It’s a good time to be a Kinect owner. While Microsoft’s motion control peripheral launched with plenty of casual games (a few of which I quite enjoyed), we didn’t see a ‘core’ release until Q Entertainment’s Child of Eden. That game, a beautifully Japanese on-rails shooter, finally got many gamers to notice the Kinect. But it’s not quite a killer app as it also plays perfectly well with a controller. Now along comes The Gunstringer from Twisted Pixel Games, also a rails shooter. Not only is The Gunstringer built from the ground up for Kinect (with no controller support in sight), but it actually eclipses all previous Kinect games, even little Eden Jr.
The Gunstringer differs from just about every other game in that its story is a fiction within a fiction. The entire game is presented as a performance of a puppet show in a live theater. We immediately become acquainted with this theater during the live-action introduction as the Twisted Pixel staff prepares for the show while an expectant audience looks on. The stagehands pour dirt on the real puppet Gunstringer prop, and then the story begins.
At the outset, the Gunstringer (who is never named otherwise) has been having a rough time of things. Namely he is dead and buried, having been murdered by his former posse. Pull up with your left hand and he rises from the gwave, ready to start shooting cans and buzzards and learn how the new-fangled motion controls work. Once that’s out of the way, he sets off on the path of revenge, his previous confederates now his targets.
Those controls are part of what makes The Gunstringer so special. The player’s right hand moves a cursor, locking onto up to six targets at once. Pulling your arm up fires the protagonist puppet’s revolver – an intuitive and satisfying feeling. The game recommends you point your finger in a game shape as you do so, which is probably a better idea than firing a real gun at your TV like I did. Several hours and one new screen later, I resumed gameplay and learned the game’s movement controls.
Therein lies the key difference between The Gunstringer and Child of Eden. While the game is still ‘on rails,’ propelling the ‘Stringer along automatically, players actually do get to move the lead character around with their left hand. Move your hand left or right and so moves the Gunstringer, while pulling the hand up makes him jump. The dreaded Kinect input lag is still present, but the developers wisely built the game around it by making the hero a marionette. It’s only natural that he moves at a slightly different pace than our hands. Of course, players may miss a few jumps now and then when they forget to move a little early, but on the whole it works incredibly well.
While shooting, dodging, or jumping over enemy bullets is usually an option, sometimes The Gunstringer finds it necessary to take cover behind objects. During these sequences, he can’t fire at enemies until players pull him out of cover on the left or right. Here I sometimes struggled with the controls, as the motions for peeking out on either side required much larger, less subtle movements than running. Plus, if I peeked out to the right and then needed to fire toward the middle or left side of the screen, my hands got all crossed up, making aiming difficult. On the whole, I’m not crazy about the cover segments, but they make up only a small portion of the gameplay.
Speaking of gameplay, Twisted Pixel's latest effort brings an astounding variety of styles to the table. Sometimes the camera swings around as the main marionette runs away from oncoming snakes and other obstacles ala Crash Bandicoot. Then there are the Donkey Kong-like tower climbing/platforming sequences. The ‘Stringer gets to ride a stick horse, a stage coach, and even crazier stuff too. My favorite parts are when he grabs two pistols and sets them to autofire, giving the player a targeting reticule for each hand with which to defeat baddies, buzzards, and even hapless mallards ala Duck Hunt. There’s never a dull moment in The Gunstringer.