly low for a modern game, and the black and white does what it can to hide imperfections while fitting perfectly with the noir aesthetic. The red stands out viscerally, whether it be red shoes or a trail of blood, naturally highlighting exactly what we’re supposed to see. It simultaneously sets the mood and entrances the eyes despite occasionally jerky animations and poor textures.

The camera, too, helps to achieve the mood. The composition is brilliant, with every carefully selected angle perfectly contributing to the scene. Whether it be a slow pan around a room from floor-level, or an intense focus on a character’s face, it’s clear the developers have carefully studied noir film-making and have used it here to great effect.

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Fortunately, the voice acting is also respectable, despite many questionable lines of dialogue. Ness himself is voiced by Doug Cockle, better known as the voice of Geralt in The Witcher, and in the role of the gritty detective, he naturally does quite well. It’s unfortunate, then, that he has to read a drunken Ness yelling at Al Capone “You’re such a chauvinist!” following an off-handed sexist remark, as though in the 1950s such a thing might be in dispute. The humour sprinkled throughout also largely falls flat, detracting from the ominous mood. Regardless, the voice acting and dialogue are largely serviceable, getting us from one plot point to the next.

When it comes to gameplay, Blues and Bullets takes its cues from Telltale Games’ works, such as The Walking Dead series. Most of the game consists of (slowly) walking through linear environments, inspecting objects and gathering clues, talking to people, and making choices. Like in The Walking Dead, some of these choices are marked as important, and the player receives a report with all of their choices compared with the global averages upon completing the episode.  Occasionally, a quick-time event will trigger, such as in a fight, where certain buttons must be pressed within a limited amount of time. The time given is fairly liberal, however, and most gamers won’t find them overly intrusive. Instead, they simply serve the purpose of breaking up long cinematic elements in which the player might otherwise be rendered a passive observer.

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The game also makes use of sparse on-rails shooting elements, in which Ness will automatically move behind cover, and the player takes control in order to pop out and shoot the enemies in front before Ness automatically moves to the next piece of cover. These scenes don’t offer much in the way of a challenge, and provide little variability. Wait, shoot, repeat. These moments are jarring, as the gunplay fails to mesh with the slow-paced brooding tone of the rest of the game. In one scene, Ness single-handedly takes on over a dozen armed Mafia members, turning him from a pie-baking retiree into a one man army.

The first episode really hits its stride, however, in the one gruesome murder investigation featured in the middle. Trying to track down a known forger, Ness instead finds a mutilated corpse arranged ceremonially in the forger’s living room. Ness must look around the house for clues, then fit them into his investigation board in order to solve the case. In truth, it’s not much of a puzzle. The clues are highlighted obviously in red against the game’s black and white colour scheme, and fitting them into the board is often more a matter of trial and error than real sleuthing skills. Nonetheless, the way the murder is arranged, and the way Ness puts it together, is brilliantly done, combining a sense of horror, fascination, and intrigue into a single moment. And the scene that plays out when he explains it to a companion is, perhaps, the best part of the episode.

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The Bottom Line

Blues and Bullets is a game that might seem hard to recommend on paper. Campy dialogue,  unnecessary shooting scenes, linear environments, and wonky animations mar the experience, but underlying it is a vision and tone that’s fully realized in the brooding atmosphere, ominous plot, and brilliant visual composition. And it’s in this full embrace of the noir aesthetic that Blues and Bullets works.

While there were times that I felt pulled out of the game by extraneous elements or the slow pace, for the most part, I enjoyed my time in Ness’ shoes, and I look forward to slipping back into them in the next episode. Even if that means I might have to spend more time discussing pies.

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