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The Gunstringer review: Dig my grave

Justin McElroy

Today, I'm breaking one of the biggest rules of criticism:

Don't attempt to write an objective review if you're personally invested in the success of the product.

No, I don't have an uncle at Twisted Pixel (as far as I know). And no, I don't have stock in the skeletal puppetry biz. But there's a component of The Gunstringer that's so wonderful, so specifically hand-crafted just for me that my continued happiness relies on more of it being made.

This is my review of the The Gunstringer, and I can not be trusted.

Gallery: The Gunstringer (Gamescom 2011) | 15 Photos

With all the chaff you have to swipe through on the Kinect, you can forget just how good it feels when something just works. That's exactly what The Gunstringer does: It works, and in a smart, slick way that feels simultaneously natural and fresh.

As an undead marionette cowboy thirsty for revenge, you're going to pile up a lot of bodies, and you'll do it all with just a wave of your hand and a flick of your wrist. I'm speaking literally: You'll use your crosshairs to cover up to six targets and then pull your wrist up toward your shoulder (like you're firing a recoiling pistol) to shoot them all. (Think Child of Eden or Omega Boost). You don't have to make your hand into a gun shape while you do this, but in a way, you do have to, because, what are you, a monster?

How do I live in a world where something this awesome exists?

As you shoot, you'll also be helping The Gunstringer leap over or otherwise avoid obstacles by pulling his strings left, right or straight up with your left hand. It feels a little odd at first, but it's perfectly sensible once your left hand learns to not overcompensate wildly for every cow-made-of-a-beer-can that stumbles into your path. Occasionally, The Gunstringer will stop behind some cover and you'll jerk left or right to pull him out just long enough to drop your foes and (preferably) not get shot. The skeletal avenger picks up some new tricks along the way but, seeing as stumbling upon them is a genuine delight, I'll leave you to discover them for yourself.

OK, I'll give you one. It's got a riverboat platforming segment. Seriously.

If you have a handy revenge-hungry friend, it's easy enough to share the stage with them. They just stand next to you and raise their hand and suddenly you've got a second pistol backing you up. The first player still controls all movement, which leads to a lot less arm flailing and chaos than two Gunstringers would have.

Single-player or co-op, it feels great, and is free of some of the annoying adjustments of posture or position that Kinect games often require. One notable exception: Sitting. While it's supposed to be an option, sitting caused the game to lose track of my left hand or confuse my left for my right. It's too bad, but since sitting is apparently fatal it's also the safest option.

The occasional Kinect confusion is doubly humiliating considering there's an audience of strangers watching your every move. In one of the most bizarre, wonderful video game conceits in recent memory, The Gunstringer takes place entirely in front of an FMV audience that's laughing, cheering and (when you choke) booing you on to the finish. We see them only rarely, but even when the reactions border on camp it's a welcome punctuation.

The plentiful FMV provides a lot of opportunities for unlockable content, and there's a frankly daunting amount on the disc. Want to see a test video with the Twisted Pixel team serving as the audience? It's there. How about a video a team member made for the puppet company behind the Gunstringer marionette when its arm broke? Yup, that's in there too. You can also unlock songs from the excellent soundtrack, which is easily Chainsaw/Matt Chaney's best work to date.

As much motivation to keep pushing on as the audience provides, I wish the narrative had pitched in just a little more. The Gunstringer's story of revenge dances around a slightly darker edge but never quite goes for it. It's a shame, because it would have been a nice counter-balance for some of the quirk. As it stands, by the end of the main game's four hours, the whimsy starts to wear ever so slightly thin.

That is, until The Wavy Tube Man Chronicles.

Wiley Wiggins, soon-to-be folk hero.

If my heart were a closet, and you started digging around to find the items that seemed most worn, most loved, the outfit you would emerge with would be "The Wavy Tube Man Chronicles." I'm talking about a 40-minute-long, fully FMV Mad Dog McCree parody/tribute featuring Wiley Wiggins (you know, from Dazed and Confused?) as your friend from the future who tries to help you aid "Doc" Lloyd Kaufman (of Troma fame) in recovering his Time Traviz Machine.

Pardon my language, but what the fuck.

How do I live in a world where something this heart-stoppingly incredible exists? And not only exists, but is free day-one DLC for an already hugely enjoyable game?

We have a scale here at Joystiq, and it's based on the idea of someone asking us if they should take the time to play a certain game. It starts at "Yes." and gets more conditional from there.

The Gunstringer has some problems. Its sitting controls aren't perfect. It needs some tonal variation. The movement controls take some getting used to. If you're asking me if you should play it though, I have a single, one word answer. Hint: It starts with "Y."

Go on, trust me.

This review is based on 360 code of The Gunstringer provided by Microsoft.

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