Naturally, Luckslinger is all about luck. Rather than simply allowing the player to survive its hip-hop-western hybrid world by relying on skill alone, Luckslinger specifically uses positive and negative probabilities as one of its core mechanics. It’s a novel gimmick, and one that takes a significant amount of time to learn and master. On its own, that wouldn’t be a bad thing – it works for strategy games and card games – but when combined with the game’s reflex intensive twitch mechanics and some archaically cruel checkpoint design, relying on luck takes Luckslinger from good, to bad, then to ugly.
At its core, Luckslinger is a lot of fun. Darting about between bandits, rattlesnakes and such requires a fast trigger finger, and even faster dodging. The Luckslinger battles his way through towns, mine, caverns, and other classic Western settings, jumping too and fro between platforms whilst emptying his revolver into any lilly-livered yellow-belly dumb enough to cross his path. It’d be a competent action platformer were it to stick to a more basic formula, but Luckslinger is a little more ambitious.
The player collects “luck”, and stores it in his/her lucky bracelet. This acts a resource which determines the outcome of any number of accidents and misfires placed throughout levels. A lack of luck could send boulders crashing down on you, could make your revolver lock-up, or even stop bullets from hitting their intended targets. High amounts of luck can protect you from oncoming shots, can materialize in the form of super accurate bullets, and can even be used as a temporary “luck shield” ability, which diverts shots and prevents nasty falls.
It’s a really interesting system, one that adds an element of micro-resource management into the twitch-shooting/platforming mix. It isn’t because of this core mechanic that Luckslinger becomes unhinged, although it certainly has the potential to bring about frustration; the Luckslinger’s bracelet handily glows red or yellow depending on whether or not a luck roll turns out positive or negative, which eliminates potentially “unfair” or unexpected breaches of the game’s “luck” system.
In fact, while Luckslinger excels at inventing a clever new way to play action-platformers, it is held back by its refusal to discard more archaic design elements. The Luckslinger gains a checkpoint every time he passes a record player – it’s all part of the game’s rather novel hip-hop-western aesthetic – but these checkpoints only last so long as you don’t lose your lives. Lose three lives and you’ll be merrily repeating the same environments over and over again until the last thing you ever want to see is a pixelated cowboy.
Erasing ten minutes worth of progress and making you repeat entire levels because of some unlucky break or unfortunate dynamite drop isn’t just cruel, it’s self defeating. It takes away the game’s humour, its brevity, its sense of quick-fire, gung-ho adventure. Luckslinger is funny, and its levels are generally well put together, but having to repeat the same gunfights or hear the same practically unskippable jokes time and time again is extremely aggravating.
The most notable victim of this crime is Luckslinger‘s soundtrack, a sassy, beat-laden mix of country banjo tunes and scratchy hip-hop not unlike Bastion‘s “frontier trip-hop”, which becomes utterly unlistenable after you’ve heard the same song intro burst into life twelve times in ten minutes. I actually had to shut off the game’s music to avoid becoming completely exhausted by the whole experience. [Incidentally, I replaced the game’s soundtrack with a Turbowolf track called “Rabbit’s Foot”, a luck-themed song which actually helped me to beat a level I’d been stuck on for hours. I’m not superstitious but…]
All of this means that Luckslinger’s genuinely fun, interesting moments become little more than chores, work that must be completed over and over again in order to experience the next morsel of fun, before that too is driven into the ground through grinding repetition. It’s disappointing, because Luckslinger is great at balancing natural difficulty. Pixel perfect animations go a long way towards delivering tight, incredibly challenging shoot-outs and mine cart dodging escapades, but this too is hurt by the game’s over reliance on fabricated, artificial difficulty. If it were possible to jump straight back in where you left off after falling pray to a stray bullet or wayward bat (cave not cricket), then Luckslinger would be a fantastic action game. Instead, we’re forced to endure the same excruciating opening scene an infuriating number of times, and wait around before the real action begins again.
As a result, Luckslinger loses its rush, its sense of pace. It’s a constant game of stop and start, made all the more annoying because of the brazenly fantastic game lying in wait at the other end of another hour’s worth of slogging through a thirty-thrice completed level intro.
It’s one of the most frustrating feelings in gaming to be staring at a wonderful looking, sounding and feeling game, and to be having a bad time at it. Luckslinger’s vibrant pixel-art style works well with its minimalistic mechanics and trimmed-down Spaghetti Western visual cues, but even this masterful art style falls prey to the game’s heartbreaking design choices.
There are other mini-games afoot within Luckslinger’s main levels, as well as in its hub town, but these are mostly throwaway stand-offs and such. They’re enjoyable enough, and often rely on your luck bracelet feeling fairly hefty, but trust me, when you’ve been dying fifty odd times in one level, you’re not going to throw all that away on a frivolous game of mid-level Russian Roulette.
Deep beneath the red mist, Luckslinger is a great game that confidently applies some fun new ideas, but it is irreparably damaged by a cruel checkpoint system which turns a well-made western into a rage-quit fiesta.