The award-winning TV show Peaky Blinders needs little introduction, with the Birmingham gangster series set post-World War I a veritable phenomenon across the world. As well as being a stunning drama, it also features the smouldering Cillian Murphy, and my partner has informed me that if he turned up at our front door with his piercing baby blues asking for her hand in marriage she would be unable to refuse. So after six seasons of dramatic power plays, bloody revolts, scintillating sexual drama and everything in between, the Shelby gang get the video game treatment in the form of Peaky Blinders: Mastermind. So does this tactical stealth puzzler live up to the quality of its source material, or is it best left wallowing in its sorrows at the Garrison?
We all know who runs the show, Arthur
Peaky Blinders: Mastermind begins soon after the boys’ return from the battlefields in France, and narrative-wise things get off to an extremely shaky start, with the first mission involving stealing some champagne for a celebration. The story thankfully picks up over the game’s ten missions, but it struggles to strike the same tone as the series, lacking the dramatic viscerality that the series is famous for. It also assumes some familiarity with the show, and if you haven’t watched the series (which you should) then you might wonder who these Shelby cats even are and why you should care about their turf war. For those who do follow the series, the slow-burn narrative is serviceable and fairly on-brand in its portrayal of gang warfare, conspiracy and shaky alliances.
The story is wedged between gameplay sections and told principally through still images and text. The still images are beautiful hand-crafted creations that perfectly capture the likeness of the source material, but the lack of voice acting does hurt the delivery somewhat. It’s completely understandable for a small studio, but the thick Birmingham accents which form so much of the charm of the series are still missed. The writing is decent enough that you can almost hear the accents as you’re reading, but the brevity of the narrative sequences gives the characters little room to escape a sense of shallowness.
Each character feels unique and important to the gameplay, and when you’ve got the whole team humming along efficiently helping each other out it’s pretty darn satisfying
The biggest strength of Peaky Blinders: Mastermind is its puzzle gameplay, which is a delight from start to finish. During missions you are tasked with various objectives like breaking into a jail, finding evidence or just dabbling in some mild arson, but the real flavour of the game is in its time manipulation mechanics. You take control of up to five well known characters from the series, and must effectively record actions for them separately. Navigating a zoomed-out isometric view of Birmingham’s streets and surrounds, you can move time forward and backward on a whim, and are given complete control to synchronise each character’s actions to solve puzzles. Puzzles mostly involve bread-and-butter switch-based shenanigans, but become steadily more complex as you must coordinate each character’s unique traits and abilities. For instance, guards will not pay any heed to Polly or Ada, and can be bribed or distracted so you can let one of the boys slip through. Finn can squeeze through tight spaces and windows, Jon and Arthur can knock out certain enemies, and Tommy Shelby can use his charisma to convince allies to perform tasks for him.
Each character feels unique and important to the gameplay, and when you’ve got the whole team humming along efficiently helping each other out it’s pretty darn satisfying. While the puzzles are probably on the easier side of the spectrum, at times I was reminded of The Swapper and even Braid to an extent, which is only a good thing. Time manipulation can of course be a complex beast, but testament to the game’s design the controls are intuitive and comprehensive, allowing you to perfectly control each character and skip forwards and backwards in time with ease. It’s a fairly short game, and the ten missions can be knocked over in under five hours depending on your skill, but there is some replayability in the form of completing levels in faster times without any failures and hunting for collectable pocket watches (which are oddly massive). There’s no incentive to really try and beat your times except for bragging rights, but with no online leaderboards you’re going to have to brag to your cat or call your mum and hope that she’s proud of you for perfecting a level.
Doing my time in the trenches
Heard that one before
Probably the hardest thing to ignore when playing Mastermind, despite the fact it’s pretty enjoyable, is that it is an inconceivably odd use of the licence. There are dozens of genres that could fit the Peaky Blinders brand, and shoehorning it into a stealth-based puzzler remains a strange concept throughout. Why am I skulking around the streets of Small Heath when I’m Tommy fooking Shelby? My blood is 65% whiskey and I’ve got razor blades sewn into my hat for Christ’s sake. Where are the guns and the violence? Why are there so many weird one-way doors and levers in Birmingham? Additionally, the iconic Birmingham setting feels underutilised and largely lifeless in this adaptation. While the presentation is clean and conveys gameplay information well, it feels a little sterile. When I watch an episode of the show I often feel like I need a shower after being immersed in the heavy industrial town with its grimy cobbled streets and bleak skies, and it just isn’t captured in the game.
Peaky Blinders: Mastermind is a brilliantly designed and executed puzzler, whose only real flaw is that it simply doesn’t make sense as a Peaky Blinders game. While the story mostly passes muster, fans of the show will probably be left a little underwhelmed, and those unfamiliar with the characters might struggle to connect with the story at all. Is Peaky Blinders: Mastermind a good game? Yes, it is. Is it a good Peaky Blinders game? Unfortunately not.
Reviewed on PS4 // Review code supplied by publisher