Publisher: Microsoft Studios / Developer: Twisted Pixel / Price: $39.99 / Played on: Xbox Kinect / ESRB: Teen [Blood, Cartoon Violence, Drug Reference, Sexual Themes]
I’m a big fan of Twisted Pixel’s ‘Splosion Man and Ms. ‘Splosion Man, games with a really simple play mechanic that works for a whole game by forcing players to hone their reflexes and solve puzzles with only a limited set of tools. So I was looking forward to playing The Gunstringer, the studio’s first retail release and first Kinect-based game. Sadly, much like its skeletal hero, there’s not enough meat on the bones of The Gunstringer, leaving you unsatisfied when all is said and done.
You control the game’s titular hero, the Gunstringer, a grave-risen cowboy, back to kill his former posse who put him down for his dirt-nap. For most games, “zombie cowboy back for revenge” would be enough of a hook to get going, but Twisted Pixel went the extra mile and put the entire game in the context of a puppet theatre performance for an actual live audience. That’s what puts the “string” in “Gunstringer”: you’re the puppet-master, and the game’s protagonist is your marionette.
The majority of the game is spent guiding the Gunstringer through on-rails stages, moving him left or right to avoid obstacles or jump over chasms with your left hand, while taking aim and firing on enemies in a never-ending shooting gallery with your right. That’s the primary gameplay mechanic: sweeping your target across the screen with your right hand locks you onto enemies as you pass over them. Snapping your hand back towards your shoulder, like a gun’s recoil, fires your six-shooter, resulting in the bad guys taking hits and falling off the screen.
Shooting enemies feels pretty fun, for a little while at least. The game throws greater challenge with more obstacles to dodge and more enemies on-screen to attack, but eventually, the gameplay becomes less about having fun and more about just waving your right hand just fast enough to get to the end of the level.
Once in a while there’s a shift in gameplay, but it rarely jazzes up the experience. At random intervals, gameplay switches from on-rails shooter/platformer to sections where you crouch behind cover, then pop out to blow the bad guys away. Mostly you do this with your six-shooter, though you might have a shotgun, flame-thrower, katana, or your fists as your weapon depending on the stage. But these weapons aren’t power-ups or strategic choices—they’re foisted upon you without rhyme or reason.
You might think each weapon offers different benefits for each situation; you’d be wrong. It doesn’t make much difference what weapon you’re wielding, as the overall effect is the same. You sweep your enemies with your targeting reticule and they die. With the shotgun, there’s no enemy lock-on—you just fire to take out the enemies in your sights. With the katana and flame-thrower, you wave your arm around to dispatch your foes. Punching is punching. While each weapon may look different on-screen, there’s no discernable drawback or benefit to any of them. It’s just another symptom of the game’s biggest problem: it’s repetitive and boring.
The Gunstringer story is at least engaging, mainly as a result of Twisted Pixel’s trademark bizarre sense of humor. The revenge story takes standard Western tropes, like pistol duels and corrupt lawmen, and infuses them with absurdist comedy. For instance, the first enemy on your list is Wavy Tube Man, an evil cowboy who is in fact a Wavy Tube Man, the kind you see advertising big sales at car dealerships on the side of the highway. Another enemy you encounter is the hybrid spawn of an alligator wrestler and…an alligator. Apparently their lust could not be denied by typical interspecies taboos.
When you combine this brand of weirdness with the visual style of a home-made puppet show—featuring two-dimensional townspeople, floppy wooden rattlesnakes, and cannon-firing nutcracker lumberjacks—you have a recipe for an entertaining game.
Unfortunately, as funny as it frequently is, the story isn’t much more than a Western-parody, meaning there’s not much in the way of substantial plot points or characterization. Parodies can work well in film, but pairing shallow satire with stale gameplay won’t be enough to keep your interest. The game might manage to win you back a little at the very end by revealing the ultimate surprise villain (no spoilers), but the Portal series has shown that games can have a story that’s both funny and compelling with gameplay to match. The Gunstringer is funny, but rarely in a way that makes you want to come back for more, and never in a way that covers up its shortcomings, such as the controls…
I have to give Twisted Pixel credit for discovering a great idea for incorporating motion controls into their shooter/platformer. The marionette concept is inspired, and at first it seems great. But pretty soon, the flaws start to appear. Holding your left hand up like you’re guiding a marionette gets seriously tiring, and not in a satisfying way that feels like you’re getting a work out. The gun-firing mechanic gets tiring too, both conceptually and literally. And the game’s wonky motion-detection doesn’t help at all.
During my play-through in the game’s later levels, precise navigation around obstacles and platform-jumping grew extremely annoying because the Kinect thought I’d made moves when I hadn’t, and vice versa. I checked the Kinect hub to ensure it was accurately capturing my hands and everything seemed fine, but I kept experiencing problems in-game. Trying to adjust my position and movements didn’t do much to alleviate the problems, either.
Worse still, at one point I definitely gave myself tennis-elbow because the game wasn’t registering my firing motions. I wound up whipping my arm back and forth with frustration, just to get it to recognize my movement, necessitating a long break from the game with an ice-pack. I should point out here that I’m not a totally inactive guy, regularly moving my arms for fun and profit in various settings, so this wasn’t just a case of a sedentary couch potato unready for the rigors of arm-wavery.
Close-ups on characters look kind of pixelated or jaggy, and there’s slow-down every so often. That said, in keeping with the story’s humor, the character designs and environments are creative and have a fun look to them. There are Tex-Mex-style patterns on the Gunstringer’s skull and costume, one of the game’s female bosses has a hilariously oversized anatomy, and the game’s overall aesthetic was definitely on the receiving end of the lion’s share of the developers’ creative juices.
The sound, like the graphics, work well for the setting, but won’t be winning any awards. The music is appropriately Western-themed, and a narrator describes your in-game actions much like in Bastion. But The Gunstringer’s narrator runs out of things to say after a short while, recycling descriptions of when you take out six targets at once, or when you jump over a chasm, or take damage. Sometimes he’ll crack a joke that elicits a chuckle, but on the whole, the narration doesn’t add much to the affair.
I really wanted to like this game. The fact that you get a free download of Fruit Ninja Kinect sweetens the deal, but not enough to save this game from mediocrity. If this were a ten or fifteen dollar downloadable game and half as long, I might be singing a different tune. But as a $40 package, The Gunstringer is a tough sell. Feel free to put him back in the ground.