Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: Twisted Pixel
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
From the moment you lift your marionette cowpoke onto a stage surrounded by a cheering audience, your Gamertag proudly appearing on a virtual playbill, it's clear that Twisted Pixel's narcissistic hatred of the fourth wall has reached its logical conclusion. The Gunstringer makes no bones about what it is: a game...about a play...about a story... about an undead cowboy hellbent on revenge. Live action cutscenes, the ever-present roar of the crowd and constant pulp narration hammer home the premise at every turn, and it's as refreshing a concept as you'd expect from the anarchic boutique studio.
However, Twisted Pixel are in unfamiliar territory. The Gunstringer frequently feels like a fun and solid downloadable Kinect game that became too bloated to fit into the XBLA file size constraints... but this isn't necessarily a bad thing. They're the masters of this field, and the marriage of marionette madness with motion control has led to a seriously worthwhile addition to Kinect's lineup.
The Gunstringer is essentially a rail shooter designed for the Kinect platform. Players use their left hand to move your puppet left and right as he sprints down his preset path, avoiding Western-themed obstacles and lifting your hand to make it leap over incoming barriers. The right hand, however, becomes a virtual six gun that can paint targets and mow them all down with a flick of the wrist. Imagine a bizarre combination of Child Of Eden and Point Blank. Various different enemies including harmless grunts, shielded dynamite-lobbing foes and enormous inflatable tube men (oh yes) all provide different challenges, and it's difficult not to grin as you turn your hands into lethal weapons. The cathartic joy is amplified tenfold when you're granted two simultaneous reticles to control.
The question of accuracy has always hung over Kinect titles, and The Gunstringer copes very well with the advanced hardware. Moving the on-screen reticle is a little floaty, but movement is certainly accurate and rewards deliberate strong motions. Be aware that you don't have to thrust out your arm in the usual 'traffic cop' pose, since you can (brilliantly) hold your hand at your side as if it's an actual six shooter that you're firing from the hip. It's worth noting that accuracy takes a serious hit if you decide to sit down, though, which is actually a suggested method of playing rather than a lazy cop-out.
'Step in' local multiplayer allows another participant to saunter alongside and take control of another reticle. This might sound a little boring, but in practice it works incredibly well as the shooting is by far the most enjoyable part of the experience. Completing levels in multiplayer also contributes to extra awards and achievements.
Unfortunately The Gunstringer's reliance on Kinect becomes a burden every time you hunker down behind cover. Leaning out from behind a rock or crate is a cumbersome, sticky and imprecise affair, meaning that you'll frequently waste time stubbornly stuck behind a box or out in the open taking plenty of damage (not that it really matters, as we'll discuss later). Traditional 2.5D Platforming segments and other forgettible diversions don't suffer from this issue, but instead prove to be repetitive and entirely vestigial. Variety is at an absolute premium, and the experience soon becomes repetitive despite attempts at varying up the surroundings and set pieces. Twisted Pixel take this tack when developing for XBLA, but focusing on one gameplay mechanic feels incredibly basic - shallow, even - in a full retail release.
The experience is also a bit easy, to put it bluntly. You'll have to work hard to fail even on the unlockable hardcore mode, though gunning for the highest scores does reward some degree of skill, patience and strategy. Whether or not The Gunstringer is pointlessly simple or a point-scoring arcade attack comes down to how you play.
Speaking of points, scores add to a persistent treasure horde that can be exchanged for a bountiful cornucopia of unlocks. These range from functional features like the hardcore difficulty and game mutators to bonuses such as premium themes or gamer pictures. A huge number of cosmetic flourishes are also on offer, with highlights being director's commentary and a hilarious interview with Epic Games' Cliffy B. You'll need to log some serious time in order to see everything, let alone watch all of the videos.
But unlockables certainly don't equate to value for many gamers, so I'm obliged to take The Gunstringer to task about providing a bare minumum of raw content. In fact, it offers as much as you'd typically expect from an 800-1200 Microsoft Point download. A single playthrough lasts roughly three to four hours, though many players will doubtlessly want to repeat levels for high scores, bonus purchases and achievements. This is all well and good, but replaying stages is much less enjoyable than it ought to be thanks to frequent unskippable cutscenes and long periods of gameplay-less exposition. This is a basic oversight that neutralises much of the potential replayability factor.
Finally, no Twisted Pixel review would be complete without mentioning their presentation and signature swagger. The Gunstringer is technically unimpressive (sporting a spartan level of detail), but colourful art design and an unbridled sense of wacky fun absolutely clinches it. The narration is consistently amusing, the story is full of references to classic westerns and little details like fake review quotes sucker you into the game world. Within a puppet show. Within a game. Whatever.
- Fun, accurate and responsive core mechanics
- Loads of unlockable content
- Clunky cover sections
- Decidedly shallow and short, lots of unskippable exposition
- Graphically mediocre
The Short Version: The Gunstringer is fun. And that's all it needs to be. Tight Kinect controls, cathartic gunslinging and a fantastic sense of humour underpin a thoroughly worthwhile experience that makes up for weak value with unlockables and unpredictable, titillating craziness. Long term appeal and variety are at a questionable at best, however.
New copies also ship with a download code for Half Brick's inestimable Fruit Ninja Kinect.