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Hey! Listen!: Gunstringer Review

Kinect should be fun in a unique way. For nearly a year now its been a glorified Wii with imprecise controls and little imagination. The concept stands on its own, just look at Dance Central. Developers have been quarreling with Microsoft’s tech over the last year, it seems, and early adopters have payed the price. Games are too simple for their own good; they aren’t deep enough to be worth the investment; they just aren’t any fun. I’ll mention Dance Central again because, until Gunstringer, it’s the only justification for the Kinect as a platform intended for entertainment and gaming.

The tech is expensive. The games are expensive. Just to get started, it’s ~$350 with one of the platform’s three good games (Kinect Adventures doesn’t count as a pack-in or, really, as a game). The actual games – Dance Central, Child of Eden, and Gunstringer – are “good” because they provide something unique to the platform. Dance Central is a fine proof of concept, Child of Eden somewhat aimlessly expands on the concept, bolstering the Kinect experience with unique visuals and gameplay, and Gunstringer, well, it finally gives Kinect a fun game with some depth.

Twisted Pixel’s previous work emphasized silliness, fun gameplay, and full-motion video. The Gunstringer is no different. In fact, I’d call it their best game considering the tech it’s working with. And yes, we still have to bring the actual technology into the discussion of whether a Kinect game is good or not; but The Gunstringer takes a bold step forward in that respect.

As the Gunstringer, a player’s hands primarily fill two roles: Mover and shaker. More literally, the player’s left hand is on the Gunstringer’s marionette control bar and the right hand is your peacemaker. Unless, of course, you’re a lefty and prefer alternate controls. If you have a friend play with you, they will only wield another gun, leaving the sticks to you. Controlling the Gunstringer is, as I hinted at before, the weakest part of the experience. I often found myself missing jumps or ducking out from behind cover only not to fire my gun. Running into walls is also a common occurrence, but I wouldn’t blame this on Twisted Pixel. In fact, only one time did the game lose me completely, but it seems like extensive Kinect tuning will solve these “hiccups.”

Painting targets and emptying all six chambers (and then some when you can continue painting targets after “firing”) makes up the point-to-point action, but it’s not the only excitement the game has to offer. Wild West-ploitation tropes like horses chasing trains, showdowns, and even running on the backs of stampeding bovines (or in this case, Lone Star-looking beer cans with horns) punctuate the experience. These breaks from the on-rails gunplay keeps the three hours it takes to complete The Gunstringer feeling fresh and exciting.

Along with a few other surprises I won’t venture to spoil here, the Gunstringer also employs a narrator to similar effect as Bastion.  Though he’s not as memorable as Rucks, Gunstringer’s narrator provides commentary on your play ranging from deadpan obvious to downright hilarious. When all of these elements combine, The Gunstringer becomes one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve had all year.

The cherries on top, then, are the art style and music. The art style is firmly in keeping with the Dia de los Muertos puppet motif with a splash of Vaudeville. The environments are distinct and colorful, while the enemies – i.e., everything that moves but your horse – are humorous to behold and diabolical in their design. The music helps distinguish each of the four main villains’ areas by adding bellowing guitars and touches of the East, the Bayou, etc. to the thoroughly Western soundtrack. These garnishes on the gameplay flesh out The Gunstringer in a way that puts it skull and shoulders above its Kinect brethren.

The final element of the gameplay that helps The Gunstringer earn your $40, aside from the free Fruit Ninja pack-in, is its unlocks. While contorting our blue-boned hero through the Wild (Wild) West, players will earn money for their performances (which are then rated by actual film critics semi-appropriately to the framing device of the game, a play). The cold-hard cash can then be spent on various modes (HARDCORE, No-Fail), commentary (by the likes of Rooster Teeth and Xbox’s Major Nelson), modifiers (Meatstringer, Ghoststringer), music, photos, art, and even a couple hidden achievements. After one playthrough on Normal, I’d obtained enough cash to clear one category of unlocks out of five.

Kinect’s first game has arrived. All of the elements we’ve come to expect from a AAA title are in place. Twisted Pixel took a bold chance and it paid off. Hopefully, this will lead to grander, more well-realized experiences on the platform. As for The Gunstringer’s humble revengture, it’s three of the most enjoyable hours I’ve spent with any game this year, even if its depth is somewhat artificial. The ending even delights, making endearing use of a mechanic I’ve been dying to see on Kinect.

Feel the imaginary control bar’s splintered wood in your grip, draw the cold barrel of your peacemaker from its worn leather holster, and have fun, like Microsoft intended.