The Gunstringer began its life as one of the first downloadable Kinect-enabled titles on the XBox Live Arcade. Midway through its development cycle, Microsoft asked Twisted Pixel if they would consider upping the ante and turning its tale of puppet vengeance into a full retail release. With trepidation and, ultimately, success, Twisted Pixel has delivered a game full of charm, humor and, most importantly, content.
The Gunstringer opens with a live action sequence featuring stagehands preparing for the evening’s events. The house is full of patrons anticipating a puppet show of epic proportions and it’s up to you, in the role of The Gunstringer’s puppet master, to deliver the performance of a lifetime. The live action video is campy, but it helps set the tone for the entire affair. You’ll see (and hear) the audience throughout the game, cheering on your successes and booing your failures.
As the curtain pulls back, we learn that Gunstringer was betrayed by his former comrades. He has risen from the grave to exact his revenge on everyone and everything in his path. All of the set pieces serve to remind you that this is a puppet show. Townsfolk are two-dimensional cutouts. Villains are wooden dolls (or, in the case of Wavy Tube Man, well- you figure it out). Cows are made out of beer cans and react accordingly when you shoot them. You’ll experience all manner of unexpected hilarity through the 4 Acts, each with 4 chapters and a boss fight.
Throughout the game, there is also a healthy dose of Deus Ex Machina. At times a human hand will drop obstacles in your way. Later in the game, though, you can turn that to your advantage and use the giant fist of the puppet master to pound your foes. The game coaches you and never leaves you wondering what to do.
The controls for the game are fairly intuitive. You move the Gunstringer with your left hand, holding it as if you were holding a marionette. Moving left and right will help you avoid obstacles during the on-rails running and riding sections of the game. Lifting your hand up causes our hero to jump over gaps, bullets and other obstructions. Your left hand also manages hiding and peaking out of cover during the shooting gallery sections of the game.
To aim and fire at enemies, you need to hold your right hand in the shape of a gun, hover over and enemy to lock on and pull your arm up as if you have experienced recoil to loose up to six bullets. My elbow definitely got a workout. You’ll fire both on the run and during the cover-based shooting gallery sequences. At times, you’ll also get your hands on a shotgun, which doesn’t lock on, but allows you to take down multiple opponents at once. Along the way, you’ll be able to collect tacos offered up by skeletal hands. These allow you to build a multiplier by taking down enemies and ends when time runs out or when you get hit.
During the on-rails sections, I often had trouble moderating my movements and frequently pushed Gunstringer too far in the direction I was trying to move him. During the cover sections, the game was very finicky about interpreting when I was attempting to be in our out of cover. Thankfully, the game is fairly forgiving with your health and this doesn’t really get in the way of the fun. For those looking for more of a challenge, there is a more difficult mode, among many other things, that can be unlocked in the shop using the funds you earn by playing through the game.
There are also times when you put your gun away and simply punch. As you would expect, this is handled by punching toward the screen. You’ll also encounter small quicktime events that ask you to punch with both hands following the prompts on the screen. There is even the occasional 2D section of the game, which offers up a nice change, though a particular boss battle reminded me of a similarly frustrating 2D encounter in Shadows of the Damned.
In contrast, you’ll be handed a second gun at times. In these moments, you’ll simply keep firing at anything in the reticule. Unfortunately, I felt like the Kinect had a hard time tracking both my hands accurately, but it depended on what position they were in when that section started. You can learn to compensate, though, and those sections, even with the tracking issues, are enjoyable.
Visually, the game exudes charm and style. If you take a moment to appreciate the construction of the scenery and characters as backdrops and props on a stage, you’ll be amazed at the detail. Twisted Pixel has taken enormous care with every aspect of the design and it more than compensates for the occasionally spotty controls. I wanted to keep playing to see more of the game.
The audio design is equally stunning. You can download the full soundtrack for free on the Twisted Pixel website (and why wouldn’t you?). The sound effects are simple gunshots, cries of townsfolk and snickering of enemies. However, the game features adaptive narration, similar to what we experienced in Bastion, and also peppers in the crowd cheers and boos. The whole package drives home the reminder that you aren’t the Gunstringer, you are the puppet master controlling him. Get it right and the crowd loves you. Take damage and the audience reacts accordingly to your performance.
In addition to the core game, each copy comes with a code to download Fruit Ninja Kinect. Beyond that, Twisted Pixel has already released a huge piece of DLC, entitled The Wavy Tube Man Chronicles. This is a live-action lightgun shooter in the vein of old laserdisc games. It’s extremely campy and fun and absolutely worth the GB+ of space it will take on your hard drive.
I greatly enjoyed Gunstringer, and it makes a great addition to my Kinect library, which is largely filled with games like Kinectimals. While I don’t think the game is going to move Kinect units for core gamers, it’s a worthy purchase for anyone that already has one.
Review copy provided by publisher.