Into the Abyss
HIGH Learning where the 'werewolf' came from.
LOW The game doubles down on its weakest element.
WTF The 9/11 'joke'.
While it's perfectly understandable for the second chapter of an episodic series to be significantly darker than the first, Blues and Bullets Chapter 2: Shaking the Hive seems to be attempting some kind of record for bleak hopelessness.
While the first installment was all about setting up a premise and then tantalizing with an incredible cliffhanger, this one is all about beating a message into the player's head—corruption is everywhere, morality is incompatible with human nature, and even slight victories are meaningless in the face of the overwhelming forces of darkness. There are no winners anywhere in the story, just killers desperate to stay one step ahead of the people who want them dead.
Again broken into five chapters, Shaking the Hive demonstrates an admirable interest in fleshing out its characters rather than just barreling through the plot.
Two of the game's sections are set aside for extensive flashbacks giving us a much-needed window into Elliot Ness's background and character. They're full of moral quandaries every bit as captivating as the gunfights, and do a lot to reinforce the theme of old sins never fading in severity—everyone in Blues and Bullets is suffering because of something that happened a long time time ago, and I won't be a bit surprised if the villains wind up being just as broken and trapped by the past as the heroes.
The gameplay is still solid, for the most part, and the investigative sequences are a genre high—this time Ness is tasked with figuring out just what was going on in the hold of an impossibly large submersible. The answer is even more shocking and unpleasant than the dismembered corpse Ness was examining in the last episode.
The conversations are all well-written and the player choices all feel relevant, because they're more about deciding what kind of a person Ness is, rather than having an significant impact on the story.
There are two points where the player is offered the chance to kill someone—both times the victim will wind up dead because the developers aren't trying to produce a butterfly effect with dozens of possible endings, but instead, they're examining how the player reacts to extreme situations, and seeing what those decisions transform the characters into. When I started Shaking the Hive I couldn't have imagined myself looking forward to the death of an abducted child, but the game got me there, even though craving revenge is heavily implied to be the first step towards becoming the type of hulking, voiceless supervillain who haunts the main characters through their investigation.
The game's only weak point are the shooting galleries that pop up twice during its running time. The bloody gunfight that opened the first chapter was important for establishing the stakes of Ness and Capone's relationship, but the actual mechanics of it were clunky, and it dragged on way too long. The developers put two similarly overlong gunfights in this chapter, and I was disappointed by their inclusion. The game's strengths are its writing, characters, and investigation engine—the action just isn't good enough, and it actually damages the carefully-crafted noir tone to see Ness (as a washed-up former drunk) and Capone (a sixty-something syphilitic mob boss) gunning down a hundred heavily-armed goons.
Despite the questionable combat, Blues and Bullets remains a must-play episodic adventure with an incredibly intriguing story told with utter confidence by consummate professionals. Sure, the shooting isn't fantastic (and again there's a single joke that pulls me right out of the narrative!) but overall, this is as good as interactive movies get, and I only hope the wait for chapter three is considerably shorter than the gap between parts one and two.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Xbox One. Approximately 3 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes, and the game was completed.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains intense violence, blood and gore, strong language, alcohol and tobacco use. You should keep kids as far from this as possible. If anything, this is worse than the last part. Brutal onscreen murders, the aftermath of a massacre, the mechanics of a slavery ring being depicted onscreen. Yeah, so strictly for the adults, once again.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: You'll be fine with this one—no audio cues, and all dialogue is subtitled!
Remappable Controls: The controls are not remappable.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colourblind modes. The game is in black and white, with occasional splashes of red in key locations.