If I were reviewing The Gunstringer as the latest game from Twisted Pixel, it would be an easy five-star. It’s smart, funny, and impressively committed to neat variations off a solid core. The creepy-cutie western visuals are beautifully designed, the gameplay is accessible and fun, the writing is entertaining (in a weird example of great minds thinking alike, it uses the same kind of dynamic voiceover that got such notice in last month’s Bastion), the audio is engaging, and the many modifiers and extras make up for the game’s short length. As the new Twisted Pixel game, it’s five stars, easy.
But it’s not just the new Twisted Pixel game, it’s Twisted Pixel’s first Kinect game. Microsoft has such hope in The Gunstringer as the title that will finally make people love the Kinect that they’re now sending this weird little thing into kiosks at Best Buy, which is like seeing Stripe the Gremlin working as a sullen Denny’s hostess. They made a good bet, as The Gunstringer is the most straightforwardly fun hardcore game to come out for the Kinect, and indifferent-to-self-improvement gamers, myself included, appreciate a Kinect game that we can play sitting down. Unfortunately for the gang at Redmond, much of what’s great about The Gunstringer has little to do with its Kinect functionality, and the Kinect functionality doesn’t make the case for the platform.
The Gunstringer continues Twisted Pixel’s streak as the funniest guys in game development. Unlike the self-hating comedy of Suda 51, the jokes here always work with the game and never get in the way; it’s like you’re playing through with a particularly hilarious friend sitting next to you. The comedy isn’t just confined to the very amusing live-action cutscenes; Twisted Pixel has an amazing ability to get a laugh with a character model, or even a gameplay mechanic. I’ve compared cover shooters to Duck Hunt before, but The Gunstringer makes the Duck Hunt reference in a way that first gets a big laugh and then adds a whole new level to the shooting.
And the shooting is terrific. Though the Kinect forces the player to move their reticle a little more deliberately than is entirely comfortable, it’s awfully satisfying to unleash death with a finger-pointing “bang-bang” gesture. Even the drawbacks are arguable strengths: I was annoyed that the jerky shooting gesture forced me to give up targeting position every time I fired, until I remembered that I was using six-shooters, and what seemed like a design mistake was actually a very able simulation of pistol recoil. The game’s even better in the auto-fire sections, where there’s great satisfaction in stroking your hands across the screen to unleash a steady flow of death, like Child of Eden’s snickering punk nephew. Indeed, had they stuck to making the game a rail shooter with occasional cover mechanics, this might be a perfect title.
But the game is actually split between shooting and platforming, and as you’d expect, the former is a lot better than the latter. The Gunstringer is built around the conceit that the game is taking place in a puppet theater, and the idea that you’re controlling a marionette, rather than interacting with an avatar, helps to justify the lack of responsiveness. But it doesn’t make it any more fun. Mark my words, the first big hit for the Kinect will be the game that comes up with a narrative justification for the laggy controls that’s satisfying enough to make us accept it intuitively; maybe that’s why so many develops are coming out with games like Kinectimals, where you’re demonstrating actions for a dimwitted on-screen critter rather than directly interacting with anything.
But for a platformer, where timed-to-the-millisecond leaps are everything, it’s frustrating to have a control system that keeps getting in your way. People loved the Wii because, at its best, it made the controller disappear. Using your body as the controller was supposed to be the next step in invisible controls, but the imprecision of the Kinect’s response means you’re always hyperconscious of the interface between you and the game. Jerking up your hand to jump is a reasonable mechanic, but there’s no feeling that the game is responding to your particular hand movements, just that you’re moving your hand to trigger the “jump” command, which is inevitably less responsive than just pushing a nice binary button. A lot of the platforming and dodging is either full of cheap, undeserved smackdowns (because it’s hard to gauge how much you have to yank your hand to trigger a jump), or so easy you realize the game is just giving you a consolation prize because it can’t really challenge you without exposing its own weakness.
It’s a testament to how good The Gunstringer is that these problems not only don’t kill the game, they don’t even hurt it much. As in ’Splosion Man, Twisted Pixel has made sure that death is never more than a momentary annoyance, so the frustration of some of the platforming sections isn’t fatal to enjoyment. Eventually, it even becomes fun to try to master the pat-your-head-and-rub-your-stomach two-handed mechanics of jumping and shooting, even if it does feel like trying to play Super Mario Bros. using only your nose.
Much credit goes to the great visual and audio design that kept me having fun even when I was struggling with dodgy controls or sections where my interaction seemed barely desired. Games are challenges, but they’re also sound-and-light shows, and it’s perfectly legitimate for a game to lean on the latter when the former isn’t quite pulling it off. The Gunstringer is often frustrating, but it’s always entertaining, and that’s a pretty good balance.
If you don’t have a Kinect, this isn’t the game that’ll make you buy one; if anything, you might find yourself wishing they’d release an XBLA version with controller support, where its short length would be more acceptable and its flaws would be nonexistent. But if you do have a Kinect, this is the best hardcore game we’ve seen yet, and in some sections, it might make you a believer in the system again, even as other sections make you wonder why Microsoft released the peripheral before they could really make it work.