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Peaky Blinders: Mastermind Review

Peaky Blinders: Mastermind

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Release: / 2020/August 20
Publisher: FuturLab
Developer: Curve Digital
Genre: XBox One Reviews
PEGI: 16+
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6.5 - Gameplay
           
 
6.5 - Video
           
 
7 - Audio
          
 

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Who knew that a TV series following gangsters with Brummy accents could have such selling power? Birmingham has become the unlikely setting of Peaky Blinders, one of TV’s most popular British shows, giving our second city a focus outside the meat market and that funny shaped shopping centre. It only makes sense that a game was going to follow, and Mastermind has come along to fill that gap. What you end up with is a title that suits its source material, but which ends up held back by it.

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It must be an almost impossible task to create any media based on a successful show. You want to be able to capture the essence of what makes it great without the ability to have any major impact on events. That’s especially true for a prequel like Peaky Blinders: Mastermind. You can’t change anything, but you also can’t say anything that interferes with five seasons of lore. All you can do is get to the point where the first series starts, which is usually before everything goes to hell.

That’s where Mastermind starts to fall down. The game suits Peaky Blinders well, but nearly all of its issues come from being linked to the show.

Living with the Peaky Blinders

Gameplay, like most of Futurlab’s output, is deceptively simple. You play as various members of the Peaky Blinders as you make your way across a strategy-style level, using their skills to progress. Here’s the gimmick: you can turn back time. Tommy convinces someone to help him open a locked door. You then turn back time and switch to Arthur. Tommy follows what you did, and you can now move Arthur through the unlocked door.

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Seeing timelines come together is ridiculously satisfying. I can’t stress that enough. It is so nice to finally work out where you’re all heading and having a plan come together. It means those great strategy game moments when you win a skirmish or luck out on a move come constantly. It’s like poetry.

This is mixed with a degree of stealth, although it’s nothing too difficult. You have to avoid the vision cones, usually by distracting the enemy. Reversing time means you avoid any errors, so there’s little to no pressure from this element of the game.

Each Blinder has their own skill, except for John and Arthur who share the ability to punch people. This is where it started to feel a bit gamey. Tommy can’t punch people. Polly and Ada use their womenly wiles to talk to people or bribe police officers. Tommy can’t bribe police officers. Each character has their own role to play, and there’s no way around it, regardless of if it makes sense.

Each of the game’s ten levels has you play a few of the gang until nearly the end, where you get access to everybody. It means the first seven levels feel like tutorials. The last three are excellent, but they’re over far too quickly.

By Order of the… Who?

It’s a great concept for a game and it works really well. If this was an original title, with original story and original characters, it probably would have sold a tenth as many copies, but it would have been a better game.

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Here’s the rub: the story stuffed into Mastermind isn’t exciting. The police are playing up, there are some rival gangs trying to take advantage and you and your fellow Peakers (Peakies?) must sort it all out. There’s nothing at stake, because you know how the first series of Peaky Blinders begins. There’s no character development. Some of the dialogue is atrocious, but that’s an issue of this effectively being official fanfiction.

The gameplay suits the setting well. That’s not the problem. The issue is that the game is limited by the boundaries of the series. It’s limited by the story not actually doing anything. That, in turn, means that it’s over in ten levels, seven of which are a drip-drop of playable cameos from familiar faces.

Peaky Blinders deserves better. If that had been that we could have just written it off as another poor tie-in, but annoyingly the brilliant game design deserves better as well. There’s just a slight disconnect between the two that feels like a chasm when viewed as a whole. You want more challenging gameplay, with a wider variety of interactions. You also want something to happen that actually impacts on the world. Unfortunately, with the game as it is, those two issues race head-on into one another. What’s left feels like a compromise.

There are collectibles to find, time trials to beat and a higher difficulty to complete if the need grabs you, but even these welcome additions do little to extend and broaden the experience.

Visiting Birmingham

I really like the visual design of Mastermind. It’s stylised, but it works really well. That’s especially for in-game, where the isometric viewpoint can conjure up some wonderful lighting.

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If I were to nitpick, it’s that there isn’t a load of variety in the way the main characters look. If this was the first experience you had of Peaky Blinders, you’d be forgiven for thinking each character had less than a handful of expressions. Mixed with the writing, you’re left with a cast that has the emotional range of Birmingham’s now world-famous canal.

But that’s a minor issue that will only bother you if you expect far more than is fair from a title in this price range.

The sound design is pretty good. There isn’t any voice acting but I’m not sure you miss out on much by not including it. With the issues outlined above, having the official voices involved might add more confusion to the pot.

Overall, Mastermind is well presented. The only thing missing to complete the Birmingham experience is the sound of those loud religious stalls outside Primark.

Peaky Blinders: Mastermind Review – Conclusion

It has to be acknowledged that this isn’t the Peaky Blinders game I’m sure many people wanted. The third-person action game that lets you explore the Blinders’ territory, interact with fully voiced 4k characters with the fidelity of something out of Pixar probably isn’t going to exist and rightly so. Canon tie-ins to The Matrix and 24 prove that the gimmick dies off much faster than the series it is linked to. Non-canon offerings are usually much worse.

What I’m saying is this is probably the right way of adding some interactivity to the world of Peaky Blinders, although some will ignore it because it doesn’t have the flash they expected. That game would be all about violence, and that’s not what Peaky Blinders is about. It’d be like making a dragon breeding simulator based in the world of Game of Thrones.

Mastermind’s gameplay is clever, but it feels held back by the source material. As a result, the source material doesn’t even begin to shine. What’s left is a kind of middle-ground, a game that could have been something really special if either side had managed to get out of the gridlock.

I enjoyed my time in Birmingham, which is something I can usually only say about half the time. Fans will be left wanting more – more story, more game. Everybody else should wait for a price drop.

 

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blank Mat Growcott has been a long-time member of the gaming press. He's written two books and a web series, and doesn't have nearly enough time to play the games he writes about.

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