Publisher: Curve Digital
Available on: PS4, Xbox One, Steam, Switch
Played on PS4
Copy provided by PR
I have never watched Peaky Blinders.
Just putting that out there, to make it clear that my opinion on this game comes from a place of ignorance. But as it’s a game based on the biggest Birmingham-based show on TV and we are the premier Birmingham-based geek site, I am legally obligated to cover it.
If you’re unaware of Peaky Blinders, then join the club! However, I am informed that it’s a BBC show set in post-WWI Birmingham, focusing on gang wars in Small Heath. It’s got Cillian Murphy in it. I know him. He was in 28 Days Later.
The game, Peaky Blinders: Mastermind, is set just before the show, according to the press release I received. The boys from the Peaky Blinders, which I gather is the gang’s name, have returned from the Great War and are re-establishing themselves in the mean streets of Brum. I will admit I initially found this kind of hard to follow, as the game makes no attempt to establish who anyone is. There’s an expectation you’ve already seen the show, presumably, and you’re not just a games writer who got sent a review code out of the blue.
But how on earth did they turn Peaky Blinders into a game? Well, for a start, this is a puzzle game. Might seem like an odd choice for a game about gangsters, but it weirdly works once you realise it’s a puzzle game built around strategy and stealth. It’s a game where you have to manage your characters, put them into the right positions at the right time and stay out of the view of the police. You manage the gang and keep them organised and working to their strengths to achieve a common goal. It’s about using your wits to take control of the streets, so it makes sense.
And there are six characters to control, with all your favourites (?) like Ada, Finn, Arthur, John, Polly and Tommy. Each of them has their own unique abilities, which presumably make sense in the context of the show, but I can’t confirm this. Ada is a gossip who’s good at distracting police officers, Finn is a literal child and can squeeze through small spaces. Polly can bribe officers and pick locks. Arthur and John are the brawlers who can beat up rival gang members, and can kick in doors and start fires respectively. And Tommy is the persuasive one, who can convince others to do his bidding.
With six characters, you’d think it would get quite chaotic, but this is where the game’s unique puzzle mechanic comes into play. Each level runs on a timeline, and character actions get locked to it as it progresses. You can then switch to a different character, rewind time and control the new character while the previous character automatically runs through the actions you set for them.
It takes a little while to get used to, but once you get the hang of it, it’s a really interesting system to work with. To give an example of how this works, one level features a section where you have control of Arthur, Tommy and Polly. There’s a route blocked by two police officers and a rival gang member. Neither Tommy nor Arthur can enter this route because they can’t be seen by police, Polly can’t bribe the nearest officer because the other officer will see, and she can’t reach that officer because the gang member is in the way, right in between the two officers.
The solution? As Tommy, you talk to a guy behind a nearby fence, and persuade him to open a gate. This blocks the view of the furthest officer, allowing you to rewind and switch to Polly to bribe the closest one. This in turn opens a route for Arthur to come in and take out the gang member, so again, you rewind, switch to him and do just that.
I’ll be honest, this was mildly addictive. The puzzles were often well designed, and character abilities are utilised in some really cool ways. There are some fiendish challenges in the game, and it’s always satisfying to find the solutions. This is especially true when you get to the later levels where you’re controlling every character at once and it can get quite chaotic.
It’s a real shame that it doesn’t seem to get going though. The first few levels are very tutorial driven, so it’s not until the second half of the game that they get truly interesting, but right as it feels like you’re getting started, the game ends. It makes the game feel a little rushed, and it’s disappointing. Especially as I found it engaging even as a non-fan of the show.
It’s perhaps easy to say that this is aimed at the show’s regular viewers. That said, I don’t know how appealing the game would be to those fans. The story is bland and underdeveloped, and not at all what I’d expect from a game associated with a BAFTA award-winning TV show. Characters don’t have much personality, and most of the dialogue is functional to state your objectives. I imagine the show is a little more interesting than characters saying “this bad thing is happening, here’s a plan we need to execute, let’s go” but that’s all you really get from the game’s story.
The most interesting part of the story appears to be a level set in a dream sequence. It seems to indicate war-based trauma on Tommy’s part, but it’s massively under-developed. It also intersects with Tommy gaining real world information from a police funeral in a way that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Is it real life? Is it a dream? We may never know, since it appears to be both at once.
The lack of voice acting hinders this feeling like an essential extra episode too. Thankfully means we avoid bad Brummie accents but also feels jarring when the actors’ faces have been lovingly recreated, but their voices have not.
I’m also not sure how much the Venn diagram of Peaky Blinders fans and strategy puzzle gamers crosses over either. It seems an odd combination, and while I enjoyed the game, I don’t know how likely it would have been that I’d play this if it hadn’t been sent to me. But similarly I’m not sure how much of the show’s typical demographic plays video games such as these. I’m not sure who this is for, to be honest.
It also feels cheap, like a knockoff hidden away on Google Play somewhere, and not a fully licensed game for one of the UK’s most popular shows of the moment. The lack of voice acting, and the bare bones nature of the menus and UI, make this feel a little hollow.
In short, Peaky Blinders: Mastermind is a weird hybrid of excellent gameplay that never truly gets going, mixed with poor presentation that doesn’t befit a show as popular as Peaky Blinders. A strange release that probably has an audience, but I’m not sure who it is.