Santa Esperanza is not your typical city. Maybe it once was, but now? Children are disappearing and murders continue to occur in an increasingly macabre fashion. You play Eliot Ness, a retired superintendent who spends his days running his diner, Blues and Bullets. This attempt to flee from his involvement in the city’s ever-increasing corruption is all for naught, and Ness’ own volition is to blame.
Blues and Bullets is an episodic detective game with the atmosphere reminiscent of film noir. It’s hard to not think of Pleasantville when playing; the only color seen in the game is red – the rest of the game is entirely in black and white. This helps direct the player to both their destination and interactive clues: follow the red and you’ll get to where you need to go.
If the red doesn’t tip you off to head towards your objective, the camera angles will. Blues and Bullets is incredibly cinematic at its core and utilizes camera placement and transitions to evoke emotion. The narrative nature of this beast exponentially increases because of this, causing both movement and interactions with people to feel extremely fluid. If you’re an exploarative player, you may find disappointment in a large amount of invisible walls lining most of the camera angles. Blues and Bullets is story driven, however, so this helps keep the player on track to maintain a very intentional level of pacing set by developer A Crowd Of Monsters.
The first playable section you’ll encounter is borderline creepy. It combines a sense of surrealism with the imagery of caged, crying children being guarded by a group donning robes and the skull of a horned animal. The game gives puts you at the helm of a little girl who receives a key from her neighborly adolescent inmate and urges you to escape. This tutorial section teaches the player the basics of the game, introducing the butterly effect-esque system of choices, movement controls, and the inspection of clues and objects of notable interest. Thanks solely to this tutorial, the diner’s peaceful introduction set in the following scene immediately diminishes into an unearthly sense of dread.
Episode 1 follows Ness as he works at his diner, Blues and Bullets, and encounters an unexpected acquaintance with an adamantly calm persona. Ness shuts down his diner for the day and complies with his request to accompany the man to the car. A large variety of choices present themselves throughout a majority of the cutscenes, allowing you the freedom of choosing which traits Ness is likely to have. Important character-defining decisions are few and far between – Episode 1 contains 5 important decisions that result in different character traits.
Beating the first episode will present you with a “My Choices” screen that informs the player about big decisions, such as each choice’s popularity with other players and whether or not your choice made you, say, more paternalistic than careless. These characteristics didn’t seem to affect the gameplay itself; however, your traits will absolutely affect how others respond to you. If you choose to drink whisky instead of juice, believe me, someone will mention it and treat you differently for it.
Ness’s diner features about as much exploring as you’ll get out of this episode, giving the player opportunities to find a good number of hidden clues and interactive objects to provide more backstory for the characters involved. This introduction also starts a humorous motif that persists throughout the entire episode: Ness cannot seem to find a working soda machine. These little jovial finds help keep the game from getting too serious all the time, preserving intensity for intense moments and thus maintains a wonderfully set pacing.
By the end of the scene the controls felt both fluid and familiar; however, it may take some players time to get used to movement. Instead of using W to move forward and A/D to turn, each key moves it’s respective direction according to the camera angle. Awkward transitions between camera shots may be a result, but the game really does feel like a smoothly transitioned movie once movement becomes second nature.
Blues and Bullets‘ story definitely presents itself with a bizarre atmosphere, and everything from the camera angles to the lighting effects are used to maintain a realistic sense of abnormality. The game’s gameplay thankfully follows suit, throwing multiple curve balls to change how the game plays. Certain sections require Ness to whip out his gun, take cover, and take down a group of hostile enemies. These parts can tend to be surreal themselves, removing Ness from the present and ultimately keeping the player on their toes.
Controls here are smooth – taking cover and shooting feels satisfyingly simple, and progress through the segments definitely piques interest in the game’s story. If you’re looking for in-depth action gameplay, however, you won’t find it here – Blues and Bullets yet again proves its prioritization of narrative over all else.
Once players get comfortable with battle sequences, it brings another element to the table: crime scene investigation. Ness winds up at the scene of a murder and has to figure out what happened. The game presents you with an old school investigative drawing board to piece it all together – finding evidence or something of interest can open up new paths on the board, and you have to match the clues you find to the proper area of reasoning. Matching them up correctly triggers some dialogue from Ness explaining his thought process as he connects the dots, and there’s a lot of dots.
The voice-over work here is notably good as Doug Cockle, best known for his work as Geralt in The Witcher series, nails both outer and inner voices as Eliot Ness. The dialogue isn’t a masterpiece by any means, but it certainly is clever enough to stay interesting. Characters clearly have their own identity, and it’s always exciting to hear everyone’s responses to the actions you take.
The soundtrack behind the visuals is equally astonishing, offering a smooth, sultry jazz backdrop to the already vintage art direction. Both the audio and video in Blues and Bullets correlate quite genuinely, and the game really comes together to offer a fleshed out experience for both eyes and ears.
Clocking in at about 5-6 hours worth of material for four or five bucks (depending on how you purchase the episodes), Blues and Bullets: Episode 1 is absolutely worth checking out. Because of its focus on narrative instead of exploration, players will find that completing the episode once is all it takes to attain every achievement.
Mix that with a pretty severe lack of hidden collectibles or free roaming areas and you’ll find playing Blues and Bullets more than once feels very similar to watching a movie for the second or third time. Seeing how events play out by making different decisions can be entertaining; however, the differences in doing so (mostly in dialogue) seem too minimal in the grand scheme of the game to warrant another playthrough.
This is all merely the beginning for Blues and Bullets. If this episode is just the groundwork, there’s no telling what A Crowd Of Monsters and Plan of Attack are planning to build from here. If the game’s accolades are of any indication, Blues and Bullets seems to have plans to build something incredible.
All I know is I’ll be seeing it through.
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Review Statement: The author of this review was provided a code by the publisher for the PC version of this game for the purposes of this review.