Disclaimer: There are no major plot spoilers in this review, although I have referenced certain set pieces which occur within the game.
If Blues and Bullets was in a bar he’d stammer around awkwardly from table to table with all the grace of an overfed Hippo wading through sinking sand. He would have drunk too much and look a little rough around the edges, but by God can he tell a story.
The wonderfully named, A Crowd of Monsters, have created a truly captivating plot. Set within 1940s/50s America, the story features Elliot Ness, a legendary detective famed for his efforts against the crime lords of prohibition America as member of the untouchables. Victories great and small were scored, but a decade later Ness retired, now living a menial existence managing a small diner. Like many noir males, Ness is incomplete, regret bubbling wildly beneath his cool exterior. One case befuddled him before he retired, but now, after forging an uneasy alliance which I won’t spoil, Ness returns to the world of crime as a private investigator, only this this time it becomes clear there are fantastical elements at play. Why and how is not explained in episode 1, but some sort of demonic entities are afoot, twisted creatures that wouldn’t feel amiss in Pan’s Labyrinth
Indeed, this game mirrors Del Torro films to an extent. On surface value the world seems perfectly normal, rife with humans going about regular human things. Delve a little deeper, however, and a hidden outlandish reality is pulling the strings. Special credit is due to the art team and creative directors here too, for the game’s aesthetic is constantly on point. The black and white imagery is a natural ally to the gangster setting, and does a good job of masking some uninspired textures while accentuating the unsettling atmosphere of some of the game’s creepier moments. The lighting is gorgeous, shadows willingly ensnare Ness and his environment as befits a noir piece, dynamically moving where appropriate. The camera is always well behaved and oftentimes positioned such as to give a very cinematic feel, positioning itself at angles designed to reflect the character on screen appropriately, unshy of looking up to powerful foes and down upon the weak. On top of this deep reds nourish an otherwise limited colour palate, dutifully serving in obvious scenarios such as blood or attire, but also occasionally adding a great deal of distinct and unexpected visual flair. Stylish explosions punctuate action sequences, while one scene which particularly stands out is one in which Ness reminisces about his past. Literally battling with his thoughts, a cover based shootout occurs beneath the moody light of the full moon, culminating in a fiery hell of self doubt. Segments such as these compliment the pacing of the narrative, which seamlessly cuts through various scenes snappily, accepting that the player can keep pace much like a good detective film.
The writing is sound when dealing with the broader plot and Ness’ past, although many of the characters encountered are underexplored. To be fair, this is only episode one, but there are quite a few characters who get introduced without impacting proceedings. Hopefully more will be seen of them in time but certain, supposedly important characters, may have been better debuted in episode 2. Regardless the dialogue is well done, with some witty retorts available and a good degree of choice. Those looking to radically impact the games with their decisions will be disappointed, as the formula here is synonymous with that applied by Telltale in their games, where details can be altered but the narrative will head in one direction. That's at least with respect to some of the major choices that play out strictly within episode one, choices pan out later on is anyone's guess. Additionally there weren’t enough moments where I felt I needed to weigh up all the options in my head before making a tough decision. That said, the aesthetic in conjunction with overarching plot was more than enough to keep me hooked throughout my playthrough.
At one stage the player will be tasked with investigating a murder scene, and must collect evidence from the scene in order to solve what events took place. As clues are gathered, these are then applied to a chart within Ness’ mind as he fills in the puzzle in what might be the strongest segment of the game. Picking up objects, manipulating them where necessary, and pacing about the murder scene, one genuinely feels like a detective, helpfully prodded along by one of America’s finest who ultimately manages to put all the pieces together to progress the plot. Hopefully more of these are to come, and watching Ness come to a fantastical conclusion based on the evidence at hand was quite enjoyable.
Unfortunately, the clunky controls which seem to ever present in games of this genre are present here too. Ness looks like he’s walking around perfectly naturally, but the response from a controlpad is clunky to say the least. Guiding Ness through various points of interest isn’t difficult, but it is awkward. Shootouts and QTEs are functional but do feel rather tacked. Thankfully these issues are not powerful enough to detract too strongly from the overall experience on offer, but their presence is a shame in an otherwise strong package.
Fans of the interactive story genre should certainly pick this one up, at £14.99 for the complete 5 episode series, or £3.99 per episode, the pricing is spot on. With a world markedly different from competing titles within the genre, and an unconventional twist on the well worn noir narrative, there is enough to enjoy in episode one with plenty to look forward to. Those who are unsold on the genre won’t find anything special enough here to change their minds. Nevertheless, I eagerly await episode 2, and hope the episodes are released in a timely manner.