(Warning: slight Blues and Bullets spoilers ahead.)
First things first: noir is a rarity in games (we’ve got schlocky stuff like Max Payne, uneven experiences like LA Noire, ugly failures like Murdered: Soul Suspect, and a handful of indies), and Blues and Bullets tries to be noir as fuck. I mean, it’s about a retired detective with a whiskey problem chasing the ghosts of his sordid past and falling into (figurative) bed with his old arch-nemesis, Al Motherfucking Capone, while letting his new life and relationships wither. Oh, and the detective? A real dude. His name’s Eliot Ness, and he really did fight Chicago crime in the 1930s and aid in putting away Al Capone. He even co-wrote a book about it. Way to do your research, small, largely unheralded Spanish team who made this game!
Oh, and in case you missed it: Blues and Bullets also looks like it tripped and fell into a kiddie pool full of Sin City. Joke time: what’s black, white, and red all over? The dull ache of existential oblivion. Hahaha that one always kills at parties. KIND OF LIKE MURDER.
So Blues and Bullets is pretty heavy handed with the noir stuff—sometimes to the point of cliche—and it’s based on real people. You might worry that those things would ground it a bit too much, but that’s aaaaaabsolutely not the case. I mean, watch Fahey play the game’s opening five minutes:
Children trapped in an occult torture dungeon, attempting to escape from a weird-ass antler man. Totally par for the course in crime-noir. Totally.
Without spoiling too much, I’ll say that it only gets stranger (and more gruesome) from there. Here’s a clue from one of the crime scenes Ness has to investigate:
This is partially because Eliot Ness and Geralt share the same voice actor (who uses the same disinterested growl and all the same inflections), but also they are practically the same dude. Ness is depicted as gruff but lovable, intense but corny. At the beginning of the game, he’s running a diner, trying to disguise the fact that—ever since he helped put away Capone—his life has hit rock after rock on its way to the bottom of the whiskey glass. Cool exterior, stormy interior. He serves an asshole policeman with the kind of emotionless calm that could only come from Witcher mutations and a childhood spent at Kaer Morhen.
Seconds later, another customer walks in, but something is... off about him. Turns out, this young man is carrying a knife, and he’s got nasty intentions. Ness saunters up, calm as can be, tells the guy he could plant his ass on the ground in seconds, and then—if you play the way I did—gives him $100 and tells him to go clean up his life. Much like Geralt, he’s part stoic badass, part wannabe-dad. He’s a dadass.
He also makes really good pie.
Admittedly, there’s not much to it—you just walk around and look at stuff—but putting all the pieces together is pretty satisfying. I mean that literally, too. As you observe crime scenes, you assemble a collection of pieces. Then you put them together to figure out what the fuck sort of bizarre bullshit is going on, like so:
Blues and Bullets takes place in the mid-1900s. While America has been and continues to be a hotbed of racial tensions, some very particular ones dominated the era. Blues and Bullets doesn’t shy away from them. The guy Al Capone sends to look after you, Milton, is a large black man, and people notice. Ness, for his part, is generally not an asshat, but one character calls Milton an “uppity negro,” and you can either go along with it or use that fact to threaten the jerk in question.
Oh, and (MAJOR SPOILER) there’s a big hint that Milton might be gay (END BIG SPOILER). Milton is more than an amalgam of those characteristics, though. He’s laid back, but in an icy, distant sort of way. His jokes land gently, with a chuckle and a smile, but they burn for hours. While he banters with Ness in a way that resembles your standard buddy cop knee-slappery, there’s a spasming unease beneath the surface. Their relationship is surprisingly tense despite painting both of them as pretty likable dudes, people you’d be down to grab a beer with. I like it a lot.
There’s also this one-liner directed at Ness by a random dock worker, which—while lighthearted—reveals simmering resentment.
It will be interesting to see where Blues and Bullets goes with its handling of these issues, but for now it’s acknowledging them, staring them in the eyes instead of flinching away. That’s something.
LOOK AT THESE HUGE FUCKING LETTERS. THEY’RE SO BIG YOU CAN TAKE COVER BEHIND THEM (AND YOU DO). TAKE THAT, SPLINTER CELL AND WHOEVER ELSE.
Blues and Bullets’ first episode surprised the hell out of me with its lowish-budget brand of hardboiled charm, but it’s got some issues. Briefly: It’s janky and slow moving, and a fixed camera sometimes makes it uncomfortable to play. Also, its QTE action scenes (of which there are thankfully few) are laughably low impact, and on-rails shooting segments feel awful and don’t gel with the storyline at all.
Lastly, Blues and Bullets is an episodic series, and promising starts do not always lead to strong middles or satisfying conclusions. Speaking of, episode one doesn’t conclude in fittingly grand fashion so much as it kinda just... stops. That’s a bummer.
Still, I think the series is worth checking out—or at least keeping an eye on. It’s probably not the next noir classic, but it’s a tasty caper with plenty of personality. Basically, it’s greasy spoon diner pie, and I want seconds.
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