A solid BBC staple for the last decade, the Peaky Blinders setting has now made its way to VR as Maze Theory developed Peaky Blinders: The King’s Ransom.
Now, you might be asking, “But Dann, how does a TV adaptation of a period crime drama come together into a game?” Well, good question. There have been plenty of TV and movie adaptations over the years, but the classic drama genre doesn’t translate well to video games — except in narrative-led games — because the heart of drama is pacing and the conflict between the agency of multiple characters. It’s passive for the viewer, while games (especially VR, surely) immerse you directly into the experience and often put you directly at the heart of the action. So, with that said, can Peaky Blinders: The King’s Ransom capture that agency?
Well, no. No, it can’t. You take on the role of a silent protagonist thrust into the lap of the titular Peaky Blinders, sent on errands through a variety of story beats as you fetch things, solve light movement puzzles and blast your way through trouble. That’s not to say that it’s a bad game, in fact, it’s not. It’s just maybe not the kind of tie-in that it could have been had the developers gone down a different route while pitching ideas around. It’s still a solid use of the Peaky Blinders IP, possibly moreso than the stealth-puzzling of 2020’s Peaky Blinders Mastermind, it’s just that its own design feels like it blocks out the narrative, which is surely the most exciting prospect for most transmedia games.
As a VR game Peaky Blinders: The King’s Ransom is pretty ambitious. Some of the levels are quite large set pieces, and within them, there are areas that are specifically off-the-beaten tracks which contain secrets. There’s also some very cool stuff done with inventory management that hasn’t been done quite so well elsewhere. The fact that you can tap your empty hand on your waist jacket and suddenly your pistol is in your hand is very cool and feels much better than having a button-press unholster your weapon. There are also a lot of interactive components, be that lanterns or various pieces of scrap, and a lot of lore to collect.
It’s clear which areas were focused on while The King’s Ransom was being made: delivery of setting and action. However, that does mean that there are a few glaring issues that have made it through to release; The walking speed is incredibly slow, which is a shame because the teleport movement is jarring; there’s too little interface consideration for hidden, story or interactive objects; And, some areas are simply extremes of lighting which means that you’ll sometimes find yourself rummaging around dark corridors, knowing something must be there but unable to see it. Something that stuck with me from the start of the game, all the way through, was that it had introduced hidden items around the game world early on, but hadn’t taught reloading (or underlined how reloading a magazine worked) and so I missed early unlockables because I had no weapon beyond an unloaded gun.
Back to the positives though, some of the more action-packed sections are really fun. There’s some great run and gun gameplay, as well as a sprinkling of intense bomb disposal. In fact, when the action or intensity is high is when Peaky Blinders: The King’s Ransom is at its best as there’s no time to stare through the cracks unlike in the slower shootouts where it becomes incredibly obvious that most enemies are anchored to the spot and that everything is designed for you to try and speed through.
On one hand it’s really just a series of fire-hot snapshot moments, with you moving incredibly slowly between them. On the other hand, it is a great application of a BBC sweetheart, albeit not as good as it could have been.