Polish developer Techland had built on the success of their western-style shooter Call Of Juarez with a well received 2009 prequel Bound In Blood, but got seriously knocked off their horse with an ill-advised jaunt into the present day, The Cartel. Will this new download-only title get them back in the saddle?
Only tangentially related to previous entries in the series, Gunslinger tells the story of Silas Greaves, misreported outlaw and untold legend of the west. Or rather, he is if you can swallow his tall tales. The story is told in retrospect, with Silas reminiscing of his encounters with (in)famous names like Billy The Kid, Black Bart and even Jesse James to a table of sozzled and credulous barflies. Artful stills of the saloon pan across as Silas spins another yarn about the time he saved the day and got away by the skin of his teeth.
Essentially reliving the memories of these encounters as he narrates them, you are dropped into Silas’s shoes in a colourful, heavily stylised dust-bowl setting circa 1880. Somewhat akin to Bastion, the narration changes depending on your actions, and occasionally the world will totally reshape itself around you or time will rewind as Silas decides that things didn’t quite go the way he remembered, or when the veracity of his take on events is challenged by one of the more suspicious patrons. Trapped and backed into a corner, an exit or ladder will suddenly be revealed that was not apparent mere moments ago, placed by the storyteller’s unseen hand. The game’s unreliable narration is actually a clever trick that allows for more gameplay in the same areas; you will play through a location and certain events will unfold, only for the clock to spin back as Silas adjusts his recollections, and on the second play a different narrative will come to pass. It’s an inspired fourth-wall-breaking device that allows a malleable framework uniquely suited to creating a videogame world, much as Assassin’s Creed’s renaissance Italy being a mere simulacrum accounts for shut-off areas and ‘desynchronisation’’.
The locales also look larger than life, stark black outlines accentuating bright primary colours against the drab browns and tans in an almost cel-shaded fashion. New characters and weapons are introduced with heavily stylised vignettes a la Tarantino. Likewise the soundtrack evokes every two-bit spaghetti western you’ve ever clapped eyes on, with period instruments like a beat-up acoustic guitar, fiddle and honky-tonk piano playing on against the squelch of a freshly opened wound, followed by the hollow sound of smoke blown from the gun barrel that committed the act; steam trains chug along and stray bullets ricochet with that classic ping.
The gameplay itself is very much arcade orientated; good shots earns skill points which can be used to upgrade and specialise. Points are stacked in three main areas: pistol proficiency, sharpshooting, and close quarters combat. A single playthrough will not grant you enough points for everything so you’ll have to make some choices, but gratifyingly there is a new game plus mode where you can play again from the beginning with all your unlocks and weapons intact.
Everything feels well directed but not confined. The weapons are period-accurate in terms of precision; modern warfare enthusiasts may be disappointed by their slow reload times and poor accuracy at long range, but that's how the West was won, as they say. Your bounty hunter character can sometimes appear quite fragile in the face of a posse of desperados, but the game grants you a fair chance of escape with a special meter that, when filled, allows a killing shot to be dodged at the last second, bullet-time style. A different concentration meter also slows down time and outlines villains in a crimson red for easy kills. Bosses get a showdown duel, with points awarded for focus and speed, but deducted for dishonourable kills where you draw first. It’s an interesting if not perfect mechanic, with one stick controlling your draw hand for extra speed while the other aims.
When you’re done with the main game there’s still lots to do: you can browse the so-called ‘nuggets of truth’, collectables which unlock special info cards on the historical figures, places and real-world events the game makes reference to. Other distractions include an Arcade mode, where trick shots and skilful kills are rewarded with ever-escalating points and combos in a way that recalls underappreciated shooter The Club, free to mow down wave after wave of bandits without any story getting in the way, and Duel mode, which picks out the mano-a-mano encounters with noteworthy outlaws from the main game and allows you to try besting them in sequence. Grizzled hombres can try the story again on the ‘True West’ difficulty setting, with a greatly reduced HUD and enhanced enemy AI.
Combined with other recently lauded retro shooter and '80s love letter Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon, Ubisoft are trailblazing an interesting new path in downloadable, compact titles that provide full-on entertainment at a budget price point, minus the usual online multiplayer shenanigans that some people, this writer included, neither care for nor desire. Online leaderboards are included if you really feel the need to compete, but the focus is on single-player fun here and is all the better for it. It may lack the sprawling epic world of Red Dead Redemption, but this is your next best choice for a Western fix that satisfies.