Review: The Gunstringer

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Like a cardboard-cutout tumbleweed upside the head, Microsoft’s Kinect has found both its face and newest hero: A blue-skulled, pistol-wielding puppet with a vengeance streak wider than a Wal-Mart parking lot. That’d be the Gunstringer, the taciturn hero of Twisted Pixel’s brilliantly loopy action-western. Thanks to some easily accessible and frenetic gameplay, you can add this one to the must-have section of the Kinect library.

The game is presented as a literal puppet show—complete with a human studio audience that boos and hisses when the bad guys’ bullets hit home and hoots and high-fives when the Gunstringer offs a boss. The human element lends a goofy meta-ness to the proceedings.

You’re the puppetmaster, controlling a set of invisible strings that move your cartoon outlaw around the screen. In general, your left hand controls the strings, zipping the Gunstringer from left to right or into the air when it’s time to jump obstacles or dodge projectiles. For most of the game, your right hand controls a targeting reticule that can line up to six targets at a time (and more if you’re using the shotgun). If you’re so inclined, a second player can jump in and help blast some of the targets that litter the edges of the screen.

In classic Sergio Leone fashion, the Gunstringer has been betrayed and left for dead by his old gang, a collection of crazy cartoon cliches that he’ll spend the rest of the game exacting revenge upon. The festivities start with a throwdown with Wavy Tube Guy, possibly the goofiest and least threatening western villain since Yosemite Sam. And it gets much more ridiculous from there. (Literal) crocodile lover, anyone? At one point, you’ll saddle up for a ride with the bronze statue of none other than Ol’ Hickory himself, Andrew Jackson. When the run-n-gun sequence ends, Jackson’s horse shoots skyward, a stream of colorful stars shooting out its ass. Yep, it’s that kind of game.

The game’s environments are bursting with touches like these. Cardboard-cutout citizens shriek and run around in front of cartoony cacti, saloons and water towers. Cattle with beer cans for torsos roam the plains, spraying damage-inflicting foam when you blast them. Gigantic human hands intrude into the middle of the action, dropping buildings and rolling boulders designed to ding your collection of life-hearts.

The game’s pace is constant and, at times, totally breakneck. One activity segues directly into another, mixing in shooting sequences with side-scrolling style barrel hopping, fisticuffs and more. During the copious cover sequences that find you ducking behind objects as enemies gather to blast you, you’ll have to master a three-step hand ballet: target as many enemies as you can with the right-hand reticule, jerk out from behind cover with a slash of your left hand and flick upwards with you right again to fire your weapon. When it all comes together—like when you’re able to take out multiple enemies at once with some deft swipe-targeting—it’s easy to feel like you are conducting a delicious orchestra of six-gun death.

The Gunstringer’s desert-dry tongue-in-cheek approach keeps the mood light, and is apparent in its narrator, who’s constantly dropping ponderous, gut-busting one-liners. (Think of the narrator from Bastion, with a lot less doom and gloom.)

Once you’ve galloped through the game’s first couple chapters, you’ve basically seen most of what’s in The Gunstringer’s holster. That said, the action rarely feels stale, and better still, the Kinect controls almost approach the immersion levels the system’s been promising since it released nearly a year ago. The key word is almost. For the most part, the Kinect controls are smooth and responsive—far more so than in Child of Eden, the game with which The Gunstringer shares some control scheme commonalities. But there are a few annoying exceptions. Jumping chasms and other environmental hazards is a matter of mastering some seriously floaty timing, which isn’t always breezy when you’re trying to shoot six different things at full gallop—in other words, jump early, not late. The boss battle with the battleship-boobed Bordello Madam is predicated almost entirely on being able to time your jumps and dodges effectively, which means it’s also one of the game’s most frustrating.

Luckily, burning all your life hearts by taking bullets or crashing into objects doesn’t have to send you back to the start of a level—there’s a continue button that’ll let you pick up where you left off. Leaning on it won’t score you any medals at the end of a level, but it will get you through the game’s campaign in around five hours. Even if you’ve landed a few medals, the incentive to go back for a better score is huge. And not just because the critic blurbs that run after each successfully completed level are so damn funny (“He’s like a young Dick Cheney!”).

The Gunstringer is kitschy, clever and cool enough to stand on its own bowed legs, but Microsoft has also stuffed something extra into this ten-gallon hat: A download code for Fruit Ninja Kinect, which effectively gives you two of the Kinect library’s most awesome games in one package. And easily makes this the biggest no-brainer Kinect purchase you’re likely to see this year.

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Pros:
+ Smooth Kinect controls feel natural and effective
+ Fantastic sense of humor and art design create a unique experience
+ Tons of replay value

Cons:
- Floaty jumping mechanics lead to falls, frustration

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Game Info:
Platform: Xbox 360 Kinect
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Twisted Pixel Games
Release Date: 9/13/2011
Genre: Western Shooter
ESRB Rating: Teen
Players: 1-2
Source: Review copy provided by publisher

About the Author

Aaron R. Conklin has been writing about games and games culture for more than 15 years. A former contributor to Computer Games Magazine and Massive Magazine, his writing has appeared on IGN.com and in newspapers and alt-weeklies across the country. Conklin's an unapologetic Minnesota sports fan living in Madison, Wisconsin, home of the Midwest's most underrated gaming vibe.