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The new Reservoir Dogs video game is like Hotline Miami with time travel

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Video game projects based on iconic auteur action movies tend to turn out poorly. You’ve got the canceled console game based on Taxi Driver, the troubled Apocalypse Now adaptation, and the critically panned 2006 translation of Reservoir Dogs. So a second adaptation of Quentin Tarantino’s classic heist movie, set to release this spring, is working against expectations. But whatever else might go wrong, Reservoir Dogs: Bloody Days has one thing working in its favor: its central idea is actually pretty clever.

Bloody Days is a violent top-down action game based around a series of heist missions, starring the film’s six color-coded protagonists. While it’s not as stylish-looking or self-aware as Hotline Miami, it has a similar structure: each map is a little maze where you’re supposed to learn the location of enemies and find the most efficient way through them, picking up their weapons as you go. But instead of using a single avatar, you select two or three at a time and play as all of them — not with unified squad movement or a series of sequential turns, but by rewinding and fast-forwarding to control each character simultaneously.

At the Game Developers Conference where I checked out Bloody Days, developers at Spanish studio Big Star Games said this mechanic was inspired by Tarantino’s love of temporal shifts. (Big Star Games is working with Lionsgate, which provides the film rights.) In practice, it’s like recording tracks and laying them over each other, except that each track can modify the one before it. So, say you navigate Mr. Brown slowly around a corner and toward a guard, who promptly shoots him. Quickly, you hit a key and transfer to Mr. Blue, who sprints over and kills the guard before he can get off a shot. Then you transfer to Mr. Pink and... wander around aimlessly a little, if you’re me, at least for the first few rounds.

Unsurprisingly, the process takes a little while to get used to. For one thing, you can choose the length of each “recording,” so I started with interminable 20-second intervals where planning ahead was almost impossible. It took several deaths for me to start learning to micromanage, swapping between characters every few seconds. Once I did, though, it felt both fresh and totally natural — strategic enough that you feel clever pulling off an objective well, but still fast-paced and a little chaotic. Characters can move around to flank enemies, one can hang back to grab money while another moves ahead, and you can protect an injured team member by having them show up to a scene just after the last goon is dead.

I got maybe half an hour with a pre-alpha version of the game, though, so I can’t tell whether this will be enough to carry the game. Major elements feel either unfinished, off-putting, or too subtle to judge in a demo. Each Reservoir Dog (as they’re called in the game) has different abilities, but they’re minor advantages like better carrying capacity and slight health differences. There’s a combo system for doing things like getting two characters to shoot the same target simultaneously, but that doesn’t matter much if you’re just racing toward the end of the level, as I was. The dialogue during missions can be stilted and unnatural. And then there’s the art.

The actual levels of Bloody Days are simply unremarkable, but the character art is so awkward that I can’t tell if it’s still in progress, actually not good, or working on an ironic level that I don’t quite grasp. While most of the game is top-down, sketches of the characters will appear while they’re talking. Reservoir Dogs is full of actors that lend themselves well to caricature, and every single one of them is unrecognizable in Bloody Days, without looking or sounding like an interestingly different person either. Here’s Steve Buscemi’s Mr. Pink, alongside his counterpart in the game:

And Michael Madsen as the grinning psychopath Mr. Blonde:

Or Mr. Brown, played by Tarantino himself:

Are these supposed to be the same people? Are the Reservoir Dogs a superhero troupe where names are passed down across generations, despite their individual abilities (I’m told) being informed by the events of the film? Did the art director assume a Kim Kardashian mobile game aesthetic would guarantee monetary success? Intellectual property rights are complicated, and I’m fine with the idea of creating new characters or glossing old ones. But Reservoir Dogs is remembered in part for its stylishness, and I’d rather see the studio go out on a limb and design something more distinctive than a series of generically “cool” ‘90s tough guys — or at least give them less screen time if that’s not possible.

Whatever the case, Reservoir Dogs: Bloody Days will be released on Steam in the spring, then later this year on the Xbox One.