We’re big fans of Futurlab here at Nintendo Life, with the studio’s 2018 shoot ’em up Velocity 2X easily one of the very best offerings in its genre that’s currently available on Switch, and so, when we heard the developer was taking the Peaky Blinders licence and turning it into a top-down puzzle game we were definitely ever-so slightly confused by the prospect but also confident it could deliver the goods. Thankfully, for the most part, our confidence was well-placed as Peaky Blinders: Mastermind is a clever little puzzler with plenty of replayability in its time-manipulation based gameplay that only really falls down in not upping the ante in terms of complexity a little earlier in its campaign.
For those amongst you who haven’t yet indulged in the popular TV show – which is just preparing to launch into its sixth season – fear not, Peaky Blinders: Mastermind takes place in the build up to the very first season with gang leader Tommy Shelby keen to make a name for himself and show post-WW1 Birmingham that nobody messes with his family. What starts off here with some low-level back and forths with rival family The Gilroys soon escalates into a complex fight for survival as a murky plot involving bent cops, Chinese gangs and more threatens to put the Peaky Blinders out of business entirely.
It’s fair to say a puzzle game of this type may not be what diehard fans of the show will perhaps have had in mind when they envisaged the Peaky Blinders universe being translated a video game – it certainly seems like a pretty left-field choice. However, as it turns out, it’s a pretty clever way of interpreting the gang’s “mastermind” Tommy and his scheming ways into game form as well as tidily incorporating all of your favourite family members into the campaign’s shady proceedings to boot.
As you play through missions you’ll start out in control of just one or two gang members, each of whom has their own special skill to bring to the mix before things gradually get more complex with each and every one of the Shelby gang showing up to help out. In this regard, Tommy can use his natural talent for persuasion to coax bystanders to open locked doors or grab unreachable keys, Finn’s diminutive stature enables him to climb through windows and holes in walls, Ada can avert the attention of patrolling coppers, Arthur is a dab hand at smashing goons and doors open, John’s a talented arsonist and Polly knows how to keep the coast clear with a little pay-off here and there.
In order to put all of these various skills to good use and pull off each of the ten missions you’re set, you’ll need to get to grips with the game’s clever timeline system which allows you to synchronise each family member’s actions, winding back and forth at your leisure and switching easily between characters, utilising their specific talent to open up routes, batter bad guys, distract cops and so forth so that other members can proceed to their individual objectives. As an example of this, early on in the game Tommy may come up against a door which requires opening via a lever that’s beyond his reach, you’ll walk him to the door and stop then switch to Finn’s timeline, rewind proceedings and have Finn sneak through a hole in the wall to hit the lever just in time for Tommy to rock up to the door and walk freely through it. As missions become more complex you’ll need to constantly switch back and forth between gang members, tweaking their routes, making use of their talents and planning how best to pull all of the disparate strands of a job together in as timely a manner as possible, especially since missions here see you facing off against an ever-ticking clock.
This isn’t, as it may perhaps initially appear, a dynamic, freeform style of puzzle game that asks you to set up a complex play entirely of your own making then sit back and watch the fireworks. Missions here are composed of predetermined routes and markers, character skills can only be used where prompted, and overall this is much more about masterminding the gang’s movements by perfectly synchronising them on their prescribed routes in order to complete a job as quickly and smoothly as possible.
It may not be Shadow Tactics then, but it’s still a satisfying and fun system to get to grips with and one that only gets better as the campaign progresses and levels get bigger and more complicated. It’s a slight shame, therefore, that – as we mentioned – Peaky Blinders: Mastermind takes its sweet time in really opening up and putting you to the test. Indeed, the first five or six stages here take it a little too easy on the player, not requiring very much in terms of planning or forethought and it’s only by around mission six or seven that the game begins to deliver situations that require you to stop and think and rewind and repeat. The final handful of stages are where this one is at its absolute best, and by the time it ended we were crying out for just one or two more properly challenging levels to pit our time-manipulation skills against.
Further to the fairly unchallenging nature of early missions, the flexibility of the timeline system itself makes it a little too easy to succeed and there’s no real sense of peril; running out of time in a stage results in nothing more than having to rewind things a bit in order to rectify your missteps. There is a hard mode which removes waypoints, requiring you to investigate areas and get to know level layouts like the back of your hand, but we can’t help thinking a sterner punishment for allowing the clock to hit zero would spice proceedings up a little more. It’s not a huge deal – what’s here is still highly enjoyable stuff – we just wish it was a little more ruthless.
However, what the game lacks somewhat in difficulty it makes up for in replayability. Each of the missions here awards gold, silver and bronze medals depending on how quickly you manage to complete them and there’s plenty of fun to had in rewinding the actions of the gang, correcting routes and finding more streamlined ways to pull off aspects of a job, cutting seconds off your time in order to grab a gold award – as well as nabbing every last collectible hidden around stages.
In terms of presentation, Peaky Blinders: Mastermind also does a reasonably good job of bringing aspects of the show to life. The cobblestones, smog, warehouses and tumbledown streets of 1919 Birmingham are all present and correct here and fans of the show will no doubt get a kick out of making their way through recognisable locations. Cutscenes are static but stylish, and although it’s a bit of a shame they lack any voice-acting this is an indie title so it’s really no surprise that the show’s cast weren’t roped in to reprising their roles. The soundtrack, performed by Feverist, also contains some strong tracks that help bring things to life, with Reveller being the obvious standout in this regard. The story too, although it keeps things fairly simple, does manage to incorporate some of Tommy’s harrowing WW1 experiences as well as throwing in cameos from plenty of characters from the series.
Performance-wise, Peaky Blinders: Mastermind plays well in both docked and handheld. We did notice a very slight bit of stuttering here and there which seemed to be more pronounced in docked mode, but overall this one runs nicely on Switch and absolutely suits dipping in and out of to complete or perfect a mission here and there in portable mode.
Peaky Blinders: Mastermind makes clever use of its licence, incorporating Tommy Shelby’s knack for scheming and planning into the core of its time-manipulating gameplay as well as working each and every one of the gang from the hit TV show into proceedings. It’s a shame that it takes quite so long for it to up the ante to the point that missions are really satisfyingly complex but what’s here is certainly both fun and highly replayable for those who want to perfect each job on offer and grab gold in every mission.