Twisted Pixel is back with their second release in 2011, and their first one to not only debut on retail shelves, but also use the Kinect sensor. You play as the Gunstringer - a skeletal marionette armed with a six-shooter and a grudge towards his ex-allies who betrayed him…in a puppet show about a gunslinging puppet out for revenge. The meta storyline doesn’t take itself too seriously, and the sharp writing makes the entire experience funny and enjoyable from start to finish.
Seeing that each member of the posse has a bizarre backstory before you fight them - like one having a history as an insurance adjuster - isn’t something you see every day. Even if it isn’t the funniest comedic bone to hit, the sheer absurdity of an inflatable tube man being in a posse alone is funny, and then adding in goofy parts to his history makes the whole thing even better. Twisted Pixel’s games thrive on absurdity, and Gunstringer delivers just the right amount of it.
The whole experience is one that you’ll never forget, largely due to the comedy, but also due to the core gameplay. Your left hand controls your puppet, so you’ll use it to run beside or jump over giant rocks, gaps in the floor, and move out of the path of rocks, bullets and TNT charges. Your right hand is aimed towards the screen like a gun, which aims the gun, and moving your hand towards your shoulder shoots. There’s a cover system in play as well, which comes in handy when your enemies start lobbing missiles at your, or just deciding that they need to drop their giant, inflatable wavy tube arms in your direction. The core mechanics works really well provided you’re far away from the screen - otherwise, you’ll find yourself in a firefight just taking damage because you’re too close and the game isn’t really letting you know beyond the thing you’re trying to do not working. It can be pretty frustrating, but is remedied by simply moving slightly further away.
However, you really don’t have to move too far away in order to play the game properly - something I’ve had issues with in past Kinect games that require you to move so far away that it’s hard to read the on-screen text. That isn’t the case here, because I just had to move a few inches back from my usual place of about six feet in front of the TV to get it to work properly. Unfortunately, like all Kinect games I‘ve played, it is hurt slightly by the sensor’s ever so slight delay in recognizing your movements. This issue made playing Child of Eden with just the Kinect harder than it should’ve been, and does the same here. Although like CoE’s creators, a God mode of sorts is unlockable - and here, you don’t have to beat the game to use it, just use a relatively small amount of in-game cash to buy it in the store. Odds are, you’ll have enough to buy it after just the first stage, and like all Twisted Pixel games, there are oodles of unlockables, including concept art, movies, and even commentary tracks.
While the core gameplay is platforming and shooting, there’s some variance with each. For shooting, you’ll have sections that are on-rails ala Star Fox, then some that are kind of like Duck Hunt where you’re just aiming for airborne creatures, then more elaborate ones that use the cover system and require fast aiming as well. Then you’ve got platforming-style areas, which might just require you to avoid rolling rocks, but you’ll have also have extended traditional platforming sections where you have to aim carefully to make the jump. Failure isn’t a huge deterrent here because death just takes you back to a checkpoint, and they’re plentiful. This is one of the few Kinect games that really does offer up some variety and also does what it’s trying to do well. It’s also the most story-driven Kinect game I’ve played, and I love that it’s a Western storyline that is universal enough for non-Western fans to enjoy. It’s a simple revenge tale, told in a really light-hearted way, and it’s hilarious simply due to its execution.
The game’s overall presentation is just phenomenal, with the marionette play motif adding a lot to the experience. You’ll see the audience cheer in the foreground when you succeed, complete with clapping, and see the Gunstringer play change for each act, where you then take on a new area. The visuals might not blow you away - it isn’t the best-looking game out there for sure, but the low-tech look fits the dinner theater setting perfectly. It wouldn’t make sense for something like trees to look super-realistic in a play, so they don’t here. With that said, this isn’t a bad-looking game either - the character models all look perfectly fine, and the animation is believable. The mix of backgrounds in a cheap prop style and traditional polygonal character models blends together very well.
Twisted Pixel fans have become accustomed to awesome audio, and the Gunslinger is no different. Its Western-inspired music is fantastic - perfect for that genre, but also somewhat light-hearted. It’s perfect for the game, and easy to listen to outside of it, which the developers have made easy to do via a free mp3 download on the game’s official site. The VO work is very good as well - the regular narration gives you insights into the plot and even offers advice on how to beat an area you’re struggling in. Despite it being a pretty regular occurrence, it doesn’t get old or annoying.
At $40, this is the highest-priced Twisted Pixel game yet, but also includes a download code for Kinect Fruit Ninja valued at $10 presently. Thankfully, the game has an absolutely perfect demo available for download. It showcases everything the full game has - the wacky sense of humor, a boss battle with the wacky inflatable tube man, platforming, and plenty of shooting. While I really love the game and think it’s an outstanding showcase for the Kinect technology, it’s also very short - it’ll take you maybe six hours to beat it on normal mode, and while there is a lot of additional content in the form of the in-game store and even a free live-action FMV DLC game, I would recommend waiting for a small price drop to about $25-$30 unless you fall in love with the demo. If you love that, then you’ll definitely get $40 worth of value out of the entire package.