Monday, 16 December 2013

Gunslinger: A Tall, Improbable Tale

"Oh, Death... won't you spare me over 'til another year?"

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger has no right to be any good at all. It just hasn't earned it. There was no pre-release hype, no barrage of stylish trailers, no DLC promotion or any of the trappings of a hit, big or small. It doesn't even have a lineage that it can be proud of. Its forebearers are games that have all been given middling to poor reviews, with 2011's The Cartel being critically slammed. It goes without saying that Techland's fourth outing into the Juarez world was fated to be terrible.

And yet...

Like Silas Greaves struggling to tell his story through beer-stink and whiskey-haze, I'm having trouble figuring out exactly how we got from 2011 to here. Techland probably did it on their own, without any damned Pinkerton folk helping them out. It doesn't at all matter how they managed it though, much like their irascible narrator, it simply matters that they persevered, found themselves able to do something and then did it. All to prove a point perhaps.

Gunslinger is a raucous over the top Western with light comic book visuals and a narrative that requires a pinch of salt. Taking cues from Django Unchained, Preacher and Blueberry, as well as more classic takes on the genre such as Young Guns, and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, the story revolves around the life and times of bounty hunter Silas Greaves. A young man, he takes on the challenge to hunt down various bounties across the untamed West whilst trying to find clues as to the whereabouts of Roscoe "Bob" Bryant, the man who killed his brothers and left him for dead. So far, so predictable. It's a grand Western tale of bloodshed and revenge, with a twist in precisely how it is told.

Silas is now an old man, weary from his days of travelling and  killing, holed up in a tavern telling his story to two old locals, a chorus girl and an impressionable young man with an intimate knowledge of all the West's ne'erdowells. Brilliantly seizing the opportunity to tell a tale about the Old West the way tales about the Old West should be told, Gunslinger's first move is to give Silas the role of a Bastion style narrator to the past adventures you get to play through. He's nowhere near as reactive as Bastion's ingenious Narrator, but he's also incredibly unreliable (and incredibly drunk) leading to some interesting quirks.

Silas will slip into a fervor and get ahead of himself at times. Mid way through a frenetic battle during a train robbery, he recalls that he never quite explained how he got there. The game rewinds and suddenly Silas is jumping onto the end of a train as its steam engine thunders off into the distance, dozens of carriage away, leaving it up to the player to battle his way back to the where he originally left off. All told, that is a fairly minor narrative infraction. This is surely the tallest tale of the West ever told, or at least the most revised on the spot. Old Man Greaves recalls various incredulous bounties throughout the game, always finding himself with his finger pulling the trigger of the gun that kills Old Bob Ollinger, James Wesley Harding, Kid Curry and Jesse James - except we know Jesse James was killed by that coward, Robert Ford - so Silas wracks his booze-addled brains a little bit harder and remembers that he wounded him just enough to make him give up his dastardly ways.

The narrator who gets things wrong to explain the player's agency is a trick that was used to great effect in Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, every death here is an old man explaining how he could of died, if it were not for the fact that he's sitting here afore yes, proud'r 'n ever a man did sit. Revisions to history sometimes involve the plot being rewound, and othertimes elements are plucked out of play right in front of you. It's a trick that is used fairly frequently, but always in ways that feel unique and fun. Later on, his previously captive audience begin to question his ridiculous tales, at one point Silas leaves the group entirely and the story is paused right in the middle of a climax. Right up until the end the narrative remains interesting and playful, tearing through Spaghetti Western conventions from mysterious Native Americans right up to the traditional Mexican standoff.

All of this invention and glee would be for nothing if the gameplay wasn't up to scratch, and luckily it passes muster with aplomb. Weapons are limited, but abilities you earn from experience points gained from kills allow you to pile abilities from three skill trees on top of your base set of moves to add some flesh to a simple recipe. Silas is no slouch, able to periodically slow time to pick off targets as well as allowing you to dodge a lethal bullet every now and again. There are also plenty of gimmicks involved to keep everything fresh, quick time shootouts that turn you into a eagle-eyed vendor of bullets, reaction shots that allow you to take out enemies without aiming, as well as a neat upgrade that lets you reload faster by tapping the button. It all adds together to create an FPS experience that's as inventive with its mechanics as it is with it's over the top set-pieces, something that's been missing in the genre since Bulletstorm dazzled everyone with it's gratuitous glut of gimmicks. It's by no means are deep game, nor a game that ever threatens to outstay its welcome, but it keeps everything moving at a pace with little to no downtime.

As a genre prerequisite there are duels here too, ingenious affairs where you are required to focus on your opponent and steady your gun-slinging hand at the same time in order to shave precious seconds off your draw time. You can be an honest cowboy by shooting before your opponent, or a gracious killer and fire second, with time slowing to a crawl as milliseconds stretch out and bullets scream languidly past ears and chests. These encounters are startlingly on point with the theme, and as tense as you would expect.

Graphically the experience is no slouch either, everything is full of colour and vigour and the world feels like a toned down version of the comic chaos of Borderlands, with realistic Western locales touched up with bold brushstrokes and thick black outlines. The inhabits of the world are similarly colourful and chunky, red scarves identifying enemy cowboys, scarlett gouts of blood cutting through the screen in quantities that would impress Tarantino. It has the feel of a pulp novel or a penny dreadful pinned down, introducing legendary outlaws like Billy the Kid with dramatic comic-book-cover-style asides. There's no paucity of wit or spirit here with either, with even loading screens telling you to take in the scenery or questioning your belief in ghosts.

Every good Western needs a good ending though, and the hunched backbone of Gunslinger's revenge story is strong though well trodden. It's brief, and to the point, and Silas like many a protagonist ends up with a lot of blood on his hands. But, with a mind fuelled by drink, his thoughts wander to mortality, to conundrums given to him by mysterious Apache warriors, and whether he really did send hundreds of men to their graves, and if so, was it even worth it? It's a fulfilling experience, and given that so far it only really appears to be large ambitious FPS games like Bioshock or smaller, more mechanically scarce indie games exploring player agency and the idea of unreliable narration, it's excellent to see a smaller, quirkier budget game step in and manage to make a brave attempt at refreshing FPS and narrative conventions. Whilst the story isn't exceptionally mature, nor tackling any grand themes, it's small and reflective, and in many ways oddly touching. It's certainly the truest expression of the way the colourful stories of the Old West got written into fable, folktale and eventually cinematic history, and it would be a shame if this little nugget of truth in a genre heading into stale repetition didn't get a little more recognition.

I won't have it be said I left you with nothing.


  1. This is the straw that broke the camels back. I'm playing that game.