Blues and Bullets - Episode 1

A Crowd of Monsters' Blues and Bullets is a neo-noir take on history where retired police detective Eliot Ness is dragged into an investigation at the behest of his former arch-rival... Al Capone. "The End of Peace" is the first episode, and the only episode currently released, in the series.

The overall feeling of the game is fairly unique—it is presented in a comic-book style with graphics that often feel hand-drawn—although the system of choices feels a little like L.A. Noire, while the use of grayscale with only reds accented in color is a little too Sin City for my liking. It still looks great, though. Looking for clues and interacting with the environment, however, are certainly handled better than in L.A. Noire, and we will have to see how those systems could be used in more creative ways in future episodes.

Although the story is interesting and seems promising, and even though being a lawman forced to work outside of the law is definitely engaging, there just isn't enough content here for a standalone episode. We are introduced to many characters, some of whom are more important than others, but the game's writing is sloppy: we start in the present, we jump twenty years into the past for a brief flashback, and then we jump back to the present. New characters are suddenly introduced, whom we are told are important: important enough that they probably should have at least been mentioned in the flashback.

Beyond the story and graphics, though, is where things start to fall apart. The most interesting parts of the soundtrack are similar to the least memorable parts of L.A. Noire's soundtrack and, with disappointingly few exceptions, generally fails to establish the scene, set a mood, or even reflect the time period. The sort-of-fixed camera angle moves to follow you in the most unhelpfully obtrusive way imaginable, frequently making traveling beyond the edge of the current screen a tedious chore: a permanently fixed camera angle for each area or room, or a camera that follows over your shoulder, would be a much better solution for future episodes.

Of course, a free-moving camera would reveal how disappointingly shallow the world is. The game tries to present the illusion of some degree of freedom through its constricting camera, but you quickly realize how linear it is. There's no room for trial and error, no room to explore, no alternate ways of solving the episode's single puzzle. Even the 'choices' you have to make have no impact on the game besides slightly different dialogue, and a screen at the end of the credits that compares what actions you took versus what players chose. There's no "wrong" choice; hell, the choices you make don't even affect the difficulty of the gameplay, the difficulty of the case, or the outcome of the episode. And given how self-contained the episode is, I wouldn't be surprised if the choices you made here actually had no effect in Episode 2. I think what is most disappointing to me is that you literally could not fail in Blues and Bullets - Episode 1... even if you tried.

To break up the monotony of walking from one terrible, obtuse camera angle to the next, there are occasional gunfights. These moments consist of holding down the left trigger to move out of cover, and pulling the right trigger to fire your revolver (which seems to have an infinite number of bullets). Don't worry about releasing the trigger to go back into cover: it's unlikely you'll actually need to utilize that mechanic. There's no difficulty level, your health regenerates, and enemies' hits on you don't really seem to do that much damage.

Another problem I have with the game is that the voice acting is completely flat. Now, I'm not expecting A-list voiceover artists, but I would like to hear characters who actually sound emotionally invested in their characters. When a detective finds a mutilated corpse strung up as some sort of ritual sacrifice, I would expect a little bit more than fairly flat, obviously forced "Holy Christ." And, because of the occasional pop-ups for dialog options, Blues and Bullets also shares another two problems common to L.A. Noire: random, immersion-breaking pauses between lines, as well as the occasional, jarring instance where your character goes from shouting one sentence angrily, to saying the next sentence very calmly.

My review of this game is not all negative, though, as there are two features I enjoyed and actually found really cool. The first is the system of investigating items. Occasionally, you'll find objects in the game world that need to be examined for clues: these can involve things like releasing the latches on a case to open it, or making observations about, say, a table, or what is in on or around that table. These instances are where you feel most like a detective; although the experience is somewhat marred by large red outlined eyes directing you where to look. Again, it ties into the whole "you can't fail the game" critique: make those interaction indicators on clues smaller and more subtle, or give me a pointer icon and let me try to figure things on my own. Other than that, I like the feature and it really makes you feel like a part of the game's world.

The other thing I really like in this game is the "case board." It's only used in one scene, but it's quite cleverly implemented. As you find clues at a murder scene, you'll tie them to specific events that take place: in turn, these inferences will lead to further assumptions and then to conclusions. In that way, actually closely replicates the thought process used by real detectives and lawyers.

But again, a great idea is marred by something that was completely avoidable. The complaint I have about it is that some (okay, quite a few) of the clues really don't intuitively match up in the way the developers want: as a result, it feels less like crime scene investigation, and more like guess-and-check. If the link between an event and its clues was more apparent, it would really go a long way to helping establish the feeling of being Eliot Ness.

I really want to love Blues and Bullets. It could have been a good start to the series, but there are some really frustrating elements, and it baffles me how the developers looked at them and said, "yes, this is the product we want to release to the world": the terrible semi-fixed camera that moves in an unpredictable manner as you move around, the boring gunfight segments, and the fact that, for a standalone episode, pretty much nothing actually happens. But if it capitalizes on its strengths, polishes its mechanics up, and fixes those issues I mentioned, then future episodes of Blues and Bullets could definitely be winners.

I don't think I ever won a single fight in Soulcalibur II. Thankfully, I'm marginally better at reviewing than I am at fighting games.