Pinstripe - Brutal Backlog
Brutal Backlog is a semi-regular feature where the JDR team play through some of the unplayed games on their shelves (both digital and physical), disregarding their age or the technical limitations of their era. Only the very best titles will stand up to scrutiny today.
One evening while absent-mindedly trawling the PSN store, a piece of cover art caught my eye; a disheveled priest with pallid skin and five o’clock stubble, mouth agape at either the sight or memory of something unspeakable. Clicking through to the link brought up images of an eerie platform game, populated with a host of strange characters and crisp animated visuals. Now a good two years on from Pinstripe’s original release, I’ve returned to see whether the game is more heavenly or hellish.
Twenty Minutes In
You meet Ted the priest (that’s you!) speeding along on a train, with young daughter Bo. Taking a stroll down the length of the rumbling carriages, you bump into a man who introduces himself as ‘Mr Pinstripe’, a gaunt, silhouetted, chain-smoking figure. He’s creepy and over-familiar — especially towards Bo — and so Ted makes his excuses and goes to leave. Shortly afterwards, Bo slips your grasp and chases a floating balloon-thing back up the train, only to be seized by Pinstripe. The locomotive derails at this point, and as Ted awakes in a snowy forest village, you can only watch as Bo is carried away by the cackling man. Dropped into this twilight world, you need to lead Ted on a journey to confront Pinstripe and rescue your daughter.
Straight out of the gates, Pinstripe looks great — regardless of whether or not you take into account the fact that it was entirely made by a single person, Thomas Brush. A blend of Edward Gorey and Tim Burton, the characters are elongated and elegantly simple. Your movement is nice and floaty as well, so I spent the first couple of screens outside the train just jumping around and watching Ted’s scarf flutter behind him, his spindly legs kicking in the air. With that out my system, I wandered around for a bit to see what I was supposed to do.
The areas are split up into static screens for you to move through, only occasionally following Ted in small ways, Abe’s Oddysee style. There’s no actual bad guys so far — I’ve just been chatting to the drunken locals of this hick underworld, followed some directions, solved some puzzles, and been rewarded with a slingshot found in an old toy chest. Ted can use the slingshot to turn levers, which has so far consisted of raising or lowering obstacles to be able to get past them. It’s pretty gentle gameplay-wise, but I do like the setting a lot. There’s the occasional item to collect, which you can examine in your inventory screen to get hints to Ted’s background — a crucifix, a family photo, a bottle of painkillers. There’s also collectable currency in the form of diamonds, gold coins, and oil drops, the last being a noxious substance that the townspeople offer to trade with you for goods (all of which are far out of my price range at this point, sadly).
Forty Minutes In
Creepiness factor is on the up. Having left the village, there’s a bridge with a telescope pointed at Pinstripe’s house in the distance, and looking through it I can see Bo strung up and screaming. It‘s pretty distressing, hearing a child convincingly crying in the background from time to time. All of the voice acting has been top-notch, really: the characters you meet talk about themselves and your quest with personality and touches of unexpected darkness.
Using the slingshot, Ted has freed his old family dog from a cage it was held in. George, man’s best friend that he is, can dig up hidden mushrooms which can be bounced upon to reach higher areas. More importantly, he follows Ted around and is another voice in conversations, funnily wry. There’s a couple of enemies in the form of Pinstripe’s drones, which can be dispatched easily enough with the quick aim of Ted’s slingshot.
Having picked up a lamp, I’ve been advised to head towards Pinstripe through an underground mine. Sinister fusions of tentacles and machinery pump water and oil through the passageways, which need activating to get by — with Ted’s slingshot, you shoot hanging lettered blobs in a specific order to spell out despairing phrases (‘D.A.D.D.Y.’, ‘S.A.V.E.M.E.’) and wake up the machines. It’s all very straightforward, but the appearance of the chambers and the impact noises the blobs make is satisfying. Other side-puzzles in the cave don’t have the same pull though. A game of spot-the-difference is a protracted momentum killer, and a repeated lock picking diversion in which you’re meant to switch on multiple timed lights on a spinning dial devolves into mindless button-mashing.
One Hour In
Emerging on the other side of the cave, there’s a cool Flappy Bird-style minigame, guiding a node through rotating machinery to activate a generator. For me, it’s better than the standard lockpicking or hacking challenge, and stepping into a more three-dimensional style for the game is interesting. Completing this powers up a number of flaming lanterns in the world, which you can shoot your slingshot through to set your ammo on fire. This quickly becomes a necessary addition, as Ted is soon face-to-face with a gargantuan brute of a centipede who is blocking a waterfall — shutting down a following screen’s waterwheel, which you need to get spinning again — and is otherwise impervious to your normal slingshot stones.
A few screens later, there’s a gondola station to take you to the next town where Pinstripe’s home is. However, to purchase a ticket you need to collect three hundred oil drops. Three hundred. Despite exhaustive exploration, I have nowhere near enough at this point. The ticket seller informs me that I should check around for oil drops where I’ve been, now that I can use the lanterns and fiery slingshot ammunition to break open new caches of oil. Ted seems ambivalent to this news: as a man of the cloth, behind his blank stare he presumably found the strength to carry on. I don’t have the same spiritual fortitude. I had to backtrack through every single area. Each and every screen up to that point now had to be returned to and scrutinised to gather enough oil drops, blaspheming all the way.
One Hour And Thirty Minutes In
I’ve seen every pixel of this game so far twice over now. But I’ve got my goddamn three hundred oil drops. Give. Me. Gondola. Ticket. Please.
Two Hours In
When stepping off the gondola in Red Wash, Pinstripe’s hometown, I found an awesome glitch/bug/feature. If you open and close your inventory, your next jump is about an extra third higher than normal. I’ve used this to bypass a one-off puzzle with shooting pool balls into a bucket, and another with platform levers, by just leaping up to where I’m trying to get to.
Pinstripe’s opening areas had screen after screen to make your way through, but after the gondola ride, it’s clear that this isn’t a game of two equal halves. There are a few buildings to run through, but no more optional areas of diversions to take. It reminds me of the map screen from Golden Axe, which tricked you into thinking the game was huge by showing the map being slowly filled in as you completed each level… and then they just draw a great big eagle and an arrow on the map, explaining that you’re just flying straight to the final stage now. It’s not a bad thing, just that from the way the villagers had been banging on about Red Wash and Pinstripe’s domain, it sounded like another full environment crawling with challenges. Instead, there’s just some more spot the difference puzzles and an item quest.
Three Hours In
Finishing the game just under two and half hours from starting, Ted is given a key to take into a second playthrough to unlock previously inaccessible areas. If you made it through Pinstripe and are wondering if it’s worth it? Do it! You’ve done your slog, now take your reward. It took me about twenty minutes. Whereas the first playthrough was bogged down by backtracking and collectables, the special key you receive does away with all of that — behind the earliest locked doors I found more gold than Midas giving Scrooge McDuck a handshake, and enough oil drops to pollute the world in a way Shell could only dream of.
The second run really lets you breeze through Pinstripe — I bought a machine gun to replace my slingshot, and I got a cool new outfit. Everything is easier with your now overpowered Ted, and you can make your way swiftly through the game. It’s like a victory lap for the accomplishment of bringing an independent game to market (as evidenced by a secret room carved with the names of Kickstarter backers), tempered with “Can you believe you spent so long doing busy-work the first time round?”. My second playthrough was a big ol’ ball of fun.
Story-wise, I think Pinstripe would have been more interesting a couple of years ago. With the continued prominence of games like Braid, Limbo, and Little Nightmares, in which the narrative slowly unfolds to reveal a gut-wrenching turn as things fall into place, Pinstripe just doesn’t have the same impact. From the very first interactions and the collectible items you find along your journey, the plot twist and the relationship between Ted and Pinstripe is all but spelt out. It doesn’t take two and a half hours (including a lot of padded-out backtracking) to make it clear that, whether as a parent or as a man of God, Ted is not going to be gifted a ‘Father of the Year’ coffee mug.
It’s a funny one, Pinstripe. I applaud the quality of the art style, presentation and voice acting, but there are a lot of ideas competing here. There’s nothing anically wrong with Pinstripe, it’s just made up of too many different sections and minigames. It would have made more sense (and been more rewarding) to see one or two ideas picked up and expanded on with increased complexity, rather than having a dozen different formats for which you never get past simple puzzles.
Minigames and mechanics are introduced left and right and then never seen again — for example, George the dog (who seemed so important at the start) doesn’t do anything other than follow Ted around for the final two-thirds of the game. Breaking each stage down into disparate sections lessens the experience as it begins to feel less like a single game, and more a compendium of ‘wouldn’t it be cool if…’ ideas.
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