Video games and live actors have always had an uneasy coexistence. From its inception there have been countless games with acting so terrible, writing so atrocious that even the worst of the SyFy monster movies would scoff at them. There have been a few exceptions to the rule, but few enough to maintain their status as exceptional. I already knew that Twisted Pixel had been experimenting with combining the action in-game with live-action cinematography. Little by little they’ve progressed from dressing up a guy as splosion man to providing a real world connection to Captain Smiley’s adventures in Comic Jumper. Still, that didn’t prepare me for the gunstringer’s on-stage debut.
The audience, a large group of extras along with members of the Twisted Pixel team, are introduced right from the get go as they make their way to their seats. Stage hands scurry backstage, arranging props and positioning the physical gun-slinging marionette into the pile of dirt he would shortly emerge from. The curtains pull back to polite applause, and the game begins.
It’s a simple story about an undead marionette cowboy back for revenge and his old posse. There’s no ambiguity in the plot and for this kind of game, there doesn’t need to be. The gunstringer’s given a firearm and an old photograph with the faces of his betrayers on it (one of whom is a giant inflatable wavy tube man). It’s strange and ridiculous, and all the while the harsh voice of a narrator guides you along.
The game is made for Kinect and the controls are simple and intuitive. The left hand controls the puppet by holding onto his strings, and with a simple flick of your wrist it’ll make him jump. The right hand is the gun hand and it controls the crosshairs on-screen. Paint the crosshairs over up to six enemies and then jerk your hand back, as if from the recoil of the gun, to fire. The gunstringer automatically runs forward or, during a platforming sequence, he sidescrolls.
It all functions with the same core mechanics as a standard rail shooter, even at times resembling classic games such as Space Harrier, and there is always going to be something inherently repetitive about the genre. In the case of The Gunstringer, by the time you’ve defeated the first boss, the major differences between the first act and the following are aesthetic. Even the boss encounters are fought in the same environments and with similar methods.
Variety comes in several forms. The simplest is the constant shifting of the backgrounds and the camera. As the gunstringer runs along, the land will reveal and occlude itself. The camera will swing from behind the gunstringer to his side, turning the rail-shooter into a rail-platformer. Then the background will disappear entirely, replaced by the audience as they look upon the action with glee. The audience themselves interact by cheering on your success and booing your failure.
There are also several fights involving punching. If you didn’t feel silly enough making vague gun recoil gestures while holding onto your invisible marionette, every so often you’ll put away your side-arm and settle things the old fashioned way. I don’t think rail-platformer-beat’em-up is an established genre, but it works well in dispelling repetitive monotony.
The controls are easy to learn, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the Kinect will be precise enough to detect your movements. The game advertises itself as one in which you can sit down and still play, but I found that sitting down made for more detection issues. The cursor occasionally flickers and the recoil occasionally doesn’t register. Co-op makes these problems worse, as the Kinect has trouble enough detecting one person, let alone granting enough space for two.
Co-op mode is set up so that one player controls the gunstringer while the second players gets to control a secondary gun. The game doesn’t change in response to the addition of an extra player, leaving the two of you to scramble to get a single shot in at the few remaining targets- at least most of the time, until the few moments when crowds of bandits decide to attack. There is a reward to playing co-op though: at the end of the stage, when the score is counted up, you’ll get an extra bonus on top.
The score actually has a function within the game. Your success is measured in dollars, which are then subsequently spent in the bonus store for everything from concept art to behind-the-scenes footage. Extra modes can be used to increase the difficulty or even remove the difficulty completely. A single play-through does not net enough money to unlock them all.
Part of me calls it a pity that it’s only about five hours long, but then by the time I got to the final boss the game felt like it had run its course. It was time for The Gunstringer to finish, and its ridiculous ending was both hilarious and amazing at the same time. In just a few minutes the last painstaking levels were worth the time it took to get there.