A skeleton cowboy marionette driven by revenge. Troma's Lloyd Kaufman driving dangerously. A beautiful, unlockable picture of our own Hamza Aziz. A gator that has sex with a lumberjack. Wait, hold on... what now?
Yup, this is definitely a Twisted Pixel game. Welcome to The Gunstringer, easily one of the most fun and original titles for Kinect.
The Gunstriner (Xbox 360)
Developer: Twisted Pixel
Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Release date: September 13, 2011
With The Gunstringer, Twisted Pixel have woven together story and gameplay in a way no Kinect game developer has been able to do to date. It's a clever setup: you control The Gunstringer’s marionette with one hand, moving him through a stageplay as an audience -- hilariously captured as live-action video -- watches on. Using your other hand, you'll control an on-screen six-shooter reticule, taking aim to "paint" up to six targets. Pulling your arm up to your shoulder (the motion it would make in response to firearm recoil) lets loose a barrage of bullets.
Being an “on-rails shooter,” you won’t have to move The Gunstringer in a 3D space. Instead, Twisted Pixel guides you forward through the experience, and you’re tasked with moving moving The Gunstringer left and right, and in some cases up, down, and jerking your hand upwards to make him jump. Between articulating The Gunstringer's movements with one hand, and aiming and firing with another, things can surely get tricky. During some of the more demanding sections of the game, it gets a bit like patting your head and rubbing your stomach at the same time.
Fortunately, the Kinect sensor does a good job of keeping up with your actions, which makes playing The Gunstringer both fun and satisfying. The gimmick of moving a puppet back and forth with your hand clicks quickly, as your brain is fast to make sense of the natural action. The “paint and shoot” mechanic also works extremely well, not entirely dissimilar to Q-Entertainment’s shot at Kinect, Child of Eden. Really, it’s not a control scheme that couldn’t have been mapped to a controller; The Gunstringer often feels like parts of Twisted Pixel’s controller-based Comic Jumper. Admittedly, though, the controller-free experience gives the game an entirely different, fun, and welcome feel. That rubbing-your-belly-and-patting-your-head feeling I mentioned earlier goes a long way towards adding a layer of depth and challenge to the experience that you might not get with traditional controls.
It doesn’t come without a trade-off, though. While I’m still surprised by the accuracy of the Kinect sensor, and its tracking is mostly on point, it’s certainly not perfect. The “floaty” feel and small disconnect between your hands and on-screen actions is present, as it is with many Kinect games that try to match one-to-one tracking. This becomes really obvious when you’re required to quickly move The Gunstringer away from an obstacle, or gently guide him through a maze of booby traps with minor motions. It never becomes frustrating to the point of completely eliminating fun from the equation, but I ran into more than a few situations than I would have liked where I was blaming my failures on the hardware.
Great news about The Gunstringer is that it has an “Activity level” of “sitting-standing.” What this means is that compared to something like Ubisoft’s Your Shape: Fitness Evolved (which has an activity level of “bust your fat ass”), don’t expect to break a sweat playing The Gunstringer. While keeping your arms raised to move the puppet and fire your guns can get exhausting during a marathon session (e.g., when you have to review it and meet a deadline), any human gameplay session shouldn’t leave you wanting to take a nap. Unfortunately, while the game advertises “sitting” gameplay, I didn’t have much luck in that department. It worked, with the game recognizing that I was in front of the television and trying to play, but I found that the accuracy took a hit. Your mileage may vary depending on your setup (and maybe your height, how tall your seat is, etc.), but I ended up playing the entire game on my feet.
As with most Twisted Pixel games, there’s a ton of content here, including a handful of story-based chapters and the developer’s usual heap of unlockable content. The content is generally unlocked using cash earned for your in-game performance, so you’re encouraged to head back into levels you’ve previously completed to beef up your performance. (Bonus: there’s a photo of Destructoid’s own Hamza Aziz to purchase; sorry, he’s wearing clothes.) While you could probably blow through all of the main content in a few hours, these extras (as well as a tough-as-nails “hardcore” mode) kept me invested for quite a bit longer. You can even play the game cooperatively, which could add another set of playthroughs if you’re lucky enough to have friends who like being with you.
One glance at any of the game’s key art would probably be a dead giveaway that Twisted Pixel’s trademark sense of irreverent humor marks The Gunstringer’s writing, visuals, and sound. The game’s tutorial level features a skeleton cowboy puppet who shoots up an inflatable wavy tube man. Later, you face off against a creature that’s a result of sexual relations between a lumberjack and an alligator. I’m going to stop there, but you get where I’m going. Once again, Twisted Pixel manges to create a completely fresh set of likable, original characters, which is refreshing in a medium where gruff voices, wide shoulders, and fist-bumping machismo is the norm. Admittedly, some of the humor in The Gunstringer misses its mark, but all will be forgiven when you lay eyes on the game’s jaw-dropping live-action conclusion.
The Gunstringer is a great example of what talented developers can do with Microsoft’s Kinect technology when they think creatively. Sure, it’s easy enough to mimic what others have been doing with motion controls for years. And to be fair, The Gunstringer doesn’t do all that much that couldn’t have been done with the Wii’s or PlayStation 3’s motion controls. But Twisted Pixel’s original characters and oddball sense of humor -- married with enjoyable gameplay -- add up to a special gameplay experience that’s worth your time if you own a Kinect.
P.S. New copies of The Gunstringer come with a code to download Fruit Ninja Kinect. That game is also awesome.