Developer: A Crowd of Monsters
Publisher: A Crowd of Monsters
Platform(s): PC [Reviewed], Xbox One
Release Date: April 8, 2016
Price: $4.99 USD ($19.99 for the full season)

Disclaimer: The following game was reviewed on PC via Steam. A code was provided by the publisher for review purposes.

Editor’s Note: The following review is an episodic release and may contain spoilers. Proceed at your own risk.

Blues and Bullets is a game that works when it prioritizes style over substance. Like a theme-park ride, if you let yourself be carried along by the dark noir tale it can be a real joy. But look too closely at any one element, and it begins to unravel.

Unfortunately, Blues and Bullets Episode 2: Shake the Hive makes us stare too long in the same places, failing to drive the story forward at the pace it demands. The first episode succeeded because it built so much atmosphere and created a certain urgency and dread. From the scenes of the captured children in the underground cells to the horrific ritual murder investigation, an infectious sense of unease lingered over the game. Episode 2, by contrast, slows down with numerous flashbacks and dream sequences. While it does progress the plot, and has its wonderful moments, it feels at times as slow as protagonist Eliot Ness’ own dreadfully slow walking speed.

Blues and Bullets ep2_2

This lack of pace exacerbates the mechanical problems of the numerous gameplay elements introduced in the first episode. Where the on-rails shooting sequences of the first episode were relatively brief, Episode 2 drastically increases the shooting content. Unfortunately, it’s no better here than it was before.

In these sequences, Ness automatically runs to cover while a bunch of harmless enemies run into the room. You pick them off one-by-one at a leisurely pace. You can switch cover, but there’s never any need to, as the enemies will never try to flank nor will they otherwise pose any threat. These sequences also undermine the otherwise tense atmosphere by making Ness into a Rambo-esque action hero capable of taking on an entire army by himself.

Other elements, like quick-time fight scenes and a single crime scene investigation also return. It’s clear that developer A Crowd of Monsters is beginning to establish a formula for their episodes, and there’s a sense of repetition that hopefully future episodes will avoid. Once again, the best part of the episode is that crime scene investigation, which is more complex this time around, and requires some thought from the player. While it’s not as grotesquely interesting as that of Episode 1, and feels like it was made horrific simply for the sake of being horrific, it still manages to nail the atmosphere and put Ness in his element.

Blues and Bullets ep2_3

The story doesn’t work quite so well as last time, but it’s still an enjoyable ride. The episode opens with a flashback to Ness past in which he goes on a date with his mistress, the wife of his partner in the police. It’s a fairly mundane scene, and it fails to set the tone for the rest of the story that only really hits its stride in its final moments. There’s another long flashback as well, which fills us in on some of the details of how they brought down Al Capone long before the current story begins. Hopefully these elements are working towards some future payoff, because as they stand, they tend to slow down the narrative momentum that other scenes try so hard to build.

Ness’ self-loathing and inner demons also resurface in this story, but they’re sadly not very well-integrated into the plot-arc. We go through a nightmare scene that successfully builds dread and hits the right notes internally, but its placing in the sequence of events doesn’t add up. It’s not quite clear why Ness is facing these crises of the mind at this particular moment, and the juxtaposition can be jarring.

Fortunately, there are a few wonderful scenes at both the beginning and end of the episode, even if they’re undermined by the ridiculous bombast of surrounding shooting sequences. Once again, the visual composition of the scenes is brilliant, while the writing and voice-acting remains mostly effective. There are still times when the dialogue or delivery will suddenly change tone, or when lines will verge on self-parody, but these appear to largely have been smoothed out.

Blues and Bullets ep2_1

Stay thirsty, my friends.

One minor issue arises due to the sheer amount of time between the release of the first episode and this one. After more than six months, it’s difficult to dive back into an atmospheric crime drama. While the game does begin with a brief recap of events, it’s not enough to bring you back into the story and reintroduce you to all of the characters. Hopefully A Crowd of Monsters can get these episodes out frequently enough that it doesn’t seem necessary to hunt down a plot summary just to follow the action in the latest installment. Otherwise, a more complete optional recap at the start would be especially helpful.

Overall, Blues and Bullets Episode 2: Shake the Hive delivers much of the same as Episode 1, but with a little bit less style. It focuses too much on elements that feel tacked on, like the shooting scenes and quick-time events, and delivers story elements more inconsistently.

There’s brilliance here, to be sure, but it comes in momentary spurts, and it lets itself be too often interrupted by uninspired gameplay and unnecessary flashbacks. If you enjoyed the first episode, then the second is an easy recommendation. But for those still thinking about diving into the series, Episode 2 suggests a bit of movement in the wrong direction. A few minor tweaks for the next episode can easily right the series’ course, and I look forward to jumping back into Ness’ shoes again to see where this ride is taking me.

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