As hard as I try to be objective about games I’ve never played before, it’s hard not to roll my eyes when a project like Reservoir Dogs: Bloody Days comes along. My immediate thought is “cash grab.” And it doesn’t help that Reservoir Dogs already has a bit of video game baggage, thanks to the very mediocre 2006 third-person shooter of the same name – which has pretty much deterred any other developers from taking a stab at another one of Quentin Tarantino’s movies (and we’re probably better off).
Big Star Games, a small indie developer based in Barcelona, makes the case that perhaps the problem with licensed games is that you can’t simply take a great movie and plug it into an established genre – that perhaps in the process of adapting a powerful, violent, flashback-laden narrative like Reservoir Dogs into a straightforward shooter something is inevitably lost. Certainly you could say that the film’s style and earnest character work was nowhere to be found in the 2006 game, an attempt to cash in on a brainless, shockingly violent video game. That wasn’t Mr. Blonde dancing to the sounds of his victim’s shrieks. It’s just violence because that’s what the kids want these days.
Leave it to an indie team to figure out how to do something interesting with a failed concept, and actually Big Star Games finds itself in a pretty unique position – a relatively unknown indie developer working on a licensed game. But maybe that’s just the ticket. My time with the team at this year’s GDC revealed huge fans of Tarantino’s movie and the passion and fervor with which they’ve designed this love letter to the crime thriller. Reservoir Dogs: Bloody Days is quite good.
Bloody Days‘ presentation is a bit deceiving. At first glance, it looks like the traditional top-down twin-stick shooter we’ve seen so many times before, especially Hotline Miami, which is inevitably a big influence on this game. In its simplest form, Bloody Days is about clearing out rooms with big guns and getting blood everywhere, all while speeding through a heist with a heart attack-inducing soundtrack. Bloody Days is nowhere near as trippy as Hotline Miami, though. It’s in fact dark and gritty, but also very funny, especially when the characters bust each other’s balls during missions. There’s actually quite a bit of dialogue in the game, and it’s all in the spirit of Tarantino’s movie. Mr. Blonde is still a guns-blazing psychopath, Mr. Pink is neurotic, and Mr. White is still a straight shooter – albeit one rough around the edges.
It’s kind of unfortunate that the characters in the game don’t look anywhere close to their movie counterparts – the redesign to Mr. Pink is especially questionable when you’re expecting someone that looks in the ballpark of Steve Buscemi – but they certainly act like them, and that’s ultimately more important. Their banter feels true to the film, and so do their playstyles. Mr. Pink, for example, can sneakily unlock doors and vaults, while Mr. Blonde is a bit of a berserker. You even get all of your missions from Joe Cabot! There’s no doubt that the folks at Big Star spent a lot of time rewatching this movie to get the feel of the game just right.
Reservoir Dogs: Bloody Days was announced to what seems like little fanfare, which is to be expected after its predecessor’s icy reception, but those curious enough to try the game will find an arcade shooter that’s very loyal to the source material in a way that’s both unique and makes sense for the story. In fact, Bloody Days‘ flashback mechanic is the highlight of the experience.
The way Bloody Days plays with time – in accordance to Tarantino’s own use of flashbacks in the movie – will take a little bit of getting used to and a lot of trial and error. I definitely didn’t master it during my hour demo of the game, which I spent racing against a vicious clock and sending characters to their doom.
Here’s how the time mechanic works: each mission can be completed with a squad of three. One character is the leader, while the other two are his backup. Progression through a level is turn-based, which means that you have to move each character one by one. The leader goes first and a clock begins to run, setting the time limit for the rest of the characters. If the leader moves for 30 seconds before you switch to the next character, the next character has 30 seconds to move as well. And so on.
After the leader moves and you switch, time rewinds itself back those 30 seconds, meaning that you can follow the leader as he makes his move, anticipating any trouble you might have run into during the last turn. If someone shot the leader in the first turn, you can hurry ahead of the leader and shoot down the enemy before he ever has a chance to shoot the first character. While it actually sounds a bit complicated on paper, the concept really works once its in front of you. The time mechanic adds a level of complexity that allows Bloody Days to be more than just another arcade shooter.
There’s quite a bit of strategy involved in the game, as you try to place the characters in the right spots like pawns on a chessboard. The most successful heists will see you sneaking past enemies or blowing away guards one by one before the alarms go off. The flashback mechanic provides a sort of puzzle with a time limit of seconds, especially when things go wrong. And as one member of the Big Star team told me, things always go wrong for the Dogs.
So peep this scenario: I’m in a bank. I’ve pulled off the heist, I’ve taken the money from the vault, a few casualties along the way. I’ve spent most of my ammo and I know I’m fucked if the alarms go off and the police arrive. I’ve not left any guards alive to do that, but then… Like the shitshow in the movie, I suddenly find myself running down hallways, alarms and sirens blaring, trying to find guns or ammo before I’m surrounded. As you can imagine, things are very dire once I hit the lobby. The leader, Mr. White, is promptly shot down, which means I have to flashback to Mr. Pink, who has to shoot the cop who killed White before the timer runs out. But Pink takes some fire in the process. Which means that Blonde has to step up and stop Pink, who saves White, from taking any damage.
And it goes on like that in the game’s most hectic moments. Again, it can be a bit confusing at first, but the action is always adrenaline-pumping. That’s actually a big accomplishment on Big Star’s part. They’ve made a game that feels like non-stop action when in fact the game pauses every few seconds.
The demo took me first to a loading dock on Long Beach – the same one that Joe used to hide Blonde’s illegal activities in the movie – and then to the aforementioned bank, where I eventually made it out with the help of one of the game’s designers and his infinite patience. It looks like the world map is pretty big, too – full of places from both the movie and areas created specifically for the game. Big Star told me that there are quite a few missions in the game and that a combination of different characters and playstyles should allow for a bit of replayability. Some missions require you to take one or two specific Dogs, but others are more open. Missions vary from heists, to rescue missions, to capturing enemies, and more.
One thing I found pretty surprising is the game’s lack of online cooperative multiplayer. The game seems perfect for the online approach, and the time mechanic could work much the same way in a three-player co-op game where each player takes a turn making his move. Whether it’s a budget issue or Big Star simply thinks its concept is best served through single-player, I feel like this game could translate really well to multiplayer. I was told by one team member that time will tell.
While I’ve only played but a small portion of the game, Reservoir Dogs: Bloody Days is genuinely a better game than its predecessor due in part to the level of thought put into adapting Tarantino’s work. The flashback mechanic is certainly the game’s most fulfilling aspect, both because it’s fun and because of its structural resonance with the movie. It’s a bit of a shame that the license didn’t extend to voice work from the original cast or even ballpark likenesses, but that shouldn’t deter you from playing this intriguing and enjoyable adaptation of one of the best crime thrillers ever made.
Reservior Dogs: Bloody Days is out in Spring 2017 for PC and later for XBO.