Earlier this week marked the release of The Gunstringer, the first Kinect title from studio Twisted Pixel. The Austin-based company was looking to create a game that went past the casual nature of most Kinect titles and appeal more to the core players. As someone who has generally been unimpressed with how games have been using this motion technology, I was curious to see if one could actually break out of the box and hold my interest longer than five minutes. So did it? Let's break it down.
The basic concept of The Gunstringer is that we are participating in a puppet show starring the titular marionette with no name. The game opens following a woman into Austin's Paramount Theater as she takes her seat in a packed audience. The camera takes us back stage, where we see the actual, wooden puppet and follow it and its puppeteer through the hustle and bustle of opening night, and up on to the stage for the start of the game. From then on, there are occasional cuts to reaction shots of the audience to remind us where we are and provide a bit of comedy. Some have complained that this reminder completely takes them out of the game, but it didn't bother me in the slightest.
This charming concept lends itself extremely well to the Kinect because of how it figures in to gameplay. You use your left hand as if you were holding a marionette, lifting it to make the Gunstringer jump and moving it from side to side to make the Gunstringer, well, move from side to side. You use your right hand to engage in combat, whether it be with a gun, sword, flame thrower or fist. Knowing that you are "controlling a puppet" makes the idea of holding your hands out for 4 hours much more tolerable. The mere fact that logic is backing up the gameplay goes a loooong way.
The tale being played out in this puppet show you are controlling is one of the classic Western variety. The Gunstringer used to be a part of a posse. The posse betrayed him. Now he is taking his revenge, going after them one by one. This is divided into a prologue, four "plays", each with four "acts" and a boss battle, and an epilogue. Each "play" has a different theme - the Old West (posse villain = big oil baron), the New Orleans Bayou (posse villain = brothel madam), the East (posse villain = elderly ninja), and the Land of the Dead (posse villain = voodoo priestess). Each section takes roughly 45 minutes, but be warned, 45 minutes is a long time to continuously move your right arm in what can only be referred to as a "shooting motion". I had Gunstringer elbow after a mere hour. To continue, I had to both enlist the help of someone else for co-op play *and* throw an ice pack on my elbow. Note: I'm a healthy, fit 25 year old. Effing Kinect.
Even though the mimed act of shooting a gun can get painful, it was my favorite mechanic of the game. You move your hand over a total of six targets at a time, then pull your arm back, as if to fire, then you watch all six targets go down in one fell swoop. You really feel the force behind the shots you take. Which is why it was a damn shame when the physical act of doing it began to hurt too much to go on. I highly recommend taking your time with this game, as with *any* Kinect title. Elbow fatigue is infinitely more unpleasant than thumb fatigue.
Luckily, a Player Two came to the rescue. The co-op in this game is an interesting cat, equal parts necessary and pointless, exciting and boring. This is because the only function player two can serve is to assist in shooting. This is great on the one hand, because shooting is hands down the most fun aspect of the game, and not having to worry about moving around and dodging boulders, trees, bombs, sheep, walls, spikes, death (seriously, why the hell is there so much crap to dodge constantly), all you have to focus on is aiming and shooting. But this is simultaneously bad because it means when *anything* else is going on, such as punching (the focus of a few "acts") or the endless levels that involve nothing but jumping and dodging, player two just stands around, bored. But, as I said earlier, my elbow simply said no at a certain point, so having someone to focus on the shooting while I just worried about the Gunstringer's movement was essential to my enjoyment of the game. And as long as your player one stays the same, you can switch different friends in and out as player two.
Normally, one of my main frustrations with Kinect games is how inaccurate they can be, being either way too sensitive to movement, or not able to pick up on movement nearly fast enough. But the game engine for The Gunstringer all but eliminated that concern. Sure, once or twice the undead cowboy didn't jump when I lifted my hand, but for the most part, he did exactly what I wanted him to. Pro tip: When dodging things aiming to kill you, keep an eye on the wooden control handle where the Gunstringer's strings come from, as opposed to keeping an eye on the Gunstringer himself. Focusing on the location of the handle will help you navigate more smoothly.
Unfortunately, no amount of precise movement could help the "jump and dodge" levels from feeling repetitive and shoehorned in to an otherwise fluidly fun game. These frustrating levels seem like they only exist because they feature something the Kinect can do, as opposed to providing a fresh new angle to the story or gameplay. The variations I *did* enjoy were when the act of "pulling the trigger" was eliminated and you simply held your hand over what you wanted to shoot while the Gunstringer fired madly away, and the more classic arcade style of play, where you didn't have to worry about movement at all, as the screen moved for you, and you only had to wait for enemies to pop up so you could shoot them down.
But aside from certain frustrating elements (And to be honest, the "jump and dodge" element to video games always bothers me. Let me shoot something, come on.) and my Gunstringer elbow, the gameplay was a huge step up for Kinect. I felt in control, I felt powerful, and I felt the need to keep coming back, to see if I could do better.
One of my favorite elements to the game was the ever important (especially for any game that bridges on the redundant) death-not-meaning-you-must-replay. If you die, you simply select continue and pick up right where you left off. You lose all your points from that level as punishment, but that is a punishment I would GLADLY take over having to replay a level I didn't get through the first time. I have mentioned how much I hate jumping and dodging, right? I was very grateful for this element - many points to the game developers for knowing not to push their luck. They also get points for allowing the shooting of civilians to be counted toward your score, not against it. Just a side note.
The story and elements were surprisingly strong as well. Narrated by voice actor R. Bruce Elliot in an exaggerated Western style, The Gunstringer struck me as the perfect gaming companion piece to the surreal animated film Rango, another subversive 2011 spin on Western tropes. The humor in The Gunstringer is exceedingly bizarre, some of it way off the mark, some of it chuckle-worthy (at one point a bilboard within the game reads "All your land are belong to us"), all of it in weirdo territory. Some of this is explained when all of a sudden quotes from Troma's Lloyd Kaufman start popping up. Soon thereafter, it becomes very clear that these game developers have a soft spot for Troma (an entire subplot of the Bayou level involves a lumberjack-alligator love child), but just how much of an influence Troma had on this project would give away something I'd like you to discover for yourselves.
The design too, is top notch. Since this world is one of a puppet on stage, the other characters and items are created to look handmade as well, with stuffed enemies, cattle made of beer cans, push pins, paper dolls, card board cut outs and more. And every so often a hand comes down from the sky to manipulate something on the screen, either helping or hurting the Gunstringer in his journey. He becomes increasingly aware of this mysterious hand, which leads to a fantastically meta ending that must be seen to be believed. It had our whole participating group laughing out loud. The ending alone is almost worth the entire price of the game.
Additionally, The Gunstringer is rather fleshed out for a Kinect title. I'm not used to multiple menus and options, 50 potential achievements, DLC, "Hardcore Mode" and more. There are even optional commentary tracks you can unlock if you play enough of the game, that you can choose to listen to as you replay levels.
Overall, The Gunstringer is easily one of the most original, seamless and entertaining uses of the Kinect technology to date. The whole thing only took a few hours to play, in which 34 achievements were unlocked fairly naturally (leaving 16 slightly more challenging ones to go back and conquer if I ever felt the need) and I had a pretty damn good time doing it. Throw in the free DLC and code for Fruit Ninja, and it's not a bad buy. If you own a Kinect, here's your chance to own a game you may actually play. Fingers crossed other studios developing games for Kinect step it up the way Twisted Pixel has. Lionhead and Fable: The Journey, I'm looking at you. Don't let me down.
Platform(s): Xbox 360
Developer: Twisted Pixel Games
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios