The Old West has posed a challenge for the game industry, with only Outlaws and Red Dead Redemption really doing the genre justice. Meanwhile, the Xbox Kinect has excelled at rhythm and workout games but fared only marginally well when it’s come to original motion-controlled titles. The combination of the two, then — Old West and Xbox Kinect — would seem to be a recipe for disaster. Good thing the developers at Twisted Pixel don’t watch Emeril; what they’ve created with The Gunstringer is a surprisingly tasty morsel. In fact, The Gunstringer is one of the most original games on Xbox 360, and it brings a freshness to motion-controlled titles that hasn’t been seen on any of the leading motion platforms, Kinect or not.
The Gunstringer is essentially an on-rails third-person shooter, with a healthy dose of adventure platforming thrown in for good measure. During the course of its five-hour campaign, the Xbox Kinect game tells the story of a pseudo-undead skeleton named The Gunstringer who’s seeking revenge on the four bosses responsible for his death. Oh, and he happens to be a marionette. Five hours and four bosses may not sound like much, but the overall action is more than sufficient for a genre-busting game like this, and the gameplay is paced in a way that you always feel like there’s plenty of meat on those five hours’ worth of bones. No pun intended.
About 75 percent of The Gunstringer is comprised of the on-rails shooter elements, with the remaining 25 percent split between platforming and some old-school timed-jump sequences. How old school? Let’s just say that one memorable segment is a virtual clone of the original Donkey Kong, while another is reminiscent of the old Star Wars vector-art arcade game. They’re not all that way — most of them are chasm-leaping exercises — but those two inspired some laughs. During the shooter portions, The Gunstringer will wield (and sometimes double wield) six-shooters, a shotgun, a flamethrower and a katana to dish out the pain.
Now keep in mind that The Gunstringer is an Xbox Kinect game, so you’ll be doing all that platforming and shooting by moving your hands. Although the game is on rails, the Gunstringer can still be moved left and right on the screen by moving your left hand as if to control his strings, and jumping is accomplished by yanking your left hand up above your head. Remember, this vengeful skeleton cowboy is a marionette. Aiming and shooting is assigned to the right hand, with hand movements determining where he’ll aim while a flick of the wrist fires the gun. Heck, there’s even a scripted cover system in the game whereby players can make the Gunstringer peek out by pulling his strings left or right, then aiming and firing with the right hand while he’s out of cover.
The gameplay is surprisingly deep, and I’ve got to say it’s the most rewarding, original experience currently available on Xbox Kinect. However, with that praise comes a dose of Kinect-specific trouble as well, and it’s ironically related to that same rewarding gameplay.
The Gunstringer suffers from an insane number of cheap shots, especially later in the game, almost all of which occur for two common reasons. First, the developers at Twisted Pixel crammed a lot of action and effects on the screen, which is nice from a graphical standpoint but sometimes interferes with your ability to advance unscathed, what with all the smoke, explosions and falling debris hiding an incoming bullet or grenade. Worse yet, visual obstacles and moving objects at times force you to miss a chasm to jump over, which is already challenging at times due to certain camera angles.
The second reason for the cheap shots also has to do with jumping, this time because of the Kinect-specific controls. The Xbox Kinect hardware is powerful, but it’s not always precise, a shortcoming that’s often overlooked (or not encountered) due to the nature of most Kinect games on the market. In The Gunstringer, though, your left arm may be positioned to the right to stay on a bridge on the right-hand side of the screen, while your right hand is aiming the gun to the left and occasionally being pulled back toward your shoulder to fire. With all that hand movement and crossing of arms, the Kinect can get confused as to which hand is doing what, and it’ll either not fire the gun, not aim properly, or not register your attempt to jump. All of these can lead to “cheap shot” hits due to input error, not user error.
Fortunately, the cheap shots don’t always carry a consequence, because The Gunstringer’s health bar is so generous. Sure, you may fall off the same bridge platforming sequence four times due to poor motion recognition, but the health bar is so long and there are so many health-boosting hearts sprinkled around that you can survive even the most frustrating series of cheap shots without dying. If the Gunstringer does die, the game’s very forgiving and doesn’t rely on traditional checkpoints but instead letting you restart exactly where you were — all the way down to the boss’ energy level. In exchange for this convenience, your money/points are drained, but as long as you have points, you’ll always survive.
When not used to save the Gunstringer’s life, points are used in the bonus content store from the main menu, where you can purchase level-long developer commentary tracks (a really cool feature); modifiers such as a Sepia-Tone Mode and a mode where the Gunstringer is invisible except for his hands, boots and hat; and an alternate Hardcore gameplay mode. You can even buy an Achievement in the store, a wacky but creative way to let Xbox 360 owners spend their points.
As an Xbox 360 game, it’s no surprise that The Gunstringer tracks point totals on every level and uploads them to Leaderboards, but the addition of same-screen co-op play in The Gunstringer is a surprise indeed. Much like any spaghetti Western has a lone hero, there can only be one Gunstringer. So, when you fire-up two-player co-op, you’ll find that each person has a gun but only the first player controls the Gunstringer’s movements. This means there’s no fighting over hearts or other resources (hello, Gauntlet), and that a hard-working tandem can really dish out the pain without fear of wasting resources or acting greedy.
In terms of graphics, The Gunstringer has some of the most original graphics I’ve seen so far on the Xbox 360, Kinect game or not, with a vibe that’s like a cross between LittleBigPlanet and Grim Fandango, with a little Voodoo Vince flair. In fact, for what it’s worth, The Gunstringer has my favorite noir art style since Voodoo Vince on the original Xbox. Everything is highly stylized, colorful, unique to the Gunstringer universe and never misses a beat or drops a frame, even when a slew of TNT barrels explode all at once.
The audio is just as sharp, although that’s mostly attributed to the hilarious narrator. There’s obviously some environmental audio and a soundtrack, but it’s really the narrator that steals the show with his riotous commentary about what’s happening on-screen and his explanations of the various plot points.
Put that audio together with original noir-ish graphics, a unique shooter/platformer hybrid and a creative gameplay application for the motion-control landscape, and The Gunstringer rises to the top of the Xbox Kinect pantheon. The very nature of its control scheme does raise some concerns, to the point that level advancement is impeded at times, but those issues are mitigated by an energy bar that lasts through even the most heinous of cheap shots. Sure, I was frustrated at times, but if you know going into the game that you’ll face those challenges, you’re likely to enjoy the overall experience just as much as I did. The Gunstringer really is a great game, warts and all.
Score: 9 — In spite of an abundance of cheap shots, the game’s personality and originality elevate The Gunstringer into the upper echelon of Kinect titles. In fact, it’s my favorite Xbox Kinect title to date.
Platform reviewed: Xbox 360