Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is Techland’s fourth entry in the Call of Juarez series. A budget title with a $15 price tag, it’s a stylish first-person shooter set in the lawless Wild West of the late 1800s. Though it certainly has more-than-competent FPS gameplay, the stars of the show here are the new and interesting storytelling mechanics that deserve much more than a passing glance.
The entirety of the gameplay is presented as a flashback while an aging bounty hunter by the name of Silas Greaves recalls stories from his life’s outlaw-tackling career to a handful of listeners in a quiet saloon. The player controls Silas the younger, as his much older self narrates the happenings of the gameplay in a Bastion-like manner. As a result, this mechanic leads to some intriguing events which we’ll get into a little later in this review.
Being that the game takes place over a century ago, the guns you’ll be using aren’t anything like the assault weapons and semi-automatic pistols you’re probably used to from other first-person shooters. Instead, you’ll be largely using rifles, six-shooters, and double barreled shotguns, most of which have to be reloaded round by round rather than by the usual swapping of magazines. This leads to more careful shot placement on behalf of the player, and adrenal-pumping moments where you’ll be furiously reloading in the middle of firefights.
As you take down the various gun-toting gang members the game throws at you, numbers in the form of experience points will pop up from their collapsing bodies. Play on harder difficulties, build a tall combo, or pull off tougher kills like shooting someone through a wall or in the head, and you’ll earn more points than a vanilla kill. Collect enough points and you’ll earn a skill point that you can put towards unlocking a new technique like faster reload speeds or the ability to hold more ammunition. To further tilt the odds in your favor, you have the ability to slow down time to help you catch your breath and take out a few guys a little easier than it would have otherwise been.
Not everything in Gunslinger is standard fare, however. If you take too much damage, the game will sometimes slow down and challenge you to dodge the fatal shot by successfully moving out of the way. Some missions end with boss fights that might have you going up against a bounty on a gatling gun, or you’ll be pitted against a nimbler cowboy in an arena-type encounter. Sadly, most missions end in a one on one duel in the form of a poorly tuned minigame. With your mouse, you’ll build a focus meter by wrestling with a targeting reticule and making sure it hovers over your pacing enemy. Then, with the A and D keys, you control Greave’s right hand which you must keep as close as possible to your holstered pistol-grip. Build your Focus and Speed meters well enough, quickly draw after your target does, and then your reticule will turn red and you’ll have a chance to shoot first. It’s a drawn out process full of subtleties that are difficult to get just right. After doing it twenty or so times myself, I still don’t feel that I have a wonderful grasp on it, on top of the fact that it’s just not a lot of fun. Luckily, you can forfeit some would-be earned experience points, draw first, and dishonorably claim your bounty much easier.
All aspects of the presentation are very well done. Between missions, there are some sharp looking 2D flash animated cinematics that serve to move the player from mission to mission while introducing you to the next wild west outlaw to be hunted. Their black and white nature stand in stark contrast to the colorful cel-shaded graphics of the gameplay, which is full of neat little touches. For example, every time you kill an enemy, their body and a splash of blood hangs in mid-air for a second before dropping, making the world feel as comic-book influenced as it looks. Kill off all nearby enemies, and you’ll tactfully twirl your pistols around and blow the smoke from the barrel. Greaves’ voice is as gravelly and whiskey-burned as you’d expect, and the other voice actors, though campy, sound fine within the context of the game. The dialogue is well-written, and Greaves’ personality really shines as he dives into his stories’ juicy and exciting bits.
My favorite aspect of the game, however, is in how well it embodies the storytelling of the time period. It’s the early 1900s, so television or radio hadn’t yet been invented. Instead, stories were told either orally or through the written word, and Gunslinger intriguingly works that into it’s gameplay and presentation. For instance, there’s a section during one of Greaves’ adventures where he comes to a crossroads. The first option is that of a mineshaft, and after clearing out all the gang members inside, Greaves’ finds himself thrown into a pool of water and crushed by a minecart tumbling down from above. A cheeky Greaves then says “Luckily, that’s not the way I went,” followed by the level rewinding back to that crossroads, and your hero taking the secondary path. There are lots of little touches like this that take the unpredictably oral nature of the storytelling and thrusts it upon you, the player, in a manner which you never quite know what you’ll experience next. And believe me, these touches get better and better as the game progresses.
Fifteen bucks will get you a 4-5 hour campaign with a new game plus option, a score-attack sort of arcade mode, and a duel mode where, with five lives yourself, you try to take down fifteen outlaws in a row using the awkward duel minigame mechanics. There’s plenty reason to play through the story again, made sweeter by the fact that there are two separate endings (although they’re based on a simple binary decision made by the player right before the cutscene plays). If you can forgive the fact that Techland’s previous game, Call of Juarez: The Cartel, was both so terribly made and one of the most racist games of recent history, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is a great value and a wonderful addition to the sparse selection of wild west based video games.