The Gunstringer Is Breezy, Colorful Fun While It Lasts
Maybe I'm in the minority here, but I've never had as much reverence for indie developer Twisted Pixel as everyone else seems to. I found their debut effort, The Maw, to be downright boring, and while the 'Splosion Man games have a certain delirious charm to them the gameplay never drew me in. My favorite of their games, Comic Jumper, seems to be their least appreciated. So when it was announced that they'd be developing a new game for Kinect, I was doubly uninterested. But after receiving a Kinect as a gift a few weeks ago I figured it'd be nice to have something to do with it other than make funny faces at the camera, so I caved and got The Gunstringer. What I found when I put the disc in was affirming neither of my disinterest in the Kinect and in Twisted Pixel nor of the rampant love that the studio seems to garner on a regular basis, but it was amusing while it lasted.
Essentially an on-rails shooter, The Gunstringer tasks you with shooting enemies, dodging obstacles, and even occasionally platforming over obstructions all while the titular Gunstringer moves on a set path through the environments. What separates this from something like Time Crisis is that you will control both the placement of the reticule on the screen and, to a limited extent, the movement of the character. You'll never be able to really deviate from the path that the game has set for you, as moving left to right and jumping are essentially the only ways to move around, but it works well enough to inject feelings of variety and control into a linear genre.
The truly unique thing about the game isn't in the core of the gameplay, but rather in the way that the game is controlled. The entire game is themed around the idea of a puppet show, with the idea being that the player is actually controlling a marionette from backstage. To this end, you'll move your left hand around to control the left/right movement of The Gunstringer and paint targets with your right hand, pulling it back as if firing an imaginary pistol to shoot. It's a good control scheme for the Kinect, as it doesn't require any overly complex motions, nor does it require the system to keep track of your legs, meaning you won't need as much room to play as certain other games.
While this core gameplay remains the same throughout, plenty of variations are thrown in to keep things interesting. Some segments switch to a 2.5D perspective and focus mainly on the platforming, while others will throw you on the back of a mount, Panzer Dragoon style. Still others will huddle you up behind cover, forcing you to peek out using your left hand before firing using your right. None of the game's segments are particularly challenging, but there's a breezy sense of fun to be had from waving your arms around like a lunatic and watching all of the colorful scenery go by. Besides, if you're dying for a challenge, there's a hardcore mode and several mutators, which act like the skulls in Halo.
Even on the hardest difficulty, The Gunstringer is not a lengthy game. Most players should be able to get through the story in around 4 hours. There are incentives to go back, but whether or not it's worth another trip through the game is debatable. In addition to the requisite achievements for getting through on hardcore difficulty and using all of the mutators, there's a developer commentary track that you can lay over the action. I found the commentary to be entertaining enough, but not worth playing another 4 hours to listen to, and the simple mechanics really don't hold up for another run-through. Still, the developers are clearly a clever and interesting group of people, and this shows in just about every aspect of the game. Whether it's the colorful environments, the bizarre character designs, or the humorous story, something about this game will be making you smile. My favorite little touches actually came in the descriptive text snippets; the text under the tick box for hardcore mode tells you to enable the mode if you hate yourself, for example.
A co-op multiplayer mode is also available, but it's more Mario than Gears. Only one player will actually control the character. The second player exists in the game only as a second reticule to help player one spot and shoot enemies. It might be fun for a mission or two, but the entertainment is short-lived.
The package also includes a free copy of Fruit Ninja Kinect, a game which I intend to review separately, but which fits snugly alongside the colorful chaos of The Gunstringer. Although both games are short, together they easily justify the $40 asking price.
To say that The Gunstringer is the game to have on the Kinect is to perhaps make it sound a little more accomplished than it really is, but at the moment it's just about the best choice for anyone looking to pick up the platform. With the inclusion of Fruit Ninja it's a solid buy at 40 bucks, and there's a lot of fun to be had blasting through the game over a weekend. That said, the experience is short and ultimately simplistic. This shouldn't sell anybody on a Kinect who wasn't going to buy one already, but it's a strong addition to the peripheral's library.