It's a wonderful time to be a fan of the adventure game genre. Whether you prefer traditional point-and-click puzzle solving (King's Quest, Broken Age) or more recently, the flurry of choice-based narrative stories (Life is Strange and anything from Telltale), it's becoming increasingly clear that this once-ignored genre is most definitely going through a resurgence. So, enter Blues and Bullets, the latest adventure game series from indie developer A Crowd of Monsters that isn't afraid to wear its inspirations on its sleeve. If Episode 1 is any indication of the entire package, then Blues and Bullets is set to take us on one heckuva stylish ride.
It's clear from the offset that the creators of Blues and Bullets are huge fans of the 2005 film Sin City. The world of Santa Esperanza is only different in name, because this is identical to Frank Miller's work down to the dreary night clubs and hard-boiled detectives. There's even splashes of red peppered throughout the game, not only for visual effect, but also as a way of providing hints to the player or highlighting certain objects of interest.
Blues and Bullets takes place in an alternate 1955 and places a nice spin on the true facts surrounding Al Capone and the man who took him down, Eliot Ness. We were definitely caught off guard with some of the changes to the story. In this retelling, for instance, Capone isn't taken in by mere tax evasion but rather by an intoxicated Ness who goes on a one-man shooting binge, which — without sounding like a broken record — would not feel out of place in Sin City. The story picks up twenty years later when Capone (now on parole) asks Ness for help to track down his missing daughter. Supposedly, a twisted and mysterious cult has been going about abducting and torturing children. Ness is now thrust back into the world he thought he had left behind. Without going into the finer story beats, we actually really like this "what if" scenario. Episode 1 does a good job on establishing the basic relationship between Ness and Capone (with hammy dialogue to boot) and its the events that transpire that give this episode its legs.
There's nothing necessarily new here that hasn't been done before, but as far as first episodes go, Blues and Bullets does a surprisingly effective job on keeping players invested. Most of that is done by its striking gloomy art style, soundtrack, and compelling story. As far as adventuring is concerned, Blues and Bullets definitely feels a bit more involved compared to something like The Wolf Among Us. One of the best moments in Episode 1 revolves around piecing together exactly what happened at a gruesome crime scene. As you explore and pick up bits of evidence and clues, these will be added to a separate menu that will allow you to make connections to deduce what happened. A parked vehicle in the victim's garage as well as a kitchen table set for two confirms there was another person in the house. Or a spoon found on the ground with a slimy liquid is the tool that was used to remove the victim's eyeballs (gross, right?) It's a simple system that doesn't complicate the player or feel out of place. Whereas other games would have you find the necessary items and then call it a day, Blues and Bullets has you actually complete the puzzle. Our only wish is that Ness didn't have to move so slow. There's a run button — although it's more like a jog, really — that helps speed things up, but it doesn't make that much of a difference.
Gameplay isn't just investigating crime scenes though. Expect to encounter a fair share of QTE fights in this debut episode. These action sequences are quite forgiving, as the action tends to slow down giving the player enough time to make the proper input. Possibly most surprising though, are the two firefights at the beginning and ending of the episode. These reminded us of arcade light-gun shooters like Virtua Cop and House of the Dead. The action is all on-rails, so the only requirement is to line up your shots (thanks to a huge crosshair) and pull the trigger. Ness will automatically take cover so you don't need to worry about getting hit when moving the cursor. It's important for adventure games to break up the pace now and again, and Episode 1 balances this pretty well. It'll be interesting to see if the remaining episodes will simply rehash what's already here, or if they will introduce new set pieces to toy with.
Blues and Bullets is one of those games that causes people to stop in their tracks and stare due to its striking graphical style. The Sin City (there's than darn movie again!) inspiration is in full effect here and it most certainly helps to build an atmosphere in Santa Esperanza. It's intentionally gloomy and dark, and the splashes of red are genuinely eye-catching. There's also a dream sequence that pulls out all the stops in the final act that has you shooting and taking cover behind giant words that spell out just how corrupt the world of Santa Esperanza has become. Sure, it's a little on the nose but as we mentioned above already, it's another example of Blues and Bullets adding a bit of variety to its already stylish mix.
The excellent voice acting should be mentioned too, although not every character you meet is up to the standards of Ness and Capone. And when we say the word excellent, understand that it's excellent for the world that has been built by the developer. Expect a lot of over-the-top monologues and outbursts from Capone, and brooding, gruff deliveries from Ness. It may be hard to stomach for some, but what do you expect from a game that so heavily borrows from classic crime-noir films?
Our only major complaint is the frequent slowdown that occurs regularly during in-game cinematics. For a game that shines (not literally) in the visual department, it's a shame how often the framerate tends to drop. As we already said, it happened the most when we weren't controlling Ness, but it was apparent enough to put a small damper on the overall presentation.
Blues and Bullets isn't perfect, but Episode 1 definitely left a positive impression on us. The visual style is infectious and atmospheric, and while it takes more than a few cues from Sin City, it adds a surprising amount of immersion to the storytelling. The first episode is also nicely balanced between casual exploring, action scenes, and a lengthy but satisfying crime scene investigation. There certainly seems to be a lot of adventure games around these days, and we're happy to state that Blues and Bullets is yet another one you should keep your eyes on.