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Gunpoint review: Indie film noir espionage

Xav de Matos, @Xav

Gunpoint is the perfect game at the perfect time. At the same moment the industry is heavily promoting console innovation with aurally destructive stage demos, this indie game from reporter Tom Francis and a ragtag crew of volunteers offers a simplistic and quiet respite: an outstanding puzzle game with sharp writing, beautiful music and clever mechanics. As freelance spy-type Richard Conway, players work to investigate a murder – in which he is inadvertently involved – using handy spy skills like long distance leaping and scaling walls.

Gunpoint oozes creativity, leveraging a simple primary mechanic that is paramount to both completing missions and taking out adversaries. Called "Crosslink," it allows players to view how electricity flows throughout buildings and rewire circuits to Conway's advantage. You can, for example, disconnect the link from a light switch and connect it to a door, making it easy to swing it into an unsuspecting guard's face as he walks by. Endgame puzzles require you to juggle a number of different Crosslink set-ups, triggering an object in one area to give Conway an opening to progress somewhere else. What makes the simple system work is that there are very few limitations – so long as you link the correct colored circuits.

Conway's goals change between missions. One may find him breaking into a building to extract information from secure computer terminals. Another sees him stealing a piece of top secret equipment. Ultimately the goal is an excuse, there only to offer a different way to use Conway's skills and provide a new challenge.

Gallery: Gunpoint (PC) | 8 Photos

As a single-player game, Gunpoint is a snack-sized piece of entertainment. The entire experience clocks in at around three to four hours, though there is some replay value to be had in discovering new ways to infiltrate larger levels. Eventually, the feeling that you're discovering the singular, preordained solution to each mission disappears, replaced with a sense of freedom to use all of Conway's skills.

Conversations are a bright spot in the otherwise intentionally dreary, film noir-inspired setting. Taking place in the form of instant messages between characters, the story paces itself wonderfully by detailing the people involved and offering the player humorous responses. For example, when told by a client to eliminate all potential witnesses with extreme prejudice, you're allowed to simply accept the request or jab back with a snarky "Thanks for the tip, Gandhi." The decision-driven narrative is a welcome and entertaining wrapper to the well-crafted, lean campaign.

Upgrading and acquiring new abilities alters the approach to levels – especially if you replay earlier missions with late-game abilities to increase speed, stealth and violence ratings. You could, for example, earn the ability to muffle the sounds of breaking glass, allowing for a stealthy entrance into office buildings. For players mixing stealth and aggression, the Crosslink can act as your primary weapon. You can turn off the lights in a room, rewire a light switch to an electrical outlet and electrocute guards as they try to restore power. Or you could use the cover of darkness to leap onto enemies and pummel them with your fists. Sure, one punch works, but it's more fun to go Diablo on enemies and click ad infinitum while the game tells you how monstrous you are in a string of text. "OK, you can stop now," the game pleads, "There's no achievement for this. Jesus Christ!" Eventually an achievement begging for you to halt your bloody assault actually does pop up.

Even with all the available options, Gunpoint's short campaign can wear thin after a number of runs, though the game's length is disappointing only because it's so entertaining. Also, as much as you will juggle systems and take considering your approach, Conway's adventure is not a challenging endeavor. Combating that disappointment, however, is the game's included level editor, which has already spawned online communities developing diabolical missions for Conway to fumble through.

Gunpoint does away with excess in favor of simplistic ideals: a story that offers enough information for context and humor, and gameplay that focuses on a few well-developed mechanics. At $10, Gunpoint is a proudly lean product, and its clever blend of stealth, puzzles and film noir humor is worth exploring, though you may want to avoid enhancing your real-life spy skills by following Conway's lead. Unless consistently hurling yourself through windows is already a hobby.

This review is based on the Steam version of Gunpoint, provided by Suspicious Developments. A DRM-free version is available on the game's website and includes a redemption code for Steam. It is currently on sale for $9.

Joystiq's review scores are based on a scale of whether the game in question is worth your time -- a five-star being a definitive "yes," and a one-star being a definitive "no." Read here for more information on our ratings guidelines.

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