Wot I Think: Blues and Bullets

Blues and Bullets is an episodic adventure game in the vein of Telltale’s Walking Dead series, and documents the Untouchables’ Eliot Ness alt-reality, post-retirement involvement in a spate of disappearances and murders which seem to involve his old nemesis Al Capone. The first instalment is out now.

Blues and Bullets is a fan of everything. In one scene, it’s preoccupied with grisly cultist murders which evoke True Detective’s Yellow King. Then there’s a bit about a retired Eliott Ness running a burger bar and discussing Blueberry Pie recipes. Then there’s a huge, preposterous gangster shootout which has more than a touch of Max Payne to it. Then it’s a visit to an impossibly decadent, alt-history Hindenberg that’s so heavily Bioshock-inspired that it’s even owned by an A. Ryan. Then it’s a sort of James Bond introduction sequence featuring a monochrome gunfight set amid giant typography. Then it’s an odd couple comedy. Then it’s the gruesome evidence-combing of LA Noire. There’s a monster, a giant submarine and a knife fight with a masked maniac in there too.

The red-flecked monochrome art style is borrowed from Schindler’s List, of course. It even ends with that slow-pan around CGI statues sequence from the Avengers movies’ credits. Blues & Bullets is in love with pop culture. It’s also lavish in its presentation and wildly, crazily unpredictable. Blues & Bullets is fantastically interesting, but also quite boring.

The thing Blues and Bullets is most a fan of is Telltale games. It just about stops short of ‘Warty Bill will remember that’ pop-ups, but, from the episode selection screen to the ‘next time on…’ teaser and all the restrictive movement, limited interaction and lampshaded puzzles in between, it’s straight-up structured to play like The Walking Dead et al. Most of the time, you’re wandering slowly around locations, clicking on items to progress a primarily linear story and making occasional conversational decisions, with a smattering of quicktime action sequences. The difference is that B&B pings all over in the place in both theme and playstyle. It’s far, far more ambitious than any Telltale series, managing to bundle in shoot-outs, investigations and more ornate locations than it possibly requires, but it’s all over the place with it.

This five hour-ish first episode (of a planned five) is mostly build up to a near-climactic investigation set at the scene of particularly grisly murder. Ahead of that it’s all world-building, with a ‘throw enough pulp at the wall and see what sticks’ ethos. Nominally this is the tale of Eliot Ness coming out of retirement to lock horns with just-out-of-jail Al Capone, which might well have been theme enough, but Blues & Bullets also indulges in what I immediately hate myself for terming ‘noirpunk’ and hints towards something supernatural.

Some of the sets are glorious: the Hindenberg is a glass-bottomed, floating art deco city with rooms full of trees, and the aforementioned interactive Bond titles sequence is a brilliant exercise in visual design. I didn’t want to leave the game, purely because I had no idea what it was going to throw at me next. It has many of the hallmarks of something made on a shoestring, but then it’ll regularly seem impossibly lavish. Some serious money went into this somewhere along the line.

The trouble is that the game truly is as disjointed as my introductory list of sequences suggests. It doesn’t flow, and many sequences feel like they’re in there because someone had a bunch of art assets they didn’t want to waste. It also takes around two hours to find half a dozen different ways of telling us that Eliot Ness and Al Capone don’t like each other very much, which I suspect is something most of us could have taken for granted without being force-fed exposition.

It might work as a noir-themed opera of the absurd if Ness wasn’t quite such uninspiring company. Neither writing or performance is actively bad, but it’s flat and almost always locked into one tone of voice which shoots for hard-boiled but often lands on ‘amiable idiot.’ If he’s not speaking the crushingly obvious aloud then he’s going “hmm!’ in a slightly amused voice when you direct him to look at non-plot-critical objects, because somebody inexplicably decided that would be a satisfying pay-off for a player who likes to nose around at the scenery. Though there’s one, bizarre instance of him totally losing his shit when you click on a broken Coke machine, and another where he makes inappropriate gags at the sight of a horrendous death-by-mutilation. He’s a walking cipher for a random collection of words, not a character.

Ness is supposed to be a portrait of grief and conflict, dragged back into a world he left decades ago and unexpectedly face to face with his mortal enemy, and if this had been successfully conveyed then the game’s many absurdities might have hung effectively around an emotional core, as was the case in the no less ridiculous Wolfenstein: The New Order. But Ness is a vacuum, and his plastic-faced, perma-smirking character model doesn’t help. It might be a Max Payne reference, but in any case B&B doesn’t manage to cling to that delicately thin line between grit and satire.

It’s the pacing which really harms it, though. It’s got all this wild stuff in there, and it also really goes to town on gruesomeness once you reach the lynchpin murder scene, but in the main it’s a slow trudge through pretty but static environments, waiting through over-long dialogue, impatient to see where the hell it might be going with it. Episode 1 of Blues & Bullets would be twice as effective if it was half as long. Take a machete to each conversation, imply rather than exposit, lose any scene where its Team America-like cast are walking and talking but you’re not controlling it.

The controls need a rethink too: cumbersome tank movement on WASD most of the time, but with sudden diversions into cursor keys or mouse depending on which new mini-game it’s suddenly switched to. The lack of any mouse control in the core walk’n’talk scenes makes it feel a hundred years old, and is actively infuriating when it comes to navigating a complicated evidence menu. (Which also dropped the frame rate to sub-10 on my PC, but given I was running it on the newly-released Windows 10 I’m reticent to point too many fingers in that regard yet).

And yet I do want to see more. I have no interest in finding out where the plot goes, because so far it’s Arbitrary Events In The Lives Of Wooden Characters, but I do want to find out which dramatic places it will show me next. It’s also not impossible that Blues & Bullets might find its stride now it’s got initial over-excitement out of its system. I’m frankly amazed that there aren’t more rivals/homages to the Telltale style, but at least part of that is because Telltale games are sold more on license than style – and most small studios couldn’t bag a big license. Blood & Bullets has free reign to do what it wants, and in some respects it makes the best of that. Again, it could be fantastically interesting with better pacing. I just hope its later episodes can spend more time on the basics – characterisation, movement, animation, interactions with purpose – rather than burning everything on overblown sets. Blues and Bullets’ ambition is untouchable, but for its own sake it needs to calm right down and focus on what matters most.

Blues and Bullets episode 1 is out now (via Steam). It costs £3.99/$4.99, or £14.99/$19.99 for the complete season.

5 Comments

  1. Flimgoblin says:

    Man, Garfield has changed since last I watched it…

  2. MisterFurious says:

    “The red-flecked monochrome art style is borrowed from Schindler’s List”

    Looks more like it was borrowed from “Sin City”.

  3. TheAngriestHobo says:

    I get the feeling that a lot of game devs have no idea what they’re getting into when they build TT-alikes. The successful ones work because they manage to synchronize game mechanics with television-style story structure and cinematography, driven by a single strong writer (what we call a “show runner” in North American TV). That’s not to say there’s no place for teams of writers – they’re practically necessary – but a single acknowledged authority on the games’ writing allows for a consistency of style and pacing that is incredibly hard to achieve without.

    The bottom line is that a traditional gaming skill set is not sufficient to create a work that rivals LiS or the Telltale games. It is essentially necessary to bridge over some talent from the video industry, and ideally, the producer and “game runner” (for wont of a better term) should have some exposure to that field as well. The two TT-alikes that I’ve been paying attention to recently (Dark Dreams Don’t Die and Blues and Bullets) don’t seem to have anyone on staff who understands how to properly craft a clean cinematic experience, which is a real shame, as this is a genre I – like a lot of people – am very excited about.

    • frightlever says:

      While I enjoyed it, The Walking Dead games have all the cinematic finesse of an 80s action TV show. Hmm. So does The Walking Dead TV show now I think about it.

      When’s Z Nation back on?