Blues and Bullets Episode 2: Shaking the Hive

Blues and Bullets Episode 2:  Shaking the Hive

The exploding “interactive fiction” genre of video gaming now provides a lot of competition for a game like Blues and Bullets.  At one time, there was a certain novelty to this type of game, but in the past few years the genre has become very crowded.  It is because of this competition that a middling product like Blues and Bullets is becoming increasingly difficult to recommend.  It checks all of the boxes required for an interactive fiction game adequately and it is an interesting (if not a bit silly) take on famous Prohibition-era figures like Al Capone and Eliot Ness.  The series so far, including Episode 2: Shaking the Hive, has its strong points, but the story is going to need a very satisfying conclusion to make this series a special one.

Episode 2 begins with you, playing as Eliot Ness, picking up where you left off at the end of the previous episode.  After a brief flashback scene with Eliot meeting his secret (married) lover, you continue your search for Al Capone’s granddaughter.  The search takes you to the hideout of a rival gangster through a few shootouts, before it takes a strange turn towards the occult.  Despite its shortcomings, this story has an intriguing mystery at its core:  Eliot Ness – trying to redeem himself after falling into a personal state of disrepair despite his prohibition era success.  Blues and Bullets has one of the more interesting portrayals Eliot Ness that I have seen – a man in the twilight of his life, wrestling with alcoholism while constantly being reminded about the guilt that he bears for his sins.  The occasional flashback scenes do an adequate job of showing why Ness experiences so much emotional pain.  He makes for an interesting protagonist – a flawed man with whom you can sympathize very heavily.  His story counterparts, especially a silly cartoonish Al Capone, don’t fare quite as well.  The strength of this game’s writing lies in Ness and how he copes with the events happening around him.  Unfortunately, so far, the series hasn’t excelled in other areas.

Like many games of this nature, you are frequently presented with dialog choices – should you be rude or polite?  Truthful or Dishonest?  Emotional or Stoic?  The choices correspond to the buttons on your controller and you push one to make the choice.   And, like so many games of this nature, it is hard to discern any consequences for your choices.  Is it any more than personal preference and a false choice?  Does a dialog choice just lead to a different response from an NPC?  Does it change anything significant in the story?  So far, through two episodes in this series, there is little evidence that it does.  When these types of games were new, it was easier to disguise their linear nature and convince the player that they were having some effect on the story.  If you have played the Walking Dead series, the Wolf Among Us series, and/or the Game of Thrones series though, then you will recognize most dialog choices as unsuccessful attempts to gamers that they have a high measure of control on the story.  For what it’s worth, there are a few landmark choices in the game where it makes a point of telling you that you have made a meaningful choice.  How meaningful they are remains to be seen.

When you are not involved in dialog, you are typically involved in one of the game’s other two significant elements.  The first is the occasional cover-based rail shooter sequence.  Episode 2 throws in some light action scenes that require blasting your way out of some trouble.  During these scenes, you take cover and move automatically, popping out occasionally to aim at enemies  As with the shooting scenes in Episode 1, they are fairly unremarkable affairs but don’t get in the way too much or last too long.  At least they fit in well with the game’s subject matter.

The other significant portion of this series so far is the occasional detective work that you have to do, which functions more along the lines of a traditional point-and-click adventure game.  You scour the environment, look for evidence, pick up objects to examine them, and then piece together everything that you have found to reconstruct events.  This area of the game is where it has the most potential to shine, which is why it is unfortunate that there hasn’t been more of it.  In each of the first two episodes there has been only one investigation, whereas it feels like there should be two or three of them.  The one investigation in this episode is a little longer on collection and a little lighter on challenge than that of the first episode, which is why it isn’t quite as good.  It would be nice to see more focus on this portion of the game in Episode 3.

Stylistically, nothing has changed for Episode 2.  It has a fairly non-intrusive soundtrack that is quite fitting.  Visually, it continues with the black and white, film noir aesthetic with added splashes of red colored highlights (like curtains or blood).  The game isn’t very attractive from a technical standpoint, thanks to its dated look.  It isn’t very appealing from a style standpoint either, thanks to its lack of a color palette and its high contrast black, white, and red style being rather harsh on the eyes.  It makes sense to give your game its own unique style to try and separate it from the competition, but it in this series, it just doesn’t work very well.

It has yet to deliver excellence, but this mystery adventure game series still holds some potential.  Eliot Ness is a strong, believable lead character, and the main mystery of the game (who is kidnapping the children and for what purpose?) may have a satisfying conclusion.  Episode 2:  Shaking the Hive, for what it’s worth, benefits from better pacing than Episode 1 and it doesn’t waste as much time with Eliot performing ordinary tasks.  Still, there is little in either Episode 1 or Episode 2 so far to separate Blues and Bullets from the middle of the pack.  My recommendation at this point – stay tuned.