The hit BBC drama Peaky Blinders gets its first game tie-in, taking us once again to the mean streets of early 1900’s Birmingham (Burmeen’am) to guide the ambitious Shelby family to success. It’s set conveniently before the show – so it can act as a prequel story without treading on any existing plot threads – and, to its credit, takes a surprisingly fresh approach to the crime genre.
You won’t be strategically dispatching thugs to enforce your reign, or shooting up gypsies with stolen machine guns, oh no – Tommy Shelby goes about his business in a much more fantastical way in Mastermind. He solves all of his problems with the liberal application of… time travel. Sometimes mind control, if he’s feeling fancy.
Alright, so the game doesn’t exactly present these mechanics as such, but it’s basically what they are. Tommy can “persuade” NPCs and directly control them to go and complete actions for him, and then rewind or fast-forward time to exploit the route he’s just set them on for his own gain.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure Cillian Murphy is exceptionally charming, I’m just struggling to remember the episode of Peaky Blinders where his character psychically dominated an enemy goon and then manipulated the laws of time to steal a bottle of champagne. I might have stuck with the series for a bit longer if this was all true to the source material.
Those are your core puzzle-solving tools, and to be entirely fair it does have some potential as a concept. Unfortunately it’s just not really capitalised on, leaving most sequences feeling clunky and repetitive. Levels boil down to an almost formulaic repetition of actions, framed by some simple yet effective storytelling via animation stills. It’s like having a burger with incredibly fancy lettuce and undercooked Tesco value brand meat.
Normally, these tie-in efforts fall into one of two categories. “Surprisingly good”, or “probably just for fans of the series”. Peaky Blinders: Mastermind is neither of those things. I don’t want to call it a lazy cash-in, because it’s a very genuine effort to create something interesting and clever. It just doesn’t really succeed, and that weighs twice as heavy when the mechanics just don’t make an awful lot of sense with the source material.
Peaky Blinders would have been very well suited to a simple point n’ click that incorporated some of the investigation/intimidation elements, or a Telltale style episodic narrative game. It all just feels a little dry – the menu starts with some appropriately moody music, but the purely text-based story and the bog-standard art style is just… yawn. The story is not nearly compelling enough by itself to carry Mastermind through the more tiresome bits of puzzling, and the same is true in reverse.
The environments are nice – they feel full of detail and life, and they’d be a pleasure to navigate if you didn’t have to stop to pull a lever every five seconds. It keeps things simple visually, which means it’s never really a hassle trying to figure out where your next interaction takes place. There are moments here and there which the puzzles really come together and show off some of the thought that went into Mastermind‘s design, but they are few and far between. If the whole game was built around the full suite of tools you gain throughout, it would be far more interesting, but I felt like I was playing a tutorial with every new level.
I suppose the time travel mechanic is supposed to represent Tommy Shelby’s criminal genius – he’s so clever, he can basically see how his actions will affect the world around him in advance, and use that foresight to outsmart his rivals. But it just doesn’t translate, leaving the game feeling clunky and clumsy rather than witty.
Peaky Blinders: Mastermind overall thoughts
For a puzzle game to be successful, it doesn’t even have to be clever – it just has to make people feel clever. And yet, despite drip-feeding new abilities, puzzles and playable characters throughout its short runtime, Peaky Blinders: Mastermind never really achieves that in any significant way. There are glimmers of greatness, but they are buried beneath endless precessions of clockwork puzzling, lever-pulling, goon-manipulating tripe.
Peaky Blinders: Mastermind is developed by FuturLab and published by Curve Digital. Peaky Blinders: Mastermind is available now on PC, PS4, Switch and Xbox One. Find more of our game reviews by clicking HERE.