Something like a week and a half ago, I picked up GameMaker Studio in a bundle. I only bring this up because I also started playing Call of Juarez Gunslinger around the same time. Take a guess which one had most of my attention this past week? There’s a very real reason this 5-ish hour game has taken me over a week to finish, and it has a lot to do with how thoroughly unengaging it is. Let’s run through just a few of the seemingly endless reasons behind that, shall we? Its writing is amateurish and the big twist is blindingly obvious less than halfway through the game, for one. Its gameplay is also awkward and full of invisible walls, with enemies running around unpredictably, seemingly free from the tyranny of physics much like enemies in the original Red Faction (but this game came out 12 years later and has no excuses). Then there are the insta-deaths. Fell into ankle-high water? Death! Bumped a wall while walking along the outside of a train? Death as the physics bounce you off the train! That’s not even mentioning the constant QTEs, or the fact that the game is so coated in high-contrast textures and a sharpening filter that can’t be turned off that actually seeing enemies—the most basic element of a shooter and one I’d never seen someone screw up before this point—is such a hassle that it becomes half the battle. Or how about the end-game section where you’re surrounded by enemies who randomly spawn in around you and shoot you in the back? Yeah. I’ve played a lot of games, and this is among the worst of them.
This is a story for stupid people
The game begins with famous bounty hunter Silo Grains walking into a bar. Silo Grains isn’t actually his name (though it’s close and equally ridiculous), mind you, but this game has a 10/10 user rating on Steam that fooled me into playing it, and the thought of getting under those very same people’s skin is the only joy I’m going to ever see from this game. Anyway, Silo starts telling a story as you play through it, with his exaggerations showing up in front of you as he fabricates them. That’s something I liked at first, but quickly grew tired of because the game leaned on it so heavily that it quickly ceased to be interesting. Slightly better were the moments where player inputs would cause him to add something to the story, like how he brings up fried chicken if you shoot a chicken in the first mission. Naturally, that kind of stuff practically disappears after that point. The biggest problem, however, is that the twist ending is spoiled at the very beginning of the third chapter. We’re talking less than 45 minutes into the game. It’s so stunningly obvious from that point on that when the end finally rolled around, I was disappointed that it hadn’t been some kind of trick to disguise a better story development. Instead, this is a game with a story that you’ll only enjoy if you can turn your brain off long enough for these huge hints to sail completely over your head. Sadly, turning your brain off that much would likely cause you to forget how to breathe.
Problem 1: visibility
This is a first-person shooter. If you’ve played a first-person shooter, you know exactly what the basics mechanics here are like. There’s also a vaguely RPG-ish upgrade system where you unlock the ability to carry more ammo and special abilities like dual revolvers and splitting thrown dynamite to get more bang with each throw, but this sentence pretty much tells you everything you need to know about that. Basically, shoot dudes, get experience, level up, buy upgrades that don’t really help all that much. Now that we’ve got that all cleared up, I want to instead go into the many, many ways this game fails.
The first is the most irritating and ubiquitous problem, that being actually seeing enemies. Gunslinger is littered with enemies who hide behind obstacles and run wildly around, and that’s fine. I dealt with weird physics in Red Faction and it didn’t ruin the experience there, and I’d be fine with them in this game if they were all that was wrong here. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though, because the game is covered in this disgusting high-contrast aesthetic made worse by a sharpening filter that’s cranked up to “DEAR GOD WHY” levels. Add on top of that scenery that often matches what your opponents are wearing and you have a recipe for enemies who are effectively camouflaged. Best of all, the high contrast and sharpening filter can’t be turned off. They’re both present with all options on high, just as they’re both active with all options set to low. It’s eye-straining, strangles the life out of what would otherwise be decent graphics, and makes playing the game an exercise in frustration. If not for muzzle flashes and the game telling you the general direction people are shooting at you from, I’d have never found some enemies. I almost feel like the developers deserve some kind of award for screwing up what most would consider un-screw-up-abble.
Problem 2: invisible walls
One of the early-ish missions had me going after… someone. Honestly, the story is 90% uninteresting filler that I forgot the second the credits rolled around, and I can’t be bothered to go look it up. Whoever it was, the goal was to get to them and kill them (really, that’s the entire game in a nutshell). In this case, I thought I’d be clever and take a small shortcut over a short wall using some objects littering the environment to jump up over it, and I successfully managed to get on top of the wall. Problem was, there was an invisible barrier keeping me from actually jumping over it. This is the story of my experience with the game, as there were numerous knee-high porches that you would be able to jump up to in any other game, but that are strangely impassable here. Combine that with levels that are linear, but just open enough to make it hard to tell where enemies are coming from, and the gameplay becomes strikingly tedious and uneven.
Problem 3: no consistency
Something like halfway through the game, I found myself in a swamp in a dead end. Turns out that you have to break some planks off of a door so that you can fit through. This was very Half Life 2-ish, with the obvious difference being that Half Life 2 actually taught you that this was something you could do. Call of Juarez Gunslinger never bothers, with most wooden planks being completely solid. By the time I reached this part of the game, I had come to assume that that was universal. Instead, it turns out that some planks are breakable while others are unbreakable, and this becomes such great fun when the game puts breakable planks on unbreakable objects and sends you against a ton of enemies. “Why do I keep getting hit? I’m hiding behind objects,” I asked myself during one particularly egregious section on a train. It took a moment, but it finally dawned on me that enemies were shooting through the planks. “In that case, I’ll play by the same rules,” I proudly exclaimed, only to realize that the part of the box I was shooting enemies through was unbreakable. Because of course it was.
Problem 4: no sense of direction
Levels are linear, but they’re set up to be all twisty and turny and they often look bigger than they actually are. That’s fine; while I found myself completely losing my bearings at times, I’m more prone to that than most and there’s a built-in “here’s where you need to go” button (the O key, as memory serves). What’s not fine is parts of the game branching off in interesting-looking directions, only to tell you that you’re veering away from the story when you actually try exploring that direction. Ignore the game’s warning, and it’ll automatically reset the game at the last checkpoint (and this game is checkpoint saves only). A lot of times, this means all the dudes you just shot dead automatically get resurrected and you have to grind your way through them again. Hurray for punishing exploration while at the same time hiding collectibles around stages! Yay for confused game design!
Problem 5: gimmicky boss fights
There are two ways you face down boss-type enemies in this game: normal fights where enemies are a damage sponge and/or have a gatling gun, and duels. The former gets to be really gimmicky, like one fight where you have to make your way up a mountain while avoiding sniper bullets. That’s nowhere near as annoying as the constant gatling guns, though, which are effectively a mix between a game of whack-a-mole and a battle of attrition. Pop up, shoot the guy, hide until they reload, pop up, shoot the guy. All the while praying you don’t inexplicably hit an invisible wall that absorbs the bullet before they do, which somehow manages to happen more often than it does in games a decade or more older.
Problem 6: constant QTEs
As you walk along, you’ll occasionally be thrown into random QTEs that come out of nowhere. Usually when you’re being ambushed. Anyway, these are the typical twitch-based “quickly hit the keys that display,” and failing to do so allows that enemy to get a potentially fatal shot off on you. There’s a mechanic that allows you to dodge fatal shots like that, but it recharges over time and using it up before an ambush is typically a bad situation to find yourself in. It’s mind-boggling that someone thought QTEs were still an acceptable game mechanic after gamers in general have expressed their hatred of them over the past decade.
Duels are awkward, but okay
Duels aren’t much better, but they’re at least mercifully short. Basically, you use the A and D keys to move your hand near your gun while using the mouse to focus on your target. Meanwhile, both are veering off in random directions for no obvious reason. When you hear the heartbeat sound effect, you can draw, but it’ll be considered dishonorable unless you wait for them to draw before pulling your gun and gunning them down. You can (and practically have to) dodge enemy bullets at points, but this is still well within the realm of “decent.” The only thing that isn’t decent is the final mission’s duel, which sees you facing off against two enemies in a Mexican standoff. This requires switching between both enemies depending on who’s looking at you, and it comes with a tutorial prompt explaining this. Surely we can all agree that any game where you get a tutorial prompt near the end has failed to incorporate that mechanic in a meaningful way.
Bad graphics, okay music
I already talked about the failure of the graphics and how they’re eye-straining, and it’s a shame because they’re otherwise pretty decent. This game could have been downright pretty if the developers had shown an iota of restraint, but they didn’t. It’s too bad. The music fares far better, though, being comprised almost exclusively of the kind of upbeat western-sounding stuff you’d expect from a game like this. All of it is done really well, with the single exception of one track that plays while you face off against some Native Americans. For some reason, the music during this part of the game takes a sudden turn into bland orchestral fluff that fails to fit the mission, the game, or anything else. It’s almost a relief, though, because it means this game fails at literally everything at one time or another. That’s rare, like seeing some kind of unique butterfly flutter by. Let’s all treasure this moment forever by never speaking of this trashy game’s existence again.