Call of Juarez: Gunslinger – Final Review

Call of Juarez: Gunslinger’s greatest achievement is its evocation of place, expertly capturing the atmosphere and stylings of the American West, and even more exotic locations, like Mexican deserts and sandscapes. In a stroke of mastery, these diverse environments coalesce, resulting in one cohesive whole, contributing also to the game’s abundance of charm. Beyond these environments, this world-building is furthered by the narrative delivery, the game relying on a frame-narrative of sorts, the protagonist, Silas Greaves, sitting at table in some seedy tavern, his time long past, though filled with stories of that distant past. Congregated around him are a handful of individuals, each unique, some charismatic and attentive, others characterized solely by cynicism and impatience. Regarding the more eager individuals is an impressionable youth, Dwight. Completely enraptured by Silas’s exploits, wanting to believe them accurate, even as certain of his claims are totally inaccurate, fantastical; an avid reader of cheap-dime novels, even his literary inclinations further communicate place.

Beyond eager Dwight and enigmatic Silas, more minor figures are present for the discourse – a buxom barmaid, dressed in a scanty outfit and possessive of a sultry voice, serves an almost humorous role as seductress, even as her narrative contributions are slight. Then there is reticent Ben, himself enigmatic, and proprietor of the establishment proper. Many of these characters listen primarily – the spotlight is completely thrust upon Silas, for better or for worse. Still, with his excellent characterization, that monopolization is not a bad thing – his demeanor and delivery result in an excess of charm. With compelling voice-acting and a gravelly delivery, he is likable, while his character modelling is stylish, almost intimidating in construction, reflecting his storied adventures. In many ways, he carries the narrative even as it falters in other regards; the game adopts an episodic structure, each primary mission existing as a self-contained whole, vaguely linked together, the narrative becoming a mere patchwork – here, conversely, cohesion is spurned.   

Still, these missions – loosely connected though they may be – are universally enjoyable. In efforts to further narrative, exposition is not confined solely to the cinematics which punctuate the game’s many missions. Even while engaging in a gunfight, or simply mulling about in exploration, Silas continues always his discourse, developing further his experiences by providing active commentary on them, a commentary often tinged by nostalgia at prosperous times long past, or great bitterness when considering some especially tragic occurrence, existing in great abundance – Silas’s life was never a happy life. This constant exposition is welcome, even as the capability to fully focus on it is lost, Silas’s discourse continuing onwards while gunshots fly and dynamite explodes. I have never enjoyed this style of delivery, at least when compared to more traditional cinematics, as it destroys greater potential resonance, the overlaps between narration and gameplay becoming confused, muddling the narrative.  

This delivery style, though, is intimately important; Silas, while telling his story, will occasionally venture towards hyperbole, exaggerating the extent of his achievements, or sometimes misremembering factual matters entirely, a mistake which his learned listeners can and do promptly remedy, reminding him of his failings. Errors only increase in frequency as the narrative progresses, as Silas grows steadily intoxicated. These distortions can directly alter the gameplay, scenarios and environments changing on the fly as Silas capitulates, divulging the truth by discarding the imagined. This morphability is both highly compelling and highly unique, resulting in a sense of ambiguity: how much of Silas’s claims, his advancements of massive accomplishment and violent victories – how much of it is true? It is a poignant question, as he an unreliable narrator, a relative rarity, and that novelness transforms him into something singularly unique and likable, just as much as his character design and voice acting.

Knowing functionally little about Westerns, still are thrown around some of the more renowned names, names known to almost everyone, even the ill-informed. Silas finds himself involved with Billy the Kid, is suspected of allegiance with Wyatt Earp, eventually dueling with both Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid; every easily identifiable figure is here present in the narrative, almost forcibly so. Still, their presence communicates a sense of scope, attributing a sense of grandeur and gravity to Silas and his achievements – here is no nondescript bounty hunter or petty thief; rather, here is a refined man, participating in many major occurrences, discoursing with and fighting against many infamous figures. Silas’s constant advances of their intimacy only further the sense of ambiguity: could one man really know all these figures, engage in all of these dogged gunfights, over thousands and thousands of miles of distance? A questioning of his validity again arises. But whether or no his tales are accurate, they result in a narrative that moves at a consistently brisk pace, never a dull moment, while a compelling character arc is conveyed.  

Towards the beginning of Silas’s recounting, he is a nondescript figure, robbing and killing solely for wealth, prosperity, and renown – here is an absence of likability, Silas still a nonentity. As the narrative progresses, though, a secondary, more compelling motivation is revealed – vengeance. This ultimate objective, the acting upon a vendetta, is introduced too late, dampening its effectiveness. This motivation is initially vague; Silas has been wronged, and that wrong must be reciprocated. For a fair few hours, this vagueness persists, and not knowing the nature of Silas’s hatred only lessens identification with his anger. Later, though, the precise nature of his bitterness is finally made apparent, and the narrative gets back on track. The reasons for that hatred are straightforward – Silas and his pair of brothers were betrayed, incapacitated then promptly tied to a tree-branch, doomed to be hanged. Silas, the youngest, eventually escapes death, while the other two promptly expire. Knowing this backstory greatly helps player identification with Silas, and its delay prevents the narrative from becoming instantly engaging, a great failing. 

Whether Silas is deliberately seeking revenge or hungering after mere profit, the levels are arresting, technically and creatively. From a creative aspect, the game eagerly embraces color, distinguishing it from other, more muted games in the genre; here are no browns and greys. Rather, here is crispness, the varied maps dotted with trees in their autumnal hues, beautiful yellows and oranges abounding. Baked lighting is also present, which furthers the game’s striking vividness. Despite existing in relatively linear fashion, the maps have considerable draw distances, more desert-like landscapes surrounded on all sides by towering, blinding orange mountains. Diversity is immense, conveying the sense that Silas really has embarked on a lifelong odyssey, constant locomotion. Montana and Wyoming are explored at one point, beautiful trees and foliage all around, a sense of largeness reinforced. In another moment, swampy marshes are explored, the game embracing the atmospheric through effective fog effects, cleverly and realistically cutting down on the draw distance, resulting in a sense of claustrophobia and uncertainty.

Alongside this creativity, a striking sense of verticality is present, even as mobility options are fairly restricted – here is no elaborate climbing or platforming. Still, one level sees navigation of a towering construction of train-tracks, craggy sands sprawled out far below, resulting in an almost dizzying sensation. Advancing through these maps, dullness is spurned, the creative flourishes greatly preventing the descent into mundanity, even as gameplay systems grow repetitive; here is set-piece after set-piece, a derelict cavern explored at one point, littered with carts of dynamite, one stray bullet resulting in a violent, fatal explosion, perpetual tension arising alongside this threat. Movement along a speeding train-car, barreling down the tracks, becomes cinematic, the landscape all around becoming but a blur. The variety of these environments contributes greatly to the world-building, many of them suitably untamed and unpopulated, reflecting the still-incomplete grasping of the landscape by civilized man, flora and fauna left untouched, some rural areas inhabited solely by Native Americans. That elaborate construction of train tracks represents a struggle between civilization and nature, mankind gradually winning out. More traditional, too, are the more urban environments, with an abundance of saloons, local stores, and other such modern conveniences – man has started in earnest to etch his place upon that distant expanse, the environments communicating a story, rather than existing as mere backdrop. This immense attention to detail, a striving for historical accuracy, elevates the game into something greater – here is a Western.   

Exploring these diverse worlds is rewarding, even as the levels are highly linear, perpetually intense – basic, unchallenged locomotion and exploration is an infrequent occurrence, the majority of the game spent in open combat, where the game again excels, arcadey in style, though never fully departing from realism. These arcadey components would seemingly point towards a louder, bolder approach, though this fast proves untrue – straying too far from cover, remaining overexposed for any protracted duration, can result in swift death; a slower pace is thusly adopted, though the generous health-regeneration rate also limits frequent frustrations from emerging. Many engagements will likely be at considerable distance, and a few flexibilities are afforded the player, diversity in approach, though disappointingly, a two-weapon limit is in place. Revolvers are constantly wielded, abounding in variety, some better suited to longer ranges, others possessive of rapid fire-rate, excelling most strongly in closer engagements. Beyond revolvers, the primary weapon types are limited solely to a rifle and a shotgun. Given the frequently large distance between player and enemy, the shotguns seem mostly useless; their employment would unnecessarily increase the game’s difficulty, and they were accordingly neglected, even as the game’s fairly nuanced skill-system likely bolsters this weapon’s effectiveness.

This skill system is a welcome inclusion, linear though it may be. Every kill awards experience, more elaborate kills naturally conferring greater experience; headshots, kills delivered at considerable range, enemies dropped while in the process of fleeing or advancing, all increase experience dispersion, and deliberately striving for such kills fast becomes a primary concern, hastening player growth. I would wager roughly 75% of all my kills were headshots, and even on the hard difficulty here is fairness – save for a scant few armored enemies, every foe can be felled with but a single, well-aimed shot; rifles, very effective at longer ranges, fast become a necessity, and I never departed from that firearm, seeing shotguns as far too situational, even as an entire upgrade tree is centered around increasing its utility.  

Many of the skills, admittedly, are unremarkable, seeing an increase in ammunition capacity, or an increased reload speed; they are mundane. Others alter the game in fundamental ways, one bolstering zoom level, another increasing agility in concentration mode, a mode which fast becomes crucial to continued success; its usage is greatly encouraged. Building up over time and when slaughtering enemies in rapid succession or in highly violent fashion, its activation briefly slows down time, highlighting enemies both distant and near in a bright, vivid red, where they can be easily and swiftly dispatched. An enjoyable, rewarding feature, I inexplicably neglected it in the earlier portions of the game; once grasping the system, employing it frequently, the quality of the gunplay really surged, Silas effortlessly pulling off dramatic feats of gunmanship. The skills which lengthen this ability, or hasten its recharge rate, are thusly highly desirable. Desirable, too, are the legendary weapons which are awarded at predetermined intervals upon each upgrade tree. One tree awards a shotgun and sawed-off shotgun, while others award revolvers or, in one fortunate instance, a rifle. As weapons, they are practical, functionally better than their lesser brethren in every conceivable way, some having extended length of magazine size, others having a higher damage value and improved accuracy.

Gun modelling, too, is highly detailed and beautiful, embracing both realism and the stylish. Actually wielding these legendary weapons, analyzing their models, becomes a dazzling affair, with details of gold and other ornamentations. Even if certain of the skills leading up to their unlocking are lackluster, the final attainment of these weapons was a joyous affair, helping to further the weapon diversity which is otherwise lacking. Given the era, scopes are non-existent, seemingly pointing towards difficulty in long-range combat. Not so: clear iron-sights are present, facilitating accuracy at distance, this accuracy bolstered further by certain purchasable skills. But whether dispatching an enemy with a long rifle, blasting away a rushing opponent with a shotgun, or frantically fanning the hammer of a revolver, gunplay excels, deftly balancing the arcadey with the realistic.  

The game runs at a brisk pace, with the constant variance of environments. Despite this briskness, a complete lack of succinctness is present, even as the game is rather short in length. Many stops on the journey, inconsequential narratively, could easily be removed, and the game would not suffer severely, but would benefit. These missions, inconsequential though they may be, are certainly compelling, like one which sees Silas combatting and discoursing with hostile Native Americans, all to hear a prophecy from a renowned Shaman. The environment design is compelling, but no considerable narrative developments accompany that journey. Despite this stumbling and fluff, the narrative ends in triumph, final revenge achieved through a clever if forced moral decision, a choice which contributes to a lasting memorability, Silas either successful in his vendetta, showing himself as remaining a monster, or acting in kindness, abandoning that vendetta and instead embracing peace.

More minor flaws are also present, beyond this dearth of cohesion. Some combat scenarios, highly unfair in construction, are present in fair abundance, totally unenjoyable and cheap to engage in, the greatest offenders here being arena-type areas, Silas positioned in some central location, being flanked on all sides by opposition, deadly accurate, without so much as a reliable rock to hide behind for cover. Furthering frustration, beyond their immense numbers, these enemies also possess high damage output; frequent failures in these scenarios were unfortunately present, the briskness of pace destroyed. An intuitive feature is in place to minimize these frustrations, a sort of death sense which slows time, Silas again showing his characteristic agility, permitted the chance to dodge that gunfire as it approaches his person, sparing him from a blow which would otherwise be fatal. The recharge rate for this ability is also high, and it is a welcome, empowering inclusion. The absence of this ability would evoke further frustrations, in these particular engagements and beyond. Other gameplay failings include scripted boss-battles, many of them involving gatling-gunners, carefully positioned at some elevation or a narrow choke-point. Darting from cover to cover while the weapon enters a state of cooldown can be thrilling, though the damage output is immense, resulting in surprisingly punishing encounters.

The greatest gameplay failure, though, is related to the game’s dueling systems. Almost every principal mission concludes with one of these encounters, which technically seem to work randomly; complex in mechanics, seeing the monitoring of draw speed and intense focus on the enemy, even mastering these mechanics does not result in consistent victory – everything here seems tied to chance. Values approaching one hundred percent in both fields should logically confer that success, though this often proves untrue. Concluding with a Mexican standoff, the game ends on a whimper, this one engagement abounding in frustration, with repeated failures. If these duels occurred less frequently, their impactfulness would only be heightened, an escalation of tension accompanying that restraint.

As a title Call of Juarez: Gunslinger is unique stylistically and atmospherically, evoking an unparalleled sense of place, capturing an environment and aesthetic intrinsically intriguing – something indefinably alluring is attached to the Western genre, an allure the title eagerly seizes upon. In a unique turn, rather than embracing the gritty – as would be easily possible – here is all gay, light-hearted humor, even as thematic darkness and morality are occasionally touched upon.  Dialogue that is playful yet unobnoxious, world-building that is imaginative yet grounded, gunplay that is impactful, both challenging and rewarding – the game possesses many paradoxical qualities, and while not overly ambitious, it succeeds in conveying an effective narrative, even as that narrative lacks any cohesion, its potentially-massive resonances destroyed by the episodic structure, resulting at times in a confused mess. But in totality, the narrative still soars, that ascension evoked largely by Silas, possessive of two principal motivations, himself abounding in charm and whimsicality, occasionally embellishing past experiences, though always remaining enigmatic, charming, his figure dominating the game, guiding its focus. A perfect if abrupt resolution also assists narrative strengths, Silas’s lifelong motivations satisfied. The journey to that resolution, though, is periodically side-tracked, much included content completely superfluous and unneeded, with a dearth of character development. These failings are overcome, both through the efforts of Silas and the gameplay proper. Forced mechanics like the dueling system occasionally halt the pace of the narrative, but beyond such blemishes, the game is enjoyable and atmospheric, a perfect illustration of the enigmatic, morally-vague West.   

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