By order of the Peaky Blinders.
You are hereby ordered to read this review through to the end without skipping anything, or we’ll claim your eyes. Now that’s off my chest, we can continue with the niceties. Here we have an officially licensed game from the hit BBC series where you control your army of Peaky Blinders, in the imaginatively titled Peaky Blinders: Mastermind, dominating the streets of Birmingham with minimal dodgy accents.
It’s a strategy game through and through, which resembles turn-based tactics, only it’s real-time. Ish. Here’s the USP: Tommy Shelby is a manipulator of time. If you’ve seen the series, you’ll know he has an uncanny ability to predict the results of a mind game with his rivals, always two steps ahead. To reflect that in the game, you can fast-forward and rewind time using triggers. You can’t die in the game as such. Instead, you have to control time by jumping back and forth, lining up all the pawns for a checkmate. In this case, the pawns being the Shelby family, mostly.
You take direct control of Tommy and crew using the left analogue stick to move freely.
Most of the time there are seemingly simple puzzles of locating a key or getting access to a pathway or simply evading the enemies line of sight in a cone-like view similar to Metal Gear Solid. If you are seen, it’s not game over as such as you rewind time to a point where it’s safe, then replay. If you really fudged it, you can press the bumpers to shift in time to events (you can only go forward in time if you’ve already recorded a ‘save state’).
The HUD is interesting. For the bulk of the screen, you have the play area which is in an isometric format like Commandos (that’s one for you, game historians) or something more modern, 1971 Project Helios. The streets of Birmingham are a little more colourful and occupied compared to the greys that fill the screens in the series. It’s all very sharp. But what’s interesting is the timeline. It’s represented much like working in film editing software such as Final Cut or Premiere.
There will be a timeline for your main characters and occasional allies, and on the screen will show points of action, such as opening a door or when collecting an item. This is when it gets tricky, and initially, rage-inducing. I wrote this next paragraph after the first level and was in a bit of a rage. I decided to keep this in just to put into perspective how initially frustrating the controls are until you learn them.
Through the art of persuasion, you speak to NPCs and convince them to help the cause of the Peaky Blinders. You can switch to the character by flicking up on the d-pad. I don’t think I’ve ever got so angry at a game in recent years as I did with the ally system in the game. You only get a few seconds to control the character, and as soon as you shift back to Tommy, you can no longer control them.
For a good 10 minutes, I was stuck on the very first level when I needed an ally to open a door by pulling the lever. Pull the lever, the door opens. Switch to Tommy, the ally lets go, and the door closes. Work out the logic in this. For me to get through that room, I need to play as Tommy, but I can’t reach the lever; as a solo effort, I can only control one player at a time. Even when I did get through the door, the timer would be up and the door would close, the ally subsequently ignoring you. I threw a proper tantrum (and the controller) thankfully on my bed so no damage, but it was pretty uncharacteristic of me to get that way. It was that infuriating that the game is borderline broke on this mechanic.
A pretty candid moment of impatience there.
What I didn’t realise is that you can get characters to perform a task, then almost ‘ghost’ your way through to a solution. To use the above example, you would get the ally to open the door but get them to stand holding the lever until time runs out. Then, go back in time just to when the ally was opening the door, switch to Tommy and presto: walkthrough. Characters will independently carry out a task from a previous playthrough, but you can manipulate time, placing influence once more on Tommy’s influence. I’ve completely botched that explanation, but if you have the chance to play the game, you’ll hopefully understand what I mean. The concept of time and crime is such a complex subject, but as I progressed with Peaky Blinders: Mastermind, the more I appreciated that the developers actually ‘got it’.
There aren’t that many levels in the game, but they’re pretty big, and on occasion, you can find yourself getting about 2/3 of the way through a level only to rewind almost to the start. That sounds frustrating, and if you haven’t been skimming, you’ll note that I already had my hissy fit. That in perspective, I can confirm that it isn’t frustrating as by the time you get to around level 3 or 4, it becomes a proper strategy game where you’re fully accountable and can’t blame the mechanics. They do work very well, but that doesn’t mean that the process is effortless as, like a game of chess, you have to be so many moves ahead to get one up on your enemy (and your wits).
In Peaky Blinders: Mastermind, there’s two initial modes on offer; the standard and hard mode. With the latter, there aren’t any waypoints, so you kind of need to do it all in one go. As hard as I need to appear among the ranks, I opted for the standard difficulty – it’s not like I took an easy route or anything as the game is hard, but it’s engaging. Between the levels are cutscenes with a simple visual novel approach. The artwork is very good and captures the characters very well, and the writing is excellent. I’d be lying if I wasn’t doing my best Tommy and Arthur impressions while reading out the dialogue. The actual timeline isn’t up-to-date with the current series, so without giving any direct spoilers, some of the characters no longer in the series are quite prominent in the game.
In all honesty, I hated Peaky Blinders: Mastermind at first. I was really looking forward to it at first, but the time manipulation was tricky to comprehend at first. However, stick with it, and it pays off. The game evokes a lot of oohs and ahhs as you work out how to solve a situation, and in that respect, it’s engaging, as is the story but be aware that you will need to invest a bit of time with the game. No pun intended.
Review code provided
Platform: PC, PlayStation, Xbox, Nintendo
Release Date: 20/08/2020
No. of Players: 1
Category: Adventure, Strategy, Puzzle
Publisher: Curve Digital
Download link: Microsoft Store