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Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Blues and Bullets



Blues and Bullets - Episode 1
Developed by: A Crowd of Monsters 
Published by: A Crowd of Monsters 
Release Date: July 23, 2015
Available on: Steam - Provided by PR firm
Video: YouTube

It's no surprise that I'm a fan of TellTale adventure games and the multitude of TellTale style of games that have come out recently. I have very much enjoyed playing as Max in Life is Strange and the mystery person behind the camera in Republique. But this isn't about Telltale, Life is Strange or Republique, This is about the recently released Blues and Bullets.

Blues and Bullets is a TellTale style adventure game that has a 1950's gangster theme in a Noir style. If you're not familiar with Noir it's a style that came straight out of the so called "Golden age" of cinema where the film is done in high contrast black and white. In Blues and Bullets they do take liberties and toss some red in the mix as an accent color. Unfortunately, it falls short of being a classic due to some glaring problems with the performance, graphics, story and game play.

The story is split in 2, the typical 1950's mob drama complete with Al Capone, and an occult story about a little girl trying to escape from what looks like a daedric cult who kidnaps and sacrifices children. I have to admit I was intrigued by the occult scenes more than the majority of the actual game. I felt very let down by the 2 hours or so of slogging around as a half rate former dick with his very own greasy spoon.

There's a disconnect between Eliot Ness and Al Capone's real life and the way that it's presented. I'm not overly familiar with the story of Al Capone and had no idea that Ness was a key player in his take down. After discussing this with my wife, who knows the story better than I, there are several scenes that make much more sense to me now. This caused a lovely discussion between us about how the game has taken these 2 characters life and story, and for the lack of a better term, has bastardized them to make them fit in the context of the game. This to me is a cardinal sin, you have a lore that you're trying to use but chop it up to a point that it makes no sense in relation to the original. This is one of my points of contention with Metro 2033 where they used the characters but put the story in a blender and added milk and oil.

Red carpet behind Ness smearing across his coat
At first glance the visuals aren't striking but they showcase the Noir style rather well. The use of red in some scenes is really nice and draws the eye quite well but early on it's quite apparent that the effect has been over used. Within the first hour your eyes have been pulled in so many directions to look at useless features that the world begins to feel lifeless and dull. In many areas you'll find yourself being accosted by a streak of red smeared across the screen, even when there is no red in the shot.

No red in the shot but a red smear on the piano

Red smudge flying past for no reason (slowed to 10% speed)

Characters and objects all feel out of place no matter where they are, people move around clumsily and even inanimate objects feel devoid of life. Almost every character animation feels jerky and robotic, many of the animations feel right out of old 1990's era 3D games where everyone appeared to have tremors. While this may not seem like much it does detract from the experience when you see people shaking and acting like they are going to fall over at any moment all while acting tough. A minor point that many of these games share is the lip syncing, In Blues and Bullets it's just not done. These are minor issues but if they had been done better it would have added to the experience greatly, giving the world and characters life and a sense that they belong.

Jittery animations during exposition by a corrupt cop, feels like he's a terrible puppet not the asshole he's portrayed as

Movement consists of the standard WASD keys with some QTE type sections for minor combat/ avoidance and conversations. Navigating the world feels laboured like trying to push a car that has it's parking brake on. Ness seems to move at no more than a lazy stroll even when he is in a hurry. There is a "sprint" key but when it works the difference is barely noticeable. Combine this with long empty corridors and plenty of backtracking it gets very tedious very fast, unlike Ness' movement speed.

Controls are a mixed bag consisting of standard WASD movement and rare WASD QTE sequences, where it drops the ball is while choosing dialog options. Instead of using the mouse or having you use WASD again they throw in the arrow keys just for fun.  It boggles my mind is why it was done this way, my hand is already on the WASD and mouse! I get that they would correspond to the controller buttons but there is a better way *cough TellTale cough*. This method causes you to re-position your hand back and forth from mouse to arrow keys. At this point you may be saying "Hey dumbass why don't you just leave your hand on the arrow keys?" to which I would say "I shouldn't have to, dick weasel. A mouse is fully capable of doing this, plus the mouse is used for other sequences" (yes my insults are better than yours so suck it!).



Now we come to the single most enjoyable and stand out features of Blues and Bullets, the combat. Combat is not some cookie cutter QTE fest a'la TellTale but a simplified cover based shooter. When entering into one of these sequences your character pulls his gun and hides behind cover. While in cover you are not able to be hit, but you also can't shoot, you need to point your cross-hair at an enemy right click to come out of cover and into a precision aim mode then left click to shoot. After clearing out the enemies either more will come or you'll move up to engage more until the sequence ends. It may have more in common with a rail shooter but for a this type of game it's a welcome addition and seems to work well. There are exactly two issues with these scenes, one the precision aiming slows the mouse down so far that you can't really aim properly and two there are just not enough of them. I'm not a shooter fan but this game needs something to make it less dull and of all the things in the game this is the most enjoyable.



There is also a single "investigation" (more is promised for Episode 2) which includes walking around looking at things while Ness spews pointless drivel about what you found. There are multiple areas that have multiple "clues" that you have to find, then you have to find what "clues" actually matter for each area. This has been done before, hundreds of times, and to me is quite dull and involves absolutely no skill or even paying attention. It is impossible to get the matching section wrong since it won't allow you to move an incorrect "clue" into the spot. Finding the clues is a tiny bit harder, having to slog around the place with the speed of a snail that's had slow cast on it to find the clues is about as hard as it gets. when you're at a section the number of clues you have to find for that section are listed in the upper right corner. Finding the clue areas is painfully easy since they are marked when you get close with a huge red eye, just like all the other pointless objects in the game that I've ignored.

The camera always sits at something like a 30 degree angle making movement more of a shimmy than a smooth bad ass saunter as you continually have to correct for your angle. On top of that, the camera has no real set point and moves wherever it feels like in order to "direct the shot". Many times completely ignoring the main character in favor of looking at fireworks out a window, or a painting that has no purpose to the game or story.

Odd camera movement, slow movement speed and useless running

Performance wise Blues and Bullets runs like me after thanksgiving dinner during a snowstorm, aka like shit. On my modest i5-2500, GTX-960 on max graphics, the frame rate flaps between 60 and 10 FPS with seemingly no reasoning behind it. The game does not look especially good, at least not enough to justify the amount of power needed to run it at a decent frame rate. Lowering the settings does improve it but it still suffers from some major frame drops in some areas, such as a small empty hallway on a blimp hotel.



The game is not all bad but does not offer the "hook" you would expect from the first episode of a game. Many of the parts they spent so much time on feel like they could have been done within the first hour and spent more time on fleshing out the parts that feel like they are important to future episodes. It feels like they should have spent more time on the occult story and less on showing Ness and Capone hash out half done scenes that don't make sense if you're not familiar with the Eliot Ness and Al Capone story. I'm optimistic that A Crowd of Monsters can salvage what the story and make it something wonderful despite the mechanical issues with the game.


Conclusion:

Pros
  • Combat is enjoyable
  • Didn't fuck up Investigations
  • Voice acting is OK








Cons
  • Runs like ass
  • Slow movement
  • Terrible graphics
  • Over use of red
  • Odd controls
  • Slow movement
  • Pointless exploration
  • Horrible animations
  • Slow movement
  • Lifeless world
  • Did I mention it's slow

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