Blues and Bullets Episode 1 Review: Low Budget, High Concept

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Posted August 24, 2015 by John Clark in Video Games

Developed by: A Crowd of Monsters

Published by: A Crowd of Monsters

Available for:  Xbox One,  PC (reviewed)

Price: $5

 

Once an increasingly obscure anomaly, episodic adventure games have seen a spike in popularity these last few years. Following the formula established by rapidly growing industry veteran Telltale Games, other titles like Dontnod’s Life is Strange and Cardboard Computer’s Kentucky Route Zero have helped fortify the growing niche’s place in gaming. Blues and Bullets, the latest release from indie developer A Crowd of Monsters, is their first entry into the budding subgenre. Clearly inspired as much by hardboiled noir fiction as much as other games of its kind, the first episode of this new adventure succeeds in setting up an exciting tale, but not without stumbling along the way.

 

Taking place in an alternate reality version of the 1940s, Blues and Bullets reveals right off the bat that it’s not just a detective story. The very first scene involves imprisoned children subjected to the whims of a towering, antlered monster, and an undercurrent of surreal intrigue runs beneath the surface of fictional city Santa Esperanza. These strange events serve as a stark contrast to the grounded backstory of the protagonist, former detective-turned-diner-owner Eliot Ness. Effectively setting the stage for what’s to come.

The atmosphere is aided by the game’s striking visual style, with  familiar black-and-white punctuated with vibrant red in an obvious nod to Frank Miller’s Sin City. While it’s easy to appreciate the game’s art and design on an aesthetic level, the flourishes unfortunately don’t hide numerous graphical flaws. This is a budget game, and it shows: textures are flat and frequently reused, character models lack expressiveness, and the animation is stiff and clumsy all around. The latter two problems can be severe ones for story-driven games like this, which are often dependent on their ability to portray nuance and emotion in their characters.

Thank you, subtitles, for captioning this text for me.

Thank you, subtitles, for captioning this text for me.

 

Luckily, where the technical limitations fall through, the solid voice acting saves the day. While minor NPCs are fairly basic, the core characters are made up of veteran talent, and it shows. RPG fans might recognize Eliot as Doug Cockle – best known as The Witcher’s Geralt of Rivia. He’s as enjoyable to listen to as ever, lending his skills at sounding gruff and even fatherly without being one-note. Al Capone, yes, that Al Capone, and his assistant/bodyguard Milton are similarly well-acted. The three of them in combination with the lovely blues-heavy soundtrack are a large part of what make the experience valuable.

 

That isn’t to say that A Crowd of Monsters doesn’t deserve any credit. What we see of the story in the first episode is definitely interesting, but it’s punctuated by as many frustrations as victories. To those familiar with episodic adventure games, much of the core gameplay will sound familiar: between interactive cutscenes where you choose Eliot’s dialogue – often a variety of responses ranging from funny to serious, patient to vicious, and many in between -, players explore limited environments, interact with objects, and then move on to the next area.

The most enjoyable spice that Blues and Bullets adds to this recipe is investigating a crime scene, a basic but involved process of gathering evidence at the site of a grisly murder, piecing together the clues, and considering the implications of what the former detective finds. While fundamentally simple in gameplay terms, this is an entertaining way to explore Eliot’s thought process and let the game play to its strengths. Much less fun are the action sequences, with fistfights being resolved by uninspired quick time events and a couple of shooting segments that feel absolutely pointless.

 

The game's art style does it a lot of credit.

The game’s art style does it a lot of credit.

 

If I sound ambivalent about Blues and Bullets, it’s because I am. There’s obvious potential and talent at work here. Even as I lament the unpolished gameplay and technical issues (including a persistent, obnoxious bug that seemed intent on repeatedly scrolling left through menus almost every time I played) I’m still interested to see where the story goes. I like the characters, I like the mystery at play. I’m just not really sold on the actual gameplay. Truth be told, I feel like the greatest problem with the game is that it sticks so closely to the model laid out by titles like The Walking Dead and Tales of the Borderlands, and as a result, shares their weaknesses to an even greater extent due to a limited budget.

Right now, I’m not convinced that the game wouldn’t work better as a visual novel, or some kind of interactive animation. But with only one episode out of five released, there’s time for A Crowd of Monsters to prove me wrong. Maybe I’ll come to like the game’s rough edges, or the story will at least keep pulling me in enough to tolerate them. Despite my reservations, I think I’ll be back to check out Episode 2 when it releases, so perhaps that’s a victory in and of itself.


About the Author

John Clark