By order… No. No, we’re not going to say it.
Guest review by Gary Hutchinson, of The Stacey West Blog
When news of a Peaky Blinders game broke, two trains of thoughts developed in my mind. The first one was hugely positive, conjuring up images of 1920s Birmingham with plenty of combat and a winding plot that could keep you gripped for days. The other was one of impending dread, knowing deep down that no game could do justice to the excellent TV show, capturing the noir elements of its cinematography, the working class dialogue or the descent of Tommy Shelby into post-World War I madness. After all, when have we truly had a great TV show conversion on consoles?
I ended up with this review as a fan of the show and I eagerly anticipated the menu screen loading up, hoping to be greeted to Nick Cave’s ‘Red Right Hand’. Instead, we got a soundalike, a song not officially taken from the show, but one that sets the tone in a similar way. It did give me a sense of foreboding though: would I be disappointed in finally getting to control of Tommy Shelby from my couch?
The game opens with a series static images featuring cartoon-style renditions of all your favourite characters, accompanied by some text conversation that unravelled much like that on Monkey Island from the 16-bit Amiga days. It was not what I was expecting at all. Polished, it ain’t and those early introductions gave me a budget game feel in terms of presentation. The plot, loosely, is that Tommy and Arthur Shelby return from war to find their criminal empire under threat, and your job is to protect it. There is no official canon here, noting that ties the plot into that of the TV shows other than the characters and the occasional swear word. The graphics are fun, and the mood does feel industrial and a little grimy, so the Peaky tie-in can be found. I wasn’t disappointed to get through the first handful of these scenes without hearing ‘By Order of the Peaky Blinders’. It might not be the most dedicated of tie-ins, but the game steers away from the catchphrase generation that comes to define and degrade TV so often.
Entering the main action did leave me feeling more detached from Peaky Blinders than the menus. Instead of the over-the-shoulder camera I had desperately hoped for, the game is presented in a Sims-style angle, looking down on the streets and warehouses of Birmingham from up high. As something of an old-school gamer, I got hints of Cannon Fodder, sprinkles of Syndicate but truly little to tie me to the TV show I love. Tommy Shelby does wear his usual garb, the flowing coat and confident swagger, but the maze of streets did not quite feel like Small Heath circa 1920.
The action is set on static screens, all of which are linked by a series of doors and ladders, leading to another area of the map. It is a dated concept, but one that seems to work well here. You must navigate the map, getting through gates, doors and even windows using an array of different characters, each with their own traits. Tommy can persuade NPC’s to do his bidding for a short time, enabling him to get inaccessible keys, or open previously blocked off doors. Ada can distract guards, allowing Tommy to sneak past, whilst Finn can get through walls and windows. Each level is timed, and you are fighting against the clock. I briefly felt like Tommy was dangling me off a building when I saw the target time was five minutes, but fear not: time is not linear in Peaky Blinders: Mastermind, As Tommy you have the ability to rewind time and fast forward it to your advantage.
One early mission had me using Ada to distract guards, then rewinding the action and playing as Tommy to navigate around her distraction. It took a bit of getting used to, plotting the courses of a couple of characters at a time and, as the game push on, you find yourself juggling multiple characters. The controls did not feel initially intuitive, but after a couple of levels and resets, the game really began to flow.
Part of me still found elements disappointing, such as playing as Tommy not allowing me to simply slice open a guard with a razor blade. Instead, getting caught means rewinding and trying that part of the level again. No loading screens, no save points, just a rewind to the point things started to go awry. That immediate replay factor helps the game flow quite nicely: one level took me upwards of 35 minutes in real time, but my official time was eight-and-a-half minutes. It takes some getting used too, multiple players, travelling in time and controlling NPC’s for no more than ten seconds each, but with a bit of practice it does come together.
Graphically, it is not bad to look at, even if it does feel very retro. There will not be any innovation for design awards, but the levels are laid out well and the puzzles are not too straightforward either. What would appear to be a basic game in which you have to get from A to B began to challenge a seasoned gamer like me. As well as the whole level being timed, you have to reach some parts of the map by a certain time, otherwise you must rewind and start again. I found those very frustrating, especially after working out the puzzle, only to miss the door by fifteen seconds and having to go right back to an earlier section to save some time, then repeat what I’d done.
Each map also has a handful of pocket watch collectibles for you to find, although the game does not lend itself to collecting trinkets. As you are trying to get from point A to point B you will doubtless hear a tinkle to tell you that a watch has been found, but not once did I spot it on the map beforehand and make a conscious effort to find it. I felt like this bit had been tacked on afterwards, without necessarily creating extra puzzles to make the watches harder to find. Maybe, because they are tiny and each screen has a couple of rooms on it, I just did not look hard enough.
It may have been around the sixth or seventh map where I realised I’d almost forgotten that I was playing a Peaky Blinders game, and instead found myself engrossed in a smart, retro-style puzzler that presented me with a real challenge. The story just did not grab me, nor its liberal but academic use of bad language and Peaky characters. I was no longer enjoying the game as a fan of the series, but instead throwing myself wholeheartedly into the challenge it presented and the unique puzzles. That is the biggest praise I could offer it, but perhaps its downfall too. Gamers will not buy this title because it is a great puzzler, they will buy it for the same reason I have ended up reviewing it; they are Peaky Blinders fans. It is being marketed as a Peaky Blinders game and whilst there is an attraction here for real die-hard fans, the game would be equally as good if it did not work hard to fit in with the license.
That said, this is not a bad game. The soundtrack is decent, atmospheric and subtle, and the puzzles are clever and challenging. The game mechanics felt a little clumsy at first, but as a gamer who has been playing the same title for the last six months, I would not want to criticise it based on my own slow learning curve. Once I did pick up the controls, I found myself tumbling down a rat hole of rewinding time, trying desperately to remember where I’d left certain characters and how on earth, I’d got things so badly wrong.
Peaky Blinders: Mastermind claims to put the deductive powers of Tommy Shelby in your hands, exploiting his ability to plan complex situations and watch them unfold to his own end time and again. To a degree, it does that, but fans of the series might be left disappointed with the rather tenuous link to the TV show, which would be a shame considering that when the tie-in is ignored, there is a smart and complex puzzler laying below the surface.