If there’s one game developer out there that’s synonymous with the Xbox Live Arcade, it has to be Twisted Pixel; a studio that has almost become Microsoft’s poster child for the service in recent years. Kicking things off with The Maw back in early 2009, each title has looked to build upon the studio’s success and with ‘Splosion Man and Comic Jumper hitting the right note with gamers, it was only natural that the studio would get more ambitious. That ambition is personified in The Gunstringer, Twisted Pixel’s upcoming Kinect on-rails third person shooter for the Xbox Live Arcade. A title that demonstrates that not only is Twisted Pixel adept with whatever technology it's working with, but the developer can still do so with that trademark humour still intact.
Taking place on a theatre stage in front of a live audience, The Gunstringer follows the antics of the titular ‘Gunstringer,’ a puppet controlled by yours truly, as he sets off on a tale of revenge against his former posse. That means that not only will the crowd react to your performance on stage, but you’ll also have stagehands attempting to make your path to glory that much stickier. Oh, and did I mention, you can play The Gunstringer sat down? No? Well you can.
The controls in The Gunstringer boil down to two main control mechanisms: first, your left hand controls your character, so lifting it up will make the puppet jump, moving it left will move him left and moving it right, yes, will make him move right. Sure they may differ in some scenes, like in ‘Spotlight’ sections – more on those later – but that general mantra rings true. And secondly, your right hand is your targeting hand.
How you shoot things in The Gunstringer is very reminiscent of the lock and shoot mechanism found in Child of Eden, meaning that all you have to do with your right hand is hover over your targets until they’re outlined in red, and then when you have up to 6 targets locked on, you snap back your hand in a recoil action to fire. Yes, it may sound simple, but moving and shooting together is a skill that might take a while to master – it’s the rubbing the tummy and taping the head phenomenon all over again.
The game’s prologue takes place in the Wild West and starts off by introducing you to the jump mechanics by jumping logs and teaching you the basics of the gunplay mechanics in traditional Western style by shooting tin cans off various fences and vultures off various signposts. That’s about as much help as you get, and from there you’re thrown knee deep into managing the move and shoot mechanics on the fly.
The opening moments of the prologue are fairly relaxed, with the game throwing various birds across your path and a couple of bandits to help familiarise you with the controls. The actual fact that Kinect, the controls and the game work in perfect tandem is what makes The Gunstringer’s gameplay so fun and charming. And hitting that combo with 6 lock-ons is a nice satisfying slice of gunslinger pie.
It’s not long before the game throws the first boss at you, a Mr Wavy Arms Man, who is essentially an inflatable bad guy who comes in at around the 20ft mark. Taking him down is easy though, as the game throws you into cover and when he’s not waving his big arms, trying to flatten you, you can lock on and take pot shots at him. The controls here differ a little slightly, as you’ll have to use your arm to move in and out of cover. Put your arm in the middle and he remains in cover; hold it left and he moves left; hold it right and he moves right. Simple stuff. This scene pretty much teaches you the mechanics for the aforementioned ‘Spotlight’ scenes, which throws the Gunstringer behind cover and floods him with wave after wave of bandits and such. There is something rather satisfying about lining up 6 bandits in cover and popping out to send them to an early grave.
After taking him down, the meat of the game kicks in and you’ll be flying forward navigating with your left hand and taking down bandits with your right. With your left hand, you’ll be dodging cacti and boulders that get thrown down the hill from the big hand from the sky – the stagehand – and jumping your way to safety. With your right, you’ll be lining up as many bandits, birds, goats and such as possible and racking up the points with them.
As with any good on-rails shooter, at the heart of The Gunstringer’s experience is the good ol’ high score system giving you an extra incentive to nail those combos. If you need a little assistance as well, you can use a couple of earnable assists, including a spin move, which wipes out all your foes on screen and can be activated by punching forward; as well as the hand of God – my name, not theirs – which can be activated by punching down and assists you with a big hand that comes down and squashes everything in the vicinity of it. The key to high-scores though is surely shooting the Phoenix emblems that lie around the level, which propel you forward, setting you on fire and offer you a bonus so long as you can keep it active. The better you perform in this bonus mode, the longer it lasts.
It’s not just about high-scores though, and that’s the beauty of The Gunstringer. Twisted Pixel’s debut Kinect title looks set to offer a little something for everyone and with the dev promising more weapons, bigger upgrades and much more as you advance, our first hands-on only served to whet our appetite for what’s to come. With both Child of Eden and The Gunstringer impressing at Microsoft’s Spring Showcase, anyone who said that Kinect was a casual write-off should be eating their words right about… NOW!
The Gunstringer is headed to the Xbox Live Arcade sometime this spring.