You'd be hard-pressed to find a development studio with more spring in their step than Twisted Pixel or a game with such joie de vivre as The Gunstringer. Where a lesser studio may have slapped some skeletal cowboy puppets into a Kinect-enabled rail shooter and called it a day, Twisted Pixel snatches the western marionette theme and runs with it for miles, all the while cackling like the bunch of crazy people they are.
It's hardly a new approach for the studio that blended copious amounts of humour and FMV in downloadable titles like 'Splosion Man and Comic Jumper, and their first retail outing feels in many ways like their culmination of spectacle. This is where it all was heading? Well then, sign us up.
The world of Gunstringer isn't just some strange video game land inhabited by puppets — according to the game itself, it's not a video game world but a puppet show performed before a real, live audience that boos and cheers along with the tale of revenge playing out before them, with a narrator more than happy to spout knowingly ridiculous clichés of the western genre. While the additional layer of presentation is no doubt amusing, what's best about it is how clever it makes the whole shebang feel by providing a framework that you didn't even realise it needed. Everything comes with a wink and a nudge; all aspects of the game are in on the joke, which makes it all the more endearing. No pixel is left un-Twisted.
There is no doubt tons of flash on offer, but that is hardly all Gunstringer has to offer. There is, in fact, a swell little rail shooter beneath it all. Shooting works much like that other Kinect rail game, Child of Eden, by using a similar "paint and shoot" mechanic for blasting baddies with one hand. The other hovers above to hold the puppet's control bar, which allows you to move the Gunstringer from side to side or make him jump. Once you get over the feeling of patting your head while rubbing your belly that the controls demand in these instances, everything sort of falls away and feels rather effortless (it helps that the game's default difficulty is rather forgiving, and those looking for a challenge will be well-served by Hardcore mode). There's a small bit of gameplay variety built in to break up the dominant stretches of shooting tin can cows, paper bystanders and wood-and-fabric foes: Other portions rely more on timed jumps and fisticuffs to get the job done. There's been no lack of "miss" titles for Kinect when it comes to controls so it's nice to see one where the camera for the most part gets out of the way to allow room for the game at hand.
However, what really steals the show is seeing just how much crazy crap Twisted Pixel managed to cram onto a disc. Gunstringer is so chock full of love for westerns, slapstick and classic games that there is seldom a moment where something absurd isn't happening. In one moment you'll be running up a series of girders dodging flaming barrels, and in another you'll find yourself in battle against a large green wavy tube man. It's relentless in finding even more batty things to throw at you over the course of its pleasingly lengthy four-hour romp, an admittedly brief but well-rounded adventure that has the sense to quit while it's ahead. There is quite a bit of incentive packed in for replay as well — your stage score doubles as in-game currency, so in addition to racking up medals you over time are able to unlock commentary tracks from the likes of members of the development team, Rooster Teeth of Red vs. Blue fame and Xbox Live's Larry "Major Nelson" Hryb, promo videos as well as modifiers that can alter the difficulty or just make things plain sillier. Completionists and achievement hunters should find no lack of reasons to hang around well after the credits roll.
Twisted Pixel has crafted a ballad of crazy through and through with The Gunstringer by merging strong gameplay and sheer exuberance really only possible with Microsoft's space camera. The moments of brilliance in the Kinect catalogue are too few and far between, often amounting to minigame collections or underwhelming dance titles, which makes the genuine article all the more thrilling when it does dangle in front of you. So you want to show off to a friend what Kinect can do for old-fashioned gaming fun? Pop in The Gunstringer.