Ditching the divisive Call of Juarez: The Cartel's modern-day setting, and sauntering into the Wild West once again, Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is a real return to form for Techland's underrated series. Boasting over-the-top arcade action, stripped back weapons of yore, and a Tarantino-inspired visual style, this downloadable shooter feels like a worthy successor to the brilliant Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood.
The release is brimming with larger than life characters, some of which are pulled straight from the history books. The likes of Billy the Kid and Butch Cassidy both appear, though their legendary stories are warped slightly to fit a new narrative surrounding a bounty hunter named Silas Greaves. Holed up in a Kansas saloon, the retired sharpshooter is seen relaying his tales to a small crowd for free drinks. However, old age and audience interruptions add some oddities to his recounts, leading to several clever scenarios.
For example, one moment you'll be fighting through a mine, arming dynamite and felling bad guys, before Silas recalls that he never actually ventured through any tunnels. The game then takes you back to the entrance, and shows you an alternative path. These misremembered occurrences are a common theme throughout the release, and are extremely intelligently implemented. It's hard not to smile as the title switches things up on the fly, and the mechanic will keep you on your toes throughout the six hour running time.
Outside of memory manipulations, Gunslinger is also a fast-paced first-person shooter that does a tremendous job of keeping the action varied and fresh. Dusty towns, luscious mountains, swamps, steamboats, and trains form just a few of the locations that you'll visit, each bringing a new set of terrain to traverse and set-pieces to master. Manning stationary Gatling guns, overcoming ambushes from high cover, and dealing with bandits wielding barn doors are just some of the moment-to-moment challenges that you'll be forced to overcome.
While the adventure is largely linear, the title does a good job of masking it. Locations appear vast, but the game pressures you through these elaborate corridors, keeping the intensity high. Each level also concludes with a tense showdown, which contrasts the pulsating action that you're likely to have faced prior.
These sections see the camera switched to your hip. Here you must position your hand over your gun in order to improve your draw speed, while simultaneously adjusting your reticule in order to enhance you aim. As soon as you hear your target's heart beat, you can take a shot for a dishonourable kill, which will apply a penalty to your overall score. Alternatively, you can wait until your adversary draws and hope that your reactions are quick enough. Stages are anchored by cartoon cut-scenes, which introduce the next dead man walking on your hit list.
As you're battling your way through the Old West, you'll build up a concentration meter, which, when activated, allows you to slow down time. This can be used to dodge the trajectory of incoming ammo, and preserve your health which is represented by bullet holes on the screen. Earning points will allow you to invest in three disparate upgrade trees, each focusing on different weapon types. You can choose between revolver upgrades for mixed combat effectiveness, rifle augmentations for ranged attacks, and shotgun items for effectiveness in close-quarters. Progressing to the point where you can dual wield shotguns is especially satisfying, while earning faster-firing six-shooters and more helps to add to the sense of progression. It certainly encourages both experimentation and replayability.
There are even collectibles strewn throughout the campaign which educate you on the real Wild West. Additionally, there's an Arcade option which takes locations from the story, and challenges you to achieve the highest scores possible. Points are awarded by performing headshots and shooting fleeing foes, while a multiplier is unlocked through successive kills. The final mode Duel lives up to its name, focusing on the aforementioned showdowns. There are even leaderboards designed to encourage you to keep improving your scores, though only the most committed are likely to come back for more.
Call of Juarez: Gunslinger successfully puts the franchise back on track. At a purely mechanical level, the title may feel familiar to other first-person shooters – but its unique setting and novel storytelling methods give it the jolt of originality that it requires.