Reservoir Dogs: Bloody Days Review

Licensed games make me wary. It’s not just that I’ve played a lot of bad ones over the years, it’s that most of the time the license itself seems to be used as a veil to disguise tired design, or as the only actual hook. Let’s be honest, a Reservoir Dogs top-down shooter isn’t exactly a tantalizing pitch, is it? It would be a shame if the license didn’t act as veil in this case, though, because behind that dubious pitch, there’s one that’s more interesting: single-player cooperative tactical shooter, with time-mangling mechanic. This seems much more intriguing.

Reservoir Dogs: Bloody Days was shown behind closed doors at GDC, and from what I heard many journalists had gone along to see it out of pure morbid curiosity. How could a film which is largely dialogue and in which one of the main characters spends almost the entire time bleeding to death be translated into an “action-packed shooter?”

Well, it’s all about flashbacks. The film, for those living under a rock or don’t remember, shows us the aftermath of a botched robbery. Members of the crew shot to bits, torn apart by suspicions of a rat (not the rodent), and hiding out in a pressure cooker of an environment. Bloody Days follows the crew, the “Dogs” if you will, through the jobs that lead up to the fateful diamond heist, and each mission is a rapidly escalating catastrophe.

For each of the missions I was able to play, two characters are required and you can pick a third from the remaining gang members. Each has skills and traits unique to themselves, but as far as I could tell, the choice of the third isn’t going to tip the odds too heavily in either direction. Mr. Blue, in particular, is good at crowd control, being wise, calming the old hand, and so he can be very handy on levels where there are civilians to manage. In his vicinity, they stay on the ground rather than running into crossfire, which helps you avoid breaking up your score combos.

Bloody Days is a score attack game, though it’s tricky enough just to survive the levels on a first play through. The odds are very much stacked against you, as you are outnumbered by guards and mobsters even before everything goes to shit and the cops make an appearance. Rather than overpowering characters or giving them some kind of slow-mo adrenaline abilities, Bloody Days does the most unexpected thing: it introduces a genuinely smart tactical system.

Given how everything ends for this band of merry men, it might seem odd to think of them as a finely honed outfit, but that’s how the game presents them. On each mission, you have control of all three Dogs, but rather than moving them all at the same time by dragging the cursor around them, you use a twin-stick method (I hate using this term as I used a WASD and mouse method, but it fits). Say you’re initially in control of Mr. Blonde, you could enter a room, take out the guards with their backs turned (rookie mistake), and then cover one of the door ways. And then, you press space.

As soon as you do, you move to the next character in line and time rewinds to the beginning of Mr. Blonde’s turn. These turns aren’t discrete things. You could control Mr. Blonde for 15 seconds before hitting space, in which case you’ll have control of the next character for the same amount of time. Mr. Blonde repeats the actions you just performed, and you use the second character to support him. And then, when you catch up to real time, the clock rewinds again and you figure out what the third character should be doing.

If you’re playing smart, you’ll cut down slices of time far shorter than 15 seconds. I have found that 5 second intervals gives you a good tight control, ensuring that nobody is rushing too far ahead and triggering a bunch of enemy reactions. When the bullets are flying and cops are trying to catch you, you might be hitting space after only a second or two, literally micro-managing every moment. When you find your flow, you’ll also find that Bloody Days is, essentially, a turn-based game.

What really sold me, though, was the realization that sometimes it’s completely sensible to sacrifice one of your characters. Nothing that happens is actually true until all three characters have lived through the specific timeframe in which it happens, so sending your first Dog in to scout enemy positions can be a great maneuver, even if he ends up riddled with bullets and dead on the floor. It didn’t really happen. Not yet, anyway. Characters two and three can effectively rewrite events, bursting into the room ahead of their not-dead colleague, and take down enemies as they appear, now that they know precisely where to aim. Thus, rewriting the first go-around.

Foes will react to characters who wander into their line of sight, interrupting the path set by previous characters. So if Blonde manages to lure two cops out of hiding, shoots them both and then hits rewind, his perfect plan can actually be botched by his cohorts if they are spotted by those cops first, who might then deviate from the path Mr. Blonde set them on, which could mean they would “accidentally” dodge his bullets. The whole system works so well because it can make you feel like a freaking genius, but it can also create fantastical calamities.

Three characters on a 5 second loop doesn’t give you a great deal of information to keep track of, but there were still situations when I has come to the realization that I’d left one Dog in harm’s way with no way to help him before the inevitable death. The more common situation, though, is having all three Dogs firing on the same guard, wasting ammo and time, and leaving them vulnerable to other attacks. Ideally, you want every character concentrating on their own task. And once they get the loot, the game almost switches speeds to an escort scenario.

Some loot is essential, but there are plenty of bonus items to collect as you progress. That’s where some of the scoring comes into play. The missions I played followed the same basic structure: arrive, secure, escape. Variation came in the form of time-sensitive sub-missions and layouts that ranged from closed corridors of a bank to deadly open spaces of a dock. I normally am not a fan of having to deal with sudden time limits, but there’s just something pleasing about realizing that 5 seconds left on the clock is malleable. Three people can do an awfully high number of terrible things in just 5 seconds.

Right from the get-go, I said that a license is often a veil to hide tired design. Here, there’s a clever design and my concern is that the license is veiling that too well. Who would expect a Reservoir Dogs game to use clever tactical mechanics? I know I certainly did not. It’s a clever licensed game rather than a clever use of a license. You could strip away the license and those characters, and what’s left is game approaching squad-control in a rather interesting and unique way, rather than a game that is heavily reliant on Reservoir Dogs now stripped of the Dogs. It’s a game about one big idea: how does a single player control three characters in a tactical situation, but with pinpoint shooter accuracy? The solution is simple, smart, and, against all odds, Bloody Days has managed to perfectly execute the plan. Whether it’ll be good for only a couple of jobs before it runs out of steam, who knows. But I can say there is life behind the license.

4.5 stars out of 5