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Review: Blues and Bullets - Episode 2 (Xbox One)

What's most difficult about investing in an episodic adventure series is the agonizing long wait between episodes. Having launched its debut episode on Xbox One nearly eight months ago, Blues and Bullets may just be the worst offender for this. It's disappointing, nonetheless, that Episode 2 doesn't land all of its punches. It still offers up a compelling and mature story with solid character moments, but its gameplay is often at odds with itself, resulting in an uneven package that leaves the player feeling unsatisfied.

While Episode 1 felt like a carefully plotted piece of crime thriller fiction, the second episode — titled "Shaking the Hive" — lacks any real focus by trying to cram too much within its short run time. Ness's continuing investigation for Al Capone's missing daughter remains as intriguing as ever, and there's definitely some disturbing subject matter that isn't for the faint of heart. In the end though, the main story doesn't advance all that much but it does end on a particularly ghoulish and nasty moment.

What Episode 2 mainly accomplishes, however, is the way it fleshes out Elliot Ness into a character that we actually care about. Through a pair of engaging flashbacks, we're given a chance to see Ness during a particular regretful moment in his life — one that appears to still haunt him to this day. It isn't exactly clear what purpose Ness's backstory will have on the present one (or if it will have any bearing whatsoever), but these glimpses to the past are some of the best parts of the episode.

Your dialogue choices from Episode 1 begin to shape the narrative ever so slightly in Episode 2, but it's difficult to say how much is being impacted without the remaining three episodes. There are a handful of new branching dialogue paths here, although the selections seem a bit more vague this time around. Choices are represented by single word answers but Ness's response didn't always feel like they aligned with their meaning. They aren't all like this, however. In fact, the start of Episode 2 opens up with a suspenseful interaction that has you choosing the best response so that Ness's undercover identity isn't revealed. Like with any choice-based adventure series, it's hard to imagine the core story being altered to such a drastic degree, but there is a small pull towards wanting to start another save file with different choices just to see their outcomes.

There's a stronger focus on racking up the action this time around in Episode 2, but much of it involves thrusting players into gunplay scenarios that do very little in the entertainment department. Gunplay is an on-rails affair similar to arcade light gun shooters — only they're not nearly as fun. The highest amount of skill involves darting back and forth between cover, aiming a giant reticule over the enemy's head, then pulling the trigger. You only need to take on about two or three bad guys at a time, and sometimes there's a shiny red explosive near their feet for good measure. These segments can be fun in small doses but since Episode 2 throws them at the player way too many times, they inevitably come off as stale and boring.

Just like it were in the last episode, the most engaging segment is the crime scene investigation. This one is set in a submarine but isn't quite as complex as the last one. Having said that, the mix of piecing together solutions from various bits of evidence is satisfying. What's equally satisfying is that after you've completed the puzzle, you're shown a chronological retelling of what exactly went down. Accompanied with the excellent voice over and moody soundtrack, these sequences truly represent the best of what Blues and Bullets has to offer. Our only hope is that they become more of a focus in future episodes.

It goes without saying that the art style in Blues and Bullets remains as eye catching as it was eight months ago. Yes, the Sin City influence is in full force here but that doesn't make it any less appealing to ogle at. A particular standout chapter has Ness and his partner taking an eerie stroll through a dense forest at night, while blips of red lens flare flash across the screen. Another memorable chapter explores Ness's mental struggles in a first person perspective that, dare we admit, spooked us more than once.

Red is the only colour besides black and white that make an appearance throughout Blues and Bullets and it is used to great affect. It's unfortunate that dips in frame rate and a sometimes sluggish performance hinders an otherwise solid cinematic presentation. It isn't enough of a problem to dissuade people from playing Blues and Bullets, but it does stick out like a sore thumb when so much care went into making the game look so good.

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