Cillian Murphy walks into a tattered and eerily abandoned 1920s pub and invites me in for a secret chat. As he lights a cigarette and hands me a whiskey, he leans conspiratorially across the table and fills me in on the darkly cold London plot that threatens to bring down the Shelby family. The only problem is that I repeatedly hit the pint glass on his head.
Welcome to the latest licensed foray into the weird and wonderful world of virtual reality – Peaky Blinders: The King’s Ransom. When you’re not brazenly attacking fellow gang members in The Garrison Pub, Peaky Blinders VR has you roaming the gray and uninviting streets of early 20th century Birmingham and London, picking up letters, cocking your Glock and meeting its colorful hordes of scowling rapscallions.
Part PS2-feeling licensed adventure, part of a well-executed VR playground, The King’s Ransom is a curious and ambitious beast. Developed by Maze Theory, the team responsible for 2019’s Doctor Who VR game, another collaboration with the BBC means they’re recruiting two of the show’s bigger stars.
With the aforementioned Cillian Murphy reprising his role as Tommy Shelby and Paul Anderson returning as Tommy’s brooding brother Arthur, The King’s Ransom clearly strives for the authenticity of the old jesus.
Although you may not know it at first, there is a larger plot at play here. Putting on the mute protagonist’s tattered tweed coat, players end up searching for Churchill’s red box: a briefcase containing the whereabouts of British agents around the world. When you step out of the van into gloomy Brum, however, there’s no sign of such a grandiose goal. Instead, you’ll soon find yourself caught up in the details of Peaky Blinders’ dark post-World War I drama.
Using a combination of analog stick and teleport cursor VR standard, jump into the deserted streets of Birmingham and plunge into the criminal underworld Oculus Quest 2 feels very smooth. Like many games on the platform, everything looks a bit like a sped-up Wii game, but the framerate was solid, ensuring that movement felt comfortable enough during the extended demo – no Pukey eyes here.
It helps that The King’s Ransom eases you into Shelby’s life. At first, you play the role of an errand boy and deliver messages to various shady characters as you learn about the growing political unrest around town. It’s a far cry from the crazy gangster fantasy that the story desperately frames.
However, the thoughtful VR implementation of these well-worn game mechanics keeps it from being a complete snore-fest. Pulling a book off your shoulder to see the objectives, for example, is a nice touch – as is the now-standard manual clip-change loading of your old pistol – and moments like this are enjoyable even if you’re picking up the MMO-lite. quests don’t really sell fantasy.
Like most VR experiences, The King’s Ransom is at its best when you’re just goofing off. During the first hour, you rarely get to use your old pistol. Instead, you can draw on chalkboards, pick up boxes, fix vintage radios, and generally destroy any meticulously maintained home you find yourself snooping around. It’s this kind of sandbox farce that makes VR so immersive, and in my time with it, it’s an area where The King’s Ransom excels.
Once you get to them, the gunfights are more successful, borrowing Half Life Alyx’s manual clip reload. Another early action scene is less exciting, tasking players with wandering through a Victorian house as bullets whiz over their heads. After reaching for a few scattered bullets, my poor (now melted Swiss cheese) avatar eventually ended up with four DIY-looking explosives, hitting pincers and slowly detonating an assortment of incredibly patient bombs.
“During the first hour, you rarely get to use your old pistol. Instead, you can draw on chalkboards, pick up boxes, fix vintage radios, and generally destroy.”
Then the missions come back with a vengeance. After sending house to house, shuffling crates, and collecting more letters for your lazy criminal buddies, the demo finally culminates in an enjoyable gunfight across a half-raised bridge. a gang plans your destruction: Children of Winter. It’s a good ending to an oddly paced demo that ends my gangster adventure with a bang before returning to my higher resolution reality.
Say what you will about the show, but Peaky Blinders is undeniably a cultural phenomenon. From the Nick Cave-penned theme song to an admirable cast of homegrown acting talent, it’s the series that single-handedly brought the WW1 haircut back into fashion. So it’s surprising that it took this long to turn a TV hit into a real-time action video game. After playing a fraction of the entire game, it’s hard to tell what awaits players around the next cobbled corner. Still, Peaky Blinder fans with headphones are bound to have some familiar fun in The King’s Ransom.
Still, I came away from my demo with some broader existential questions about VR. As the Oculus Rift approaches its 11th anniversary, it’s hard not to feel like this kind of disposable entertainment has been experienced before. While throwing fans into their favorite fictional worlds is always great for the media, those who see “On the Order of Peaky Blinders!” The King’s Ransom is the geeza equivalent of “living laugh love,” so it feels more curious than necessary.