It’s easy to see why Microsoft acquired Twisted Pixel only a few days before I started penning this review. Even their more disappointing titles (Comic Jumper, for instance) have a kooky charm about them that makes you look beyond the sometimes underwhelming gameplay.
The studio’s latest, The Gunstringer, is a Kinect-enabled scrolling shooter that gives you limited freedom of movement, while still keeping you firmly on rails the whole way through. With the overarching theme of a stage play by way of string puppets, you’ve to use your left hand to move the Gunstringer (complete with strings and a well articulated body), and your right hand to manoeuvre an aiming reticule across the screen. Borrowing a tad of Child of Eden, you tag enemies with your right hand and then fire a volley of shots by flicking your wrist upward.
The Gunstringer also occasionally plops himself behind cover. You then need to slide out of either side with a directional flick of your wrist, and tag-and-bag enemies before sliding back into cover. The game also mixes up the experience with side-scrolling sections, hand-to-hand combat, vehicles and fun boss battles. One issue I had with the controls is that although the game claims that it can be played sitting down, I couldn’t get it to work right owing to my couch being placed too far from the Kinect sensor. I wasn’t about to rearrange furniture to accommodate a game, so standing-only it had to be. There were also a handful of times when the controls were a bit too twitchy for my liking, particularly when I was in cover.
Now, we’ve seen these sorts of games on Kinect before, and The Gunstringer doesn’t do anything out of the ordinary with its controls to give it much of a leg up over other titles of a similar shooty disposition. But where the game does stand out is in its presentation. And oh boy does it ever stand out. Everything from the customary logo crawl (the Beard Engine is back) to the intro cinematic reek of creativity. The game takes place in front of a real-life audience in a real-world theatre, and it finds one creative way after the other to remind you of the fact. You’ll see the audience in the background in some sequences, while in others, there are cutaways to the crowd cheering at your (well, the Gunstringer’s) heroic deeds, and booing when a villain does something particularly nasty.
Also pulling his weight is the narrator, telling you the story of a man (puppet?) wronged and on a quest for revenge against a gang of nasty Old West types. It isn’t Tony material by any stretch, but hey, this is Twisted Pixel’s first stage production after all. That said, what’s here in terms of the cutscenes, narration and general bad person design gives you enough motivation to want to see the bosses and their underlings go down. The prop design for the sets is also wonderfully twee, sometimes making use of real world objects as they are. It’s endearing to see pieces of stiff cardboard lying around as is, or painted slapdash to look like the nearest facsimile to a building. You’ll also see stagehands breaking the fourth wall and slamming their arms down on stage, for instance.
Just because this is a Kinect game, doesn’t mean it’s light on content. The main story will last you a good five hours or more, but the meat of the game is in the menus. There’s a veritable treasure trove of goodies to buy, ranging from music and behind-the-scenes videos, to extra modes, level commentary and all sorts of randomness that’ll absolutely make you want to play through the game again. Oh, and the menus are set backstage in the same theater. The Options screen also deserves a mention, given that it’s unusually loaded with checkboxes and sliders that let you customize pretty much everything in the game. You also get a free copy of Fruit Ninja: Kinect thrown in to top it off. Neat game, if a bit tough on the ‘ol arms. Ahem.
So The Gunstringer comes off surprisingly well, all told. You can’t help but grin at how well they’ve married full motion video with the actual game, which then makes it one of those games where the experience itself trumps the game’s occasional flaws. I had a ton of fun playing The Gunstringer, but it’s clear that Twisted Pixel had tons more making it. Well done, lads.