Wouldn’t it be awesome to be able to rewind a life? To correct all the big mistakes you’ve ever made, with the benefit of irritatingly perfect 20/20 hindsight, and make things right? Now, that would be a super power I’d definitely choose. Funnily enough, it’s a timey wimey ability that the entire criminal gang of Peaky Blinders possess. Who knew, huh? Forget the Quantum Realm, Shelby and his pals can travel back to the past with the tap of a button.
It’s this mechanic the forms the gameplay backbone of Peaky Blinders: Mastermind. This is a real time strategy game based on a popular TV franchise, but it’s also a title that attempts to smash together the cinematic genre conventions of an Ocean’s 11 heist movie with the try, try and try again structure of the under-appreciated Tom Cruise-athon that is Edge of Tomorrow.
Peaky Blinders: Mastermind casts you as the puppet master pulling the virtual strings of the Peaky Blinders gang. Think of Tommy, Polly, Arthur and the rest as being akin to an overly violent and morally far more questionable version of Robin Hood and his Merry Men; they seek to protect the denizens of Small Heath just as much as they aim to fill their own pockets. Mastermind is set before the events of Peaky Blinders Season 1 – perfect for someone who hasn’t watched the show, like me – with Tommy and the other leaders returning to Birmingham having managed to survive the war. The family business is suddenly under attack from a sinister conspiracy, so it’s up to Tommy, with his big brain and beautiful blue eyes, to orchestrate a series of elaborate heists and save the day.
It’s a simple, but satisfying story, one that is elegantly told by some chunky artwork and well written text. The story really does come secondary to the game play, because this time travelling heist is a joy from beginning to end. Played from a top-down perspective, Peaky Blinders: Mastermind has you take control of up to six members of the gang at once. You must safely guide everyone though brilliantly intricate levels, each filled with sublime puzzles that weave together with a style and pace that seems almost effortless. The true genius of developers Futurlab is by providing the player with the power to manipulate time.
Mastermind may look like a Commandos or Desperados, but the way it plays is entirely different. You can only take control of your gang members independently, using their special abilities to make progress through the labyrinthian environments. Each Peaky Blinder must use their unique skills in concert with the others. For example, Teeny tiny boy burglar Finn can crawl through narrow gaps or clamber through tiny windows to pick pocket an unsuspecting guard, though to achieve this, the alluring femme fatale Ada best be distracting the dim-witted NPC at the same time. The player plots in all of Finn’s movements as far as they can before rewinding time to program Ada’s, and then letting proceedings play out in real time as the perfect pocket picking ensues.
Futurlab build on this simple example, adding layers and layers of complexity until all six members of the gang are moving through the level independently but cohesively, each requiring the others to overcome their obstacle at precisely the right time so progress can be made.
It’s a brilliant gameplay device, one that smartly side-steps the issue that plagues many real time strategy and tactics games – that of having to constantly quick save in case things go awry – whilst also avoiding the tedium that can come with a turn based title. This is a strategy game that manages to both challenge the ‘ole brain box whilst also remaining pacey and exciting. It’s also a supremely accessible experience; everything is efficiently and clearly communicated to the player, from the manner in which the developers gradually build up the challenge from level to level, to the fact that all an NPC can see is communicated by a ‘so bright you can’t miss it’ line of sight cone.
Now, if you can just rewind time and undo any mistake, you’d be forgiven for wondering where does the actually challenge of the game come from? That would be the fact that each level has a strict time limit, and the player must use their rewind powers to shave seconds off each sequence and solve each puzzle with the most efficient approach possible. The restrictions imposed by these time limits are explored inventively by the game; one level sees you having to track and block an enemy’s progress through town, The Peaky Blinders needing to work together to obstruct the villain by orchestrating events so that a van reverses to block his path or a Policeman misplaces his gate keys at the most appropriate time.
I found it so wonderfully liberating as I leapt between protagonists, plotting in all their movements before finally getting to watch the entire escapade play out before my eyes. To witness a massive level being crushed in mere minutes as the team work together in perfect unison is one of the most satisfying gaming experiences I’ve had this year. In fact, I was having such a great time that it came as a bit of a shock that after ten levels the game came to what felt a rather premature end.
Whilst Futurlab have done a cracking job of cranking up the complexity as they introduce new Peaky Blinders, it comes at the cost of only the final level featuring the entire gang. The game really would have benefitted from a few more levels operating with all these characters in play. Instead I was definitely left wanting more, and not entirely in a good way.
There’s some replay value to be had here. There’s collectables to find in each level, as well as the opportunity to repeat missions and complete them in less time to unlock gold medals. The problem is that there’s only really one way to solve each puzzle, so once you’ve released those feel good endorphins by successful problem solving, there’s not as much motivation to return and try again. All you’re doing is finding way to trim seconds off your time by carrying out the solution, rather than finding entirely new methods.