In the past two years, Austin, TX-based developer Twisted Pixel has gone from a no-name indie to one of the top purveyors of video-game silliness. A penchant for absurd songs and incorporating deliberately cheesy FMV has lent character to past releases, though these charms have occasionally taken priority over playability. Simultaneously Twisted Pixel’s most sophisticated and ambitious game, as well as its most amateurish and home-spun, The Gunstringer stitches Wild West handicraft, enthusiastically low-budget live-action, and simple, tactile Kinect controls into an experience that’s gleeful in its ridiculousness.
While Twisted Pixel’s incorporation of live-action video has previously been relegated to the outer edges, it’s the beating heart in The Gunstringer, which opens with the Twisted Pixel crew and a theater audience of extras preparing for a puppet show. It’s a framing device that’s weaved into the very fabric of the game, with giant, powerful, yet surprisingly baby-soft hands regularly intervening in the action, deliberately stiff and/or hammy audience reaction shots, and boss fights that are regularly viewed from the audience’s perspective. It’s not The Gunstringer’s only trick, and the game’s DIY aesthetic is as defined by a world seemingly crafted out of found household clutter as its pervasive use of FMV.
Credibly narrated by a salty fireside storyteller who is both true to the Wild West motif and in on the joke, The Gunstringer spins the tale of an outlaw marionette brought back from the dead to bring two-fisted, skeletal revenge to the gang that betrayed him. This includes a voodoo priestess, a kung-fu master carved out of jade and appropriately named The Beardmaster, a balloon-busted brothel madam, a literally pot-bellied oil baron, and the barely justified Wavy Tube Man.
As the Gunstringer, whose squinty, slant-jawed grimace and ragged poncho more than suggest Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, you’ll perform in a series of stage plays, each taking you to a different, somewhat fantastical corner of the Wild West, and each ending in a confrontation with one of your former compadres. That the Gunstringer is a marionette isn’t just for quirkiness’ sake. It's a concept that extends to the game’s fundamental controls, which provide a little lateral movement, plus the ability to hop over certain obstacles, to what is essentially an on-rails shooter. Using your left hand to guide his movements, and your right to guide a targeting reticle that lets you paint up to six targets before kicking back in mock-recoil to trigger the shots, the controls are elegant, intuitive, and responsive--or, at least, they can be.
As with any Kinect game, it seems, The Gunstringer can require a little living-room tweaking to optimize the responsiveness and accuracy of the controls. More than lighting, or whether you’re playing the game standing or sitting, The Gunstringer seems most affected by the player's distance from the Kinect, with six to eight feet of clear space representing the sweet spot in my experience. Your mileage, of course, may vary, but once I adjusted my furniture accordingly, I found the game to be as snappy as any Kinect experience I’ve had, and the ability to play the game while seated--a significant rarity for Kinect games at this point--makes The Gunstringer more flexible than just about anything else available on the platform.
Though it represents the bulk of the action, there’s more to The Gunstringer than just running and gunning, breaking up the action with chase scenes, cover-based enemy encounters, and sequences that have you brandishing a pair of auto-firing six-shooters, a shotgun, a flamethrower, a sword, or just your bare fists. Homage to classic games like Donkey Kong, Galaga, and Duck Hunt also abounds, and though you’ll definitely see these tricks a few times over, with the boss fights feeling the most conspicuously recycled, a jaunty pace keeps the whole experience moving forward.
For the majority of its development cycle, The Gunstringer was destined to be a downloadable Xbox Live Arcade title, and that history kind of shows in the game’s scale. You can see just about all of the sights in roughly four hours, and the guided, linear nature of the game limits the replay value somewhat. There are definitely some gags you’ll want to see more than once, and achievement hunters have good reason to revisit previous levels. That said, Twisted Pixel and publisher Microsoft have gone to pretty great lengths to ensure that there’s still plenty of value in this $40 package.
The Gunstringer brims with unlockable bonuses, including mods that can affect gameplay and aesthetics, commentary tracks from the Twisted Pixel team, the Red vs. Blue raconteurs at Rooster Teeth, and Xbox Live community czar Larry Hryb, to name a few, and behind-the-scenes videos, some of which are arguably more magical than the video that made it into the game itself. The Gunstringer also comes bundled with a download code for Fruit Ninja Kinect, a $10 value and a decent Kinect game in its own right.
The biggest bonus, though, comes in the form of the free, day-one DLC, The Wavy Tube Man Chronicles. I am not speaking in hyperbole when I say that I would pay the full price of admission here for The Wavy Tube Man Chronicles on its own. Then again, my appreciation of Mad Dog McCree, the primary source of inspiration for The Wavy Tube Man Chronicles, as well as Troma Entertainment schlockmeister Lloyd Kaufman and Dazed and Confused star Wiley Wiggins, probably runs deeper than it does in most people. Still, as a love letter to the kitchy mid-'90s FMV games to which Twisted Pixel, and The Gunstringer in particular, owes a good deal of its ironic flair, The Wavy Tube Man Chronicles is unmatched in its reverence. It’s so accurate to the source material, in fact, that it’s not that much fun to actually play, though that’s kind of the point. The only real negative I can level is that I don’t know how Twisted Pixel will be able to top this pure live-action masterpiece.
Perhaps this speaks somewhat to the overall weakness of the Kinect library at this point, but The Gunstringer is one of the most essential Kinect games I've experienced so far. It sees Twisted Pixel in top form, capitalizing on its unhinged zeal for inanity that it seems to barely be able to keep in check while deftly handling the challenge of working with the Kinect.