I’ve not seen the BBC/Netflix TV show. I’ve been told it’s great and I should watch it, but I just haven’t gotten round to it. So it was with a bit of mystery that I delved into this prequel of sorts to the first of the TV series. Set just after the Great War, it puts you in control of the entire crew as they get embroiled in a plot designed to put them out of business in their home town of Birmingham. Murder, deceit, manipulation and violence abound with you at the helm controlling every move of the Shelby clan. Given it’s a licensed tie-in featuring the likenesses of the key players, will being familiar with the world of the Peaky Blinders mean you get the most out of the Mastermind game, or is it easy for everyone to enjoy?
With the brothers Shelby recently back from the trenches, they’re looking at keeping the family business running amongst a city of corrupt cops and eager rivals. Gang warfare is on the verge of breaking out, and Tommy and his kin are squarely at the centre of it, though they don’t really know why. Cue a story that’s part investigation, part retribution, and part community engagement. Peaky Blinders: Mastermind aims to recreate the machinations of the series’ lead character and make you feel like you’re the one in control. However, despite the insinuation that you’re Tommy Shelby directing the manoeuvrings behind the scenes, you’ll actually control all the main players in this story of murder, revenge and justice. The twist is that it’s all about timing and co-ordination, with everyone needing to do specific things at the same time to pull off a successful mission.
Central to the puzzle element of Peaky Blinders: Mastermind is time management. Each of the ten missions has varying numbers of the gang that you can control, and each can be moved around and perform actions individually. The key point is that you’ll need two, three, four or five characters to perform these actions together in order to make progress, so it becomes a matter of skipping between the team, moving them into position, then rewinding time to take control of another and make get them to the right place or interact with objects and people. This record and playback mechanic, almost like a glorified macro, has you jumping around the visible timeline and working out where/when/how/what for each of the players, then letting the time run to execute the action. Get it right and it’s highly satisfying, get it wrong and it means rewinding to improve. There is no fail state as such, just the clock that’s always counting down. Run out of time and you’ll need to go back through trimming any excess fat in the movement and action parts to shave seconds off.
Each of the characters are unique and have different skills – Tommy can convince the locals to help him out, Arthur and John and brawl, Polly and Ada distract police and rival gang members, and Finn can crawl through small spaces. They all need to work together to open doors, pull levers, burn down barricades and take out any resistance with in the levels time limit. The clock counts down from the moment you take control, though pausing and rewinding affects it as you’d expect. Early in the game it’s forgiving, but halfway through it starts to get very tight and there’s no room for error. You find yourself looking for the most economical routes through the backstreet warrens and warehouses that make up much of the scenery, and re-recording moves to cut out unnecessary paces. Skipping time is either done by moving the seconds forwards and backwards, or tapping a shoulder button to jump to the next or last action. That latter option is good for quick access, but bear in mind that moving a character half an inch will overwrite all previous actions so it’s very easy to “lose” progress and have to start again. The game kindly does that for you occasionally too.
Each of the levels in Peaky Blinders: Mastermind are bookended by hand painted style cutscenes which are static images with text. The actors from the series have their likenesses used, but there are no voices, so if you’re looking for something deeper from the production company it’s not here. It’s not an overly long game either, with it being entirely possible to complete in a couple of hours. You probably won’t though as there are collectables to look for, and as the complexity grows in the end stages there’s a surprising amount of time jumping needed to get everything in sync. It’s not a difficult concept to get into, though there’s an awful lot of winding backwards and forwards and remembering where everyone is. Arguably this is where the game is at it’s best and lives up to the title. It’s a shame that it’s only in the last couple of missions that you really get to experience it.
So it’s short, missing the talents of the cast, and prone to making you do things over and over again. That doesn’t mean it’s bad though. The isometric presentation and detailing in the environments is great, and the co-ordination of the crew is something I’ve not come across as a mechanic before. There’s a feeling of John Wick Hex in the visible timeline, but that’s where that similarity ends. Equally, glancing at it might evoke memories of Narcos: Rise of the Cartels – and it’s different to that as well. Peaky Blinders: Mastermind seems to sit in its own genre and nicely it doesn’t need anyone to have seen the show to enjoy what it has to offer. If you’re looking for a spot of post-war gangster story-telling that’s not solely reliant on simply beating enemies down, this should fit the bill.
A PS4 review copy of Peaky Blinders: Mastermind was provided by Curve Digital’s PR team, and the game is available from 20th August 2020 on PC, Xbox One, PS4 and Switch for around £20 depending on platform.