Peaky Blinders: The King’s Ransom is a new VR game from Maze Theory inspired by the popular period crime drama. I’m reporting from a virtually reconstructed Garrison pub, so confess – Jon and ARPost are listening.
This review covers major game elements (avoiding juicy spoilers), how VR is implemented, and some ethical considerations. After all, if you’re familiar with Peaky Blinders, you know that some of the content can be pretty challenging – particularly in VR. I almost didn’t want to play it, and ARPost almost didn’t want to cover it.
Welcome to The Peaky Blinders
Peaky Blinders: The King’s Ransom takes place during season five. If you aren’t to that point there’s at least one spoiler. Fortunately, the events of the game don’t have a lot to do with the events of the show, so if you aren’t a fan of the show you can still enjoy the game – just not as much.
A lot of the game felt like fan service. I happen to be a fan of the Peaky Blinders TV show, so I appreciated it. From “Red Right Hand” playing as I walked down Garrison Lane to the bottomless pack of cigarettes in your inventory, some more stylized elements of the game might only feel right if you’re familiar with the show.
In the game, you play a war vet working with the Peaky Blinders in hopes that they will clear your criminal record. Your aunt, an NPC in the game, is a family friend of the Shelbys and a good word from Arthur got you in. Tommy tests your loyalty by asking you to shoot a hooded man in the Garrison about 10 minutes into the game, so things move pretty fast.
You’re tasked with finding one of the Peaky Blinders who went missing on the trail of Winston Churchhill’s stolen dispatch box. This sends you to Limehouse, a majority Chinese neighborhood in East London.
There, you find yourself in a serial killer’s crime scene. I was hoping that this would turn into an investigation like the “Blood on the Ice” quest in Skyrim, but you find out pretty quickly that the serial killer happens to be the rival gang leader with the dispatch box.
Peaky Blinders: The King’s Ransom is rated “comfortable” with options to play sitting or roomscale. Analog sticks enable snap turns, though you can also do this by turning your head or your whole body in roomscale.
They also control movement, including crouching, walking, or teleporting. I played most of the game walking, but sometimes you need to teleport to jump. Using teleport to move from cover to cover during a firefight can also be handy. Some items in the environment appear lighter when you can interact with them, for example, crates that you can move out of your way.
I did get a little sick playing the game but if you read my reviews you know that I’m particularly susceptible to VR motion sickness, so I blame my physiology and play style before I blame the developers in most cases.
One of the cooler elements of the game was that your character doesn’t speak. NPCs just accept this as a quirk. You don’t have to hear someone else’s voice coming out of your head, but it also avoids dialogue options – you respond with your actions.
Items and Interactions
A guide to the controls looked intimidating but the controls are very intuitive. Your inventory is arranged around your field of view. Reach over your shoulder and grab to get your journal, reach down and grab to get your gun, reach left and grab to get a cigarette, and reach right and grab to get your lighter.
Your lighter is handy for lighting endless cigarettes, but you also use it to do things like light lamps that help you navigate some of the darker scenes in the game. You also defuse bombs, rebuild radios, open a safe, and uncork bottles of gin.
Drinking and smoking don’t impact gameplay. I think it might’ve been cool if smoking slowed down time or drinking made you less susceptible to injury, but they’re just props. You can also find vials of “Tokyo” (that’s “cocaine” in Peaky Blinders lingo) but they’re just collectible easter eggs.
One of the most common item interactions is reloading your 1911 semi-automatic pistol (sorry Peaky Blinders, no Webleys). This involves loading a clip into the bottom of the gun.
There’s no believable way to hold the gun with two hands because of the controllers and because Peaky Blinders are too cool for stable shooting stances, but you can pass the gun from hand to hand to shoot around cover. You can’t carry extra clips, so you have to look for ammunition boxes in the levels. Count rounds if you want, but I just reloaded whenever I could.
One forced story interaction involves your gun being empty no matter how many rounds you should logically have left in the clip when you enter the interaction, so keeping count just kind of frustrated me. Or, maybe the gun jammed because you have a 1911 instead of a Webley.
The environments were the biggest draw for me buying this game. I’m a fan of Peaky Blinders largely because of the settings. Being able to explore faithful reconstructions of some of the iconic locations of the show really scratched an itch for me and the game’s original locations feel authentic and well-developed too. Major playable locations include:
- Garrison Lane including The Garrison and a garage;
- Watery Lane including The Shelby Betting Shop and Polly Shelby’s apartment;
- Charlie Strong’s Boatyard;
- Limehouse, including a boatyard, a neighborhood, and a rival gang’s operation.
The game never tells you about lighter items being movable, so my first major navigation snag was wandering around an alleyway until I realized I could move a crate blocking my way. One level in Limehouse is also needlessly tricky. I think it was trying to incorporate some puzzle elements, but it didn’t really land for me.
Later in the game, you fight your way out of a burning building while carrying the dispatch box. This level brought all of the game’s control mechanics into play beautifully. You have to teleport to jump over holes in the floor, balance as you walk over beams, and put down the dispatch box to reload.
Finding collectible easter eggs in the game often involves finding tools in the environment to smash open crates. Some of the levels have dysfunctioning radios. Finding the parts, plugging them in, and tuning the radio unlocks radio programs that give you additional context about the level.
After beating the game, the levels remain explorable. I found at least one area that either wasn’t available during story play or I didn’t find the first time around. Either way, there’s a lot to explore.
I Killed a Man in VR Because Tommy Shelby Told Me To
I had reservations about this game. Until now, the most violent thing I’d ever done in VR was knock someone out in Thrill of the Fight. There were situations in this game that made me uncomfortable but it wasn’t as bad as I was expecting.
For one thing, the character animation didn’t blow me away (I was playing on Quest 2, not PC). Sets and items look great but people in the game leave a little to be desired. Further, the violence isn’t terribly graphic. A cartoony blood burst lets you know you hit someone but it isn’t gory. And, all of the violence that you perpetrate is done at a distance, which I think helps.
Most of the times that I did feel uncomfortable, it wasn’t because of graphical believability or a feeling of embodiment. It was because the writing of the game successfully made me ask myself questions about what I was doing and why.
In one sequence, your character is tied to a chair so you can look around and see your bound hands, which is a little unnerving (you can’t see your body, which is unnerving for a different reason). I don’t know if it was a predictable point in the game or my deep trust in the Peaky Blinders, but I wasn’t afraid at this point – I knew someone would come just in time.
I still think that we should be careful about how and why violence is used in virtual reality entertainment. As far as this game goes, I think that restraint on the part of the developers helped to balance violence as a plot device without going over the top.
I was pleased to see that Peaky Blinders: The King’s Ransom only costs $30, but that also meant that I wasn’t too let down that it’s only about three-and-a-half hours of gameplay. The game has already been updated since it was released, so fans can hope for more to come.