It seems that all the motion gaming platforms need a faux-lightgun shooter, and the Kinect has the unique dilemma of not having a controller to wave around and pretend is some kind of strangely weightless gun. Playing to the strengths of the Kinect is no easy task, and juggling a sense of disconnect from reality and a little latency doesn’t usually lend itself to high flying action. Twisted Pixel’s marionette western does the best with what may not be the best fit.
The on rails shooter genre has really fallen to the wayside, since… wait a second. Well, I guess it’s not really a genre that’s ever been going anywhere, so if it’s on the wayside, it’s because it’s waiting, hitching a ride on a very lonely road. While you do spend some time pointing a finger-pistol at the screen, The Gunstringer bears more resemblance to standard controller on-rails shooter games like Panzer Dragoon Orta or Rez, rather than light gun games like Virtua Cop. The left hand is used as if holding the cross that holds the strings of your puppet, and the right controls a cursor with which to paint six targets before firing away, much like how the left stick would control movement and the right stick would control aiming in most standard modern games (specifically, those already mentioned.) Firing is done by quickly lifting your arm simulating the recoil of the shot. How you shoot six shots with a single moment of recoil is beyond me, but it works well enough and makes some intuitive sense.
The titular character, The Gunstringer, is an undead marionette with a lot of grudges against his former gang, the members of which, of course, provide the themes and boss battles for the three plays, plus a prologue and an epilogue. Each play consists of four acts, and has has some pretty obvious gameplay formulae laid out. The most common form is that of the previous ‘left hand move, right hand shoot’ which the majority of the game takes. There’s a few variations; occasionally the Gunstringer will dip into cover stopping the movement of the rails as you step out to kill some enemy waves; other ties you may be running away and unable to fire. Another one is the melee sections, and decidedly the least interesting of the entire game. Sometimes you don’t even have control of the Gunstringer as he moves along a set path and your only interaction is to swing your fist to attack enemies that will really do nothing to hurt you unless you fail to swing your arm (which is just as well, since you have no defensive options.) Next, there’s the dual wielding segments, where both your arms get a reticle each, and the guns are repeatedly firing at a constant stream of enemies. Then there’s the boss battles, which frames the actual stage that the plays are being carried out on, and allow flying movement of the Gunstringer across the screen to avoid the attacks of the boss whilst keeping the trigger hand trained on the boss for their vulnerable moments.
The aesthetic of the plays are about as kitschy as the game itself, which isn’t meant to be a pejorative, as it’s actually endearing. full motion video of crowd reactions are often spliced into the action, those people are reallyoverdoing it. At times when a moment of mediocre comedy is on the stage, a shot of a man in hysterics comes in, and he rocks back and forth in the seat clutching the woman next to him who’s also clearly been told to act like she’s just seen the most hilarious thing ever. While playing, it’s hard to imagine anyone being as caught up in a play that involves string and poorly painted cardboard, which makes it amusing that the show you’re putting on (as the puppeteer) is so enthralling.
Much like Twisted Pixel’s previous games, The Gunstringer is often as much of a humour delivery system than an out-and-out game, which is just as well, because if the game tried to stand on its own mechanics alone, I wouldn’t be too happy with it. The lag inherent with Kinect is just too much to make the act of accurate jumps and avoiding of obstacles truly engaging, let alone the gunplay. There’s a hardcore mode, to which I say ‘bugger that’, not because the normal mode is actually hard, but rather I found myself frustrated too often with getting hit because the response time is slow enough to really screw things up. It’s a shame really, because it felt a bit like playing Quake 3 via dialup: You know that the game is fun, but you also know that you’re not actually having that fun because the experience isn’t optimised.
The Bottom Line
The Gunstringer is unique by virtue of it being the first full retail release of a game by Twisted Pixel. It still oozes the Twisted Pixel charm and wit (not to mention craziness,) but blown out to hit the brim of an entire DVD. There’s more bonus material than threads in Clint Eastwood’s poncho, from commentary by various gaming luminaries (Rooster Teeth and Major Nelson to name a couple), to movies of guys in front of green screens. The Gunstringer’s a good game, I just wish the lag factor didn’t drag it down so many notches.