Game Review: ‘The Gunstringer’ for XBox 360

The origins of The Gunstringer are not what most people would expect. At Comic-Con in San Diego, TwistedPixel CEO Michael Wilford let us in on the story that has already spread throughout the internet that the pitch for the game came about during the time span of a bathroom break.

After talking to TwistedPixel about the Kinect technology, Microsoft executives went to the bathroom. Michael and one of the other’s on his team looked at a skeleton marionette on the wall of the Mexican restaurant they were at and came up with the pitch by the time the Microsoft suits had returned. The rest, as they say, is history.

Gameplay:

At first, the Gunstring appears as a fairly simple concept. Players use one hand to control the motion of the character left, right or jumping while their other hand aims an imaginary gun at up to six targets. Players fire by lifting their right hand quickly just like they would back in the childhood days of playing cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers.

There is something to be said for the immediate nostalgia brought to this game with that one simple action. Not only does it have a control that is intuitive to the Kinect sensor for the action it represents, but it brings people back to their childhood which makes it almost impossible not to like.

Whether its ninjas, ducks, cowboys or Indians, everything in the Old West wants to take out the Gunstringer and the player needs to be able to shoot it out before it gets to him or at least get out of the way.

The game has variations on the formula as well. Some instances have a player running or riding through a level and shooting as they go. Other areas place players behind cover and they must peek their head out to target and fire at opponents. Still, other levels bring about platforming whether it is avoiding barrels coming down Donkey Kong style or jumping over fallen trees in a riverboat.

There are some instances where players must use punches to take down opponents but these are few and far between. Some of these occur during the platforming sections and players must punch at the right time to clear the path in front of them. Others, one on one fistfights break out. These are fairly shallow however as players must just alternate which hand they throw a punch with based on on-screen prompts instead of having a basic strategy to it.

The one disappointment of the game is the boss fights. During the four main stages of the game, players find themselves looking at what the stage The Gunstringer is performing on (more on that later) from the audience perspective. At that time, the animated Gunstringer has disappeared and is replaced by the boring corpse of the marionette on strings. The gun controls become slightly broken and it is unclear when the player can or cannot fire and must just spend most of the time dodging on a 2D plane.

Story and Presentation:

Players begin The Gunstringer by literally pulling him up from a shallow grave by the strings. They take him on an adventure where he exacts revenge on his former posse which betrayed him and left him for dead. Each of the levels has their own strange theme to go along with the stage’s boss. An oil baron, a samurai, an undead mistress and an old time madam give The Gunstringer a host of screwed up opponents to deal with as well as tons of unexpected twists to the story.

One of the most intriguing parts of The Gunstringer is how the story is told in front of a “live audience”. The way the story is presented is having all the action take place on a stage with an audience reacting to everything happening in front of them. During more epic encounters, the camera turns on to FML of the audience, which at times does have a little bit of cheesy overacting. There is nothing more exciting though than riding a Chinese bottle rocket and waving your hat at the audience as your shoot across the screen.

What is great about the storytelling of The Gunstringer is that it doesn’t give a flashback showing the betrayal at the start of the game. Instead, the backstory is told mostly through the narrator which, similar to Bastion, adds subtle humor disguised by his ultra serious tone. The result is a perfect combination of spaghetti Western alongside modern themes, like samurai , zombies and of course, the wavy tube man. The story of The Gunstringer is not a long one. There is actually an achievement for completing it in one sitting. This feels like a case though where we’d rather have a solid short game rather than a long drawn out experience that loses its luster.

Graphics and Sound:

The art style of The Gunstringer is a perfect fit for the story being told. Much in the same aesthetic of ‘Splosion Man or The Maw, The Gunstringer is a beautifully animated cartoon world that has a signature feel all its own. Each character on screen is shown how they’d look as if they were built as an on stage prop instead of being a fully rendered person. From cardboard cut outs of soldiers to thread being used as head on the creepy gator lumberjack hybrid, no two characters even look alike.

The main sound design choice that most influences the player is that of the narrator who does a perfect job delivering his often silly, but always entertaining lines. He is serious enough to keep the story advancing but also light hearted enough that players know they can have fun listening to him. The rest of the sound does a great job of adding enjoyment to the rest of the game. The only disappointment is the lack of character voices. While we don’t know if maybe TwistedPixel had tried this and decided it just didn’t work, it would have been interesting to hear the marionette / puppet style voices coming from off stage to help further the story.

Overall:

Upon The Gunstringer’s inception, no one expected it to be the best direct use of the Kinect controls since the peripheral’s launch. The Gunstringer was able to bring together fantastic control, engaging gameplay, TwistedPixel’s signature humor and a surprisingly relatable story. From a simple dinner meeting pitch came a game that is not only fun and entertaining but a technical showcase. Up until this point, the Kinect was thought to be so limited that it could only be used properly for games where a player did not have direct control over the character on screen like in Dance Central. This gives those looking forward to titles like Kinect Star Wars.

TwistedPixel has done it again with a title that can keep a player smiling the whole way through. As a budget title it also comes with Fruit Ninja Kinect as an added bonus (which we gave away to one of our lucky Twitter followers) and free day one DLC making the price point very attractive. Though the boss battles are a little lackluster compared to the rest of the game, it is a must buy for anyone who owns a Kinect and is tired of seeing the dust fly off it every time their XBox gets turned on. Alongside Dance Central, The Gunstringer is a showcase piece of software for the Kinect going into this holiday season.

XBox 360

Developer: TwistedPixel

Publisher: Microsoft Games Studios

Price: $39.99 (includes a download code for XBLA Fruit Ninja Kinect and Day 1 DLC)

Score: 8.5

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