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The Gunstringer review – this duck hunts

As I do recall, the first time I set eyes on Twisted Pixel’s Kinect based game The Gunstringer I wasn’t rightly sure what to make of it.  The odd little feller looked like a goofy western on-rails shooter aimed for the new-fangled Kinect.  On first blush I reckoned I’d steer clear of it, but like my kin done told me, don’t judge a book by it’s cover.

I do declare that they were right in.  Sure, The Gunstringer is a goofy western Kinect based shooter, but that’s the charm of it.  The narrative is pretty much the classic revenge story,as you play a skeletal gunman out to take care of your old gang, who betrayed you and left you for dead.  Except that you’re not dead.  You see, you’re just a marionette complete with strings, and the whole bizarre tale plays out on a stage with a live (as in full motion video – FMV) audience watching, and a grizzled Old West narrator spinning the yarn as it unfolds.

As you traverse the amateurishly constructed landscape (and I mean that in a good sense), you encounter herds of steer with bodies made of beer cans, tress with trunks made from empty paper towel rolls.  To further immerse you in the puppet show, there are points where a giant FMV hand will come out of the sky and set an obstacle course in motion by rolling boulders at you.  Water is made of patchwork blue and green cloth and the extras are little more than paper dolls.

The overall atmosphere of the game is note-perfect, and it’s clear that the Twisted Pixel’s sense of humour is firmly intact.  Before one particular boss encounter, you experience a flashback to your pre-skeletal days when one fateful night you witness the unholy union of a lumberjack and an alligator, replete with a soundtrack that is clearly inspired by Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On”.  Of course, I had to go back and replay that level just to see it again.  The first time around the Kinect sensor lost track of me as I had to sit down to laugh.

When you’re not laughing and actually controlling the game, it’s actually a mostly flawless affair.  To guide The Gunstringer, your left hand handles motion, while your right hand aims the reticule, which allows you to target individually, or up to six opponents.  With a flick of the wrist, you fire off your shots.  While the game doesn’t require you to point your hand like a 6 year old firing a gun, you’ll probably end up doing it because it just feels right.

Beyond the main traveling mechanic, The Gunstringer has a number of set pieces including big shoot outs that use a cover mechanic, stationary double fisted barrel shooting, and in some places side scrolling platforming action.  All the elements are well placed from a gameplay perspective, though I found the platforming seemed somewhat laggy in response, leading to a few deaths.  Another low-light was the riverboat navigation on one level, which while responsive enough, was frustrating in its design.

Negotiating the clumsy riverboat to avoid mines that looked like something out of a Willy Wonka factory, it was difficult to judge what would and wouldn’t set them off.  While the riverboat section was frustrating, most of the time any lag in the game was either non-existant or easily enough compensated for that it became instinctual, so in no way a deal breaker.  One of the nice things about the controls is that they do work sitting down, in case you want to take a break from standing.  For the most part they work just as well, though the rare ground slapping element didn’t seem to register.

The audio and visual design is spot on.  Maybe I’ve been playing Deus Ex Human Revolution too much lately, but I had forgotten how my screen was capable of display bright bold colours from across the spectrum.  The character designs are great as well.  The Gunstringer himself is filled with a certain crusty charm that sits somewhere between Lee Van Cleef and Yosemite Sam.  As for the bosses, they have their own unique styles.  The Madam in particular has a downright unsettling and artificial look that gives me the willies just looking at her.  At certain flashback points, you’ll be playing the game with a good oldtimey sepia and film grain look, but it’s never overused.

Beside elements like the aforementioned disturbing Marvin Gaye interlude, the soundtrack is composed mainly of well-executed spaghetti western twang.   The voice of the narrator may be a stereotypically whiskey soaked drawl, but it plays out perfectly against the setting, and the delivery is  impeccable.  It ranks right up there with Sam Elliott’s voice as The Stranger in The Big Lebowski.  Along with solid in-game sounds, the audience also cheers and boos appropriately, and all the elements combine to immerse you in what is ultimately a pretty ridiculous setting.

While an extremely short game, The Gunstringer does have a lot of replayability for those who want to really dig into it, or just occassionally blast stuff with a six shooter.  While playing it, I couldn’t help but think that in a lot of ways, it’s Duck Hunt for the motion gaming generation.  You earn cash during your adventures, which allows you to unlock a lot of extras, including new game modes, commentary tracks and bonus behind the scenes footage.  Twisted Pixel has done a great job on this front, and if you dig the Gunstringer vibe, you’ll want to explore a lot of this added content.

The disc also comes bundled with a code to download Fruit Ninja Kinect, which normally sells for $10 separately.  Additionally, there’s a completely bizarre free DLC adventure called The Wavy Tube Man Chronicles.  The add-on, instead of being a straight up new level, is a live-action shooter set in the Gunstringer universe, as Wavy Tube Man Jr. travels back in time to prevent his father getting gunned down by the Gunstringer.  Along for the ride is Troma’s own Lloyd Kaufman as Doc.

While I wouldn’t call The Gunstringer an essential must-have, it’s damned fun to play, and ultimately that’s what a game should be all about.  Some may (and have) balked at the $39.99 price, but I find it completely reasonable for anyone looking for a modern day Duck Hunt, with a lot more replayability and great sense of humour.  It’s good to see that the newer wave of Kinect based games are offering something more than rhythm games and kids distractions.  Though in no way thematically related, The Gunstringer can sit beside Child Of Eden as an example of how to do a Kinect game right.

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