Title: Blues and Bullets: Episode 2
Developer/Publisher: A Crowd of Monsters
Price: £14.99 (all episodes) -
£3.99 (episode 1)
£12.99 (episodes 2-5)
Blues and Bullets: Episode 2 is the, seriously, long awaited second part to A Crowd of Monster's episodic adventure series. At roughly 6 months since the first episode was released, anybody would be forgiven for forgetting all but rudimentary details regarding the initial episode's plot, a shame given that the prior release was really good.
Wisely, the narrative resumes in a flash back into the past of our hard boiled protagonist, Eliot Ness, in what is a very strong opener for the episode. We are transported back to a day of tragedy in Ness' life, the day in which his squad was taken out on a hit while he was on a date. The scene provides a means to define who the Ness of prohibition America really was, and while, in typical Telltale style, the choices made there have little impact in the direction of the game's plot, its effects play out in style during two of the game's latter, and equally enjoyable, scenes.
One scene has us journey into the subconscious of a knocked out Ness, during which he is harassed and tormented with the decisions made during flashbacks. His regret ridden mind jeeringly reiterating and analysing his choices in various verbal attacks, while his guilt is simultaneously manifested in the masterful warping of the dreary building Ness finds himself in. Telephones chime ominously, the wind howls under a thunderous nights sky, before and all the while Ness is lambasted with guilt before events crescendo into an "in your face" finale of anxiety.
It marks a beautifully melancholy real glimpse into Ness' mind, a view which tugs at the heart all the more given that it so deftly pulls upon a script decided upon by the player. The danger of episodic adventure games is that they can feel like the career towards their resolution, and the events which take place in the middle don't really matter. Yet, self contained within episode 2, is a nuanced, fleshed out character arch which culminates in a far greater understanding of Ness as a character that is well worth playing through.
Unfortunately, getting to that stand-out scene is mired by some poor cover shooting that significantly dampens the game's flow. Following the opening flashback, the plot is transported back to Ness' infiltration mission promised at the end of the previous episode. One way or another, affairs lead to a prolonged shootout that's about as satisfying as an oddly resilient Christmas cracker which doesn't pop once it finally gives. While none of the shooting sections are particularly challenging, their stay is far too great. Moreover, methodically gunning down dozens of gangsters simply doesn't mesh particularly well with the detective - adventure proceedings otherwise on offer.
As with the prior episode, graphical fidelity continues to be average at best for the title, and extended bouts of gunplay only serve to highlight some underwhelming animations. However, the noir filter and an excellent use of reds and shadows continues to make what's on screen visually appealing more often than not. Shadows often intentionally cloak the faces of characters, generating an appropriately menacing edge to character models. Alternatively, varying shades of red continue to punctuate scenes, from dark blood smatterings, to almost white hot flames. It's a look which eminently fits the game, and one which has clearly been given plenty of development time in order to create the right amount of polish to what would otherwise be an underwhelming aesthetic.
A detective section, which tasks players to piece together clues from a crime scene in order to progress the game, is mechanically identical from that featured at the end of episode one. Its effect is somewhat neutered by its direct imitation of the prior episode's sequence, but its position at the mid-point of this episode also feels off. Marking the penultimate stage of episode one, that section marked an excellent way to piece together what would become the impetus for epsiode 2. Here, in the middle of an episode largely featured around flashbacks, the sequence works less well. There is still pleasure to be derived from gathering investigating objects and gathering clues, but it feels less like it is building towards something truly significant. That's not to say that the section is there for the hell of it, it was necessitated by the story in order for Ness to continue, but it felt like a questionable time to have it all the same.
In terms of writing quality, Ness is given a lot of love this episode, and that's fantastic. So often in narrative-adventure games is the protagonist more a husk for player choices than a character in their own right. Here, the writers have deftly married a deep character with player interaction. For the most part the writing of other characters is also strong, but there are infrequent occasions where certain lines feel rather forced. Still, they are not enough to significantly blot the overall quality what has been written. The voice acting continues to be a happy continuation from the previous episode, with good performances throughout.
Ultimately, episode 2 continues the surprisingly good work put in place from A Crowd of Monster's some six months prior. The story is continues to chart a duel path of plot based intrigue, with the supernatural forces hinted at in the first episode slowly coming to the foreground here, and good character based development. The aesthetic and voice acting continues to be a strong point, and there is a respect for player decisions within the episode that is great to witness play out. Sadly, with such a long wait between the first episode and the second, it is really difficult to recommend that anyone goes out and buys the season pass immediately. With the ground work done on console releases, we should see a faster release for episode 3, but these games work best with at least a monthly episodic release cycle. That way events are fresh enough that not too much forgotten. On the other hand, should regular updates begin to emerge, then this is certainly a game worth a go for anyone fond of story driven games and gangsters. There isn't a great deal of choice when it comes to film noir inspired games, but videogames are all the better for having A Crowd of Monsters working on Blues and Bullets, even if it's taking a while.