The Gunstringer Hands-On Preview [PAX 2011]

Twisted Pixel’s The Gunstringer is a very important game.  Its importance has nothing to do with cultural relevance or some revolutionary game mechanic, but because it has the potential to change the way many gamers see motion control based gaming. It will be the first downloadable game for the Kinect and its success could very well lead to an explosion of small-scale titles for the platform that give the platform credibility with core gamers who have yet to embrace it, for want of “substantial” software.  As it turns out, The Gunstringer is exactly what the Kinect needs – an accessible and undeniably fun game that shows that the Kinect can be used to make games that challenge players, as well as amuse them.

Gunstringer tells the story of a zombie cowboy puppet who, in classic western fashion, is on a mission to get revenge on the member of his old posse.  What kind of posse does a zombie cowboy puppet run with, you ask?  Well it includes a samurai and a wavy inflatable tube man.

Both the gameplay and plot are framed around the concept that you are controlling the character, and therefore telling the story as well as watching it.  Twisted Pixel has framed the plot of Gunstringer in a story about you, the player, who’s performing the story for a live audience.  Each act of the game begins with a shot of the audience settling down for the performance, and ends with resounding round of applause. It’s nice to be appreciated.

The game’s marionette framework is more than aesthetic though. Using Kinect, you control the Gunstringer similar to how you would a real puppet; the player extends one arm, moving it left and right to shift him and raising the arm to make him jump.  To shoot, players use the other arm to mark up to six targets, and then cock the arm back to fire. It’s not required to make a gun with your hand, but it adds to the flavor. The game switches back and forth between on-rails running sequences, where the Gunstringer has to dodge obstacles and shoot enemies in order to reach the end of the line, and cover-based shooting gallery segments where the goal is to kill enemies, move to the next cover spot, and repeat.

Though the mechanics might seem a little too simplistic to be entertaining in tandem with Kinect, The Gunstringer makes the experience worthwhile by not sugarcoating the gameplay.  While most Kinect games move at a “leisurely” pace to ensure that players are fully aware of what’s going on all the time, Gunstringer puts a higher demand on the players reflexes and quick thinking.  The on-rails sequences in The Gunstringer move quickly enough that hitting every target while dodging objects can become increasingly challenging.  Cover sequences, on the other hand, are more about timing and strategy.  Even though you can paint up to six targets at once and kill them all with one motion, jumping out of cover at the wrong or doing the same thing over and over again will still inevitably get you killed.  Plus, being forced to hold your arm out for an extended period adds its own special type of difficulty.

With a unique premise and a genuinely fun game that is easy to understand, but is able to be both addictive and challenging, The Gunstringer has all the ingredients for a successful game. Add to that the Kinect’s limited library and the fact that it’s the only game out there that isn’t going to cost 50 dollars, and I think it’s safe to say that The Gunstringer could be a must-have for Kinect-owners.  If the fate of downloadable games for Kinect is truly in hands of Twisted Pixel and The Gunstringer, it seems that Microsoft doesn’t have a whole lot to worry about.

Look for The Gunstringer to make its debut on XBLA in 2011.