Nightmares from a Single Mind
With hit games like Prey, Resident Evil 7, and Outlast 2 already blessing our monitors in the first 5 months of 2017, this has been the best year for spooky gaming in quite some time. With it’s simple, animated-movie-looking graphics and puzzle platformer gameplay, Pinstripe probably isn’t a title that’s jumped out to many fans of the genre, but it’s one that absolutely should. While Pinstripe’s brand of heebie jeebies is definitely more Tim Burton than Eli Roth, it’s an emotionally engaging ride made all the more impressive by the fact that it was developed by a single developer- Thomas Brush. While having complete control over a creative project like this may seem like a blessing, and I’m sure it is in some ways, it’s also difficult for more reasons than just time, technical know-how, or burnout. Single developers, much like film-makers surrounded by yes-men, can suffer from not having anyone to say “no” or keep their ideas in check. Luckily that isn’t an issue with Pinstripe, which comes together into a beautifully realized, perfectly satisfying experience.
Pinstripe absolutely drips with atmospheric charm from the first moments to the last. The story-book visual style is brought to vivid life by detailed, nuanced animation that makes everything seem very much like a fantastical, twisted fairy tale. From the opening moments of the game, as protagonist Ted and his adorable daughter Bo go exploring through the cars of their moving train, there’s a strange, hard-to-grasp sense of the foreboding brewing right under the surface. These feelings are soon made corporeal by the appearance of the devilishly dapper Mr. Pinstripe. Sitting on a bench with a face covered in shadow save for his glowing mouth and eyes, offering Bo a black balloon, Pinstripe soon abducts Bo promising that “soon, she’ll call ME daddy.” Everything blacks out, and Ted awakens amongst the wreckage of the presumably-crashed train in the middle of strange woods, and the game proper begins- a search to rescue Bo from Mr. Pinstripe’s “adoption ceremony.” It’s one of the creepier, more unsettling openings I’ve played in a game of this sort, and with its mysteriously strange setting and platforming puzzle gameplay would being justified in garnering comparisons to the similarly atmospheric Limbo.
Effective Storytelling Over Complex Gameplay
Pinstripe is a puzzle platformer through and through with a small amount of simplistic combat thrown into the mix, but it’s definitely a game more focused on enveloping players in its story than providing terribly deep or challenging gameplay, and it works. That isn’t to say the gameplay is poor. Puzzles come in a few different forms, some involving taking clues of inventory items, some involving platforming, and others collecting “frozen drops” collectibles scattered throughout the environment. Some are challenging and others are more straightforward, but all flow well enough that it didn’t seem out of place in a narrative centered on urgency. The only times I did feel a bit of a lull, and the only complaint I have with the game at all, is the few times that require significant backtracking. Like, back to the beginning of the game map level backtracking, though it only takes a few minutes to walk from the beginning to end once everything’s been opened up. It’s not the worst thing in the world, but I do think the game would have been better off omitting these instances.
Clocking in for me at two hours for a playthrough (plus a new game+ mode), the game is short, but benefits from a brisk pace devoid of filler segments and a tangible sense of tension hurrying to get Bo back. For much of the game the true nature of the plot remains a mystery, and definitely asks more questions than it answers. Who is Pinstripe, and why does he have interest in Ted and Bo? Why isn’t Ted, a priest, more surprised by the sudden appearance of a creepy floating man with an evil voice and black fluid-oozing balloon sacks? Why are there other odd people in this wilderness, and why do some of them know Ted by name? Where even is Ted? Some of these questions are answered and some aren’t but at the end of the surprisingly emotional story I felt the right balance was struck between opening the right number of explanatory doors to satiate my curiosity and keeping enough closed to avoid atmospheric death by over-explanation.
In addition to its animation and visual style, something that Pinstripe nails to aid it’s atmosphere is its voice acting. Getting good voice actors for a video games can be tough. Like, really tough, which is only multiplied when you’re both a small indie developer with a modest budget and in need of a child voice actor to carry the emotional weight of your story. Despite the odds being stacked against it, there are a number of standouts, mainly daughter Bo and the titular Mr. Pinstripe, that do a fantastic job selling the emotion and tone they needed to. The writing itself is fine, but it’s elevated to quite memorable by delivery that was far more affecting than I expected it to be. Oddly enough, the Ted is the only one without voiced lines, though there are dialogue choices to choose from in conversation. Responses are split up into clearly labeled “nice” and “not nice” options, which lead the player two one of two endings. Oddly enough, though, the two endings are almost the same, with only minor difference that don’t really seem to be a natural result of being nice or dickish to people throughout the story. Both are tonally very similar, making me question why two different endings were put into the game. It doesn’t hurt anything that they’re there, but since they are I expected some more meaningful differences as a result of what led to them.
Maybe I’m just a softy, but Pinstripe is a game that I can tell is going to echo in my head for awhile. There aren’t any giant plot twists that catch you off guard and blow you away. There aren’t any new incredibly game mechanics that add a twist to the genre. There’s just good old fashioned quality storytelling put together by a guy that’s clearly got a lot of talent, passion, and love for the project, and it shines through from start to end. In a time of buggy, rushed releases and half-baked indie cash-grabs, it’s nice to play something memorable, well-made, and complete, and, for those reasons and more, Pinstripe is an easy game to recommend.
Fantastic atmosphere, beautifully creepy animation, and an affecting story that unfolds at the right pace.
Some of the backtracking seems unnecessary and detracts a bit from the pace of the game, and the two different endings aren’t different enough to warrant their existence.