After a failed run at the third episode of Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, a loading screen popped up with a small sentence under the standard 'YOU ARE DEAD' message - "Do you believe in ghosts?" It seems like an odd provocation for a fun but frivolous Old West manshooter, but Gunslinger keeps returning to it.
The narrator asks the people he's talking to if they have ever "thought about death"; an Indian chief warns about 'darkness claiming your soul'; a final episode in a ghost town ties the story together. Techland has broken from the stories of the McCall bloodline in this, the latest entry in the Call of Juarez series, and the developer has revitalised its storytelling in the process.
Gunslinger opens with grizzled bounty hunter Silas Greaves sitting down at a table in a small-town saloon and spinning some yarns for the regulars about his old vengeance-seeking days. He narrates the levels as we play, injecting himself into the history of the Wild West. He keeps a running commentary as we blast away deputies with Billy the Kid; he makes snarky remarks about the competence of the bank-robbing Dalton Brothers; he puzzles over Apache chief Grey Wolf's message while we face down an endless horde of spectral gunslingers.
Greaves isn't a passive commenter, though. We play through his memories as his memory of himself, and so the game world is defined by his recollections. Routes appear when he remembers them, the action will rewind if he needs to correct the audience, and ladders and corpses will drop from the sky on cue. The mechanic may never dramatically alter the player's experience, but Techland make good use of it regardless, making some good-humoured observations about the absurdity of the first-person shooter.
The mechanic is most memorable, however, when it's applied for reasons other than wry commentary. In the game's final levels it’s used to give presence to Greaves' fears that he is a regretful relic of a bygone era. As he croaks the traditional dirge O Death in the second-to-last episode, the action slows to a crawl and the landscape opens up in reflection of the old bounty hunter's pain and fear. It's but one of the small, emotional moments towards the end that would be nothing without the mechanic, and it throws the colourful action that's come before into sharp relief.
That action is a lot of fun, too, capturing the playfulness and bat-out-of-hell spirit of Greaves' re-tellings. Gunslinger is fundamentally a hyper-energetic shooting gallery, replete with flashy in-the-moment scores and bullet-time shooting sprees as a reward for good killing. It comes with leaderboards and striking flourishes of bright-red blood at every headshot, a game mode dedicated to the unadulterated run-and-gun, and another that acts a duel-based boss challenge. It moves at a cracking pace and crams massive fire-fights into relatively small areas of the map, keeping the blood pumping and making sure you're rarely without a target.
It's also a very good-looking game, especially for a budget title. Characters are slightly chunky and odd-looking, like Borderlands without the cel-shading, but Techland's Chrome Engine 5 has generated impressive results otherwise. The highly-detailed vistas of the American West are brought to life with a subdued colour palette and the judicious application of rich, environment-appropriate natural light, some levels feeling directly ripped from the likes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or either version of True Grit.
It's a bit unfortunate, though, that some of the less interesting levels are reused across episodes - most egregiously, the map we first meet as Lincoln is later recycled as Adeline and then as Coffeyville. One could trace it back to the conceit of Greaves' failing memory; it's hard to let that fly, though, when that bounty hunter spends most of the game commenting on his capacity for recall yet never mentions the repetition.
It's also a bit unfortunate that the madcap energy of the arcade shooter in Gunslinger is offset by the hoary mechanics and dynamics of the post-Call of Duty shooter. Iron sights are still the way to go, you're still limited to two guns (although the dual-wield option is welcome), you're always taking cover behind waist-high walls, and the weapons have no notable idiosyncracies - the rifle is like any other rifle, the shotgun is like any other shotgun, the quickshooter is like any other pea-shooter starting pistol. The cosmetic changes may make the game much more entertaining, but they're still cosmetic changes and it's hard to get past that.
Gunslinger's All-American revenge quest is a barrel of fun for the five hours it lasts. The kinetic, score-attack action hits all the right arcade notes, and Greaves' story is captivating, as funny as it is melancholic. But for all the in-the-moment joy, Gunslinger is an ephemeral experience hobbled by what it recycles. It would be a lot more memorable if it took a few more risks with its design; without those risks, it stands out only as a particularly entertaining addition to a crowd of shooters that's been milling about for years.