It’s been a while since a new auteur has poked their head above the indie parapet, bravely asking critics to take a look at their creation. With Pinstripe, a creepy tale which leans heavily on gothic surrealism, Thomas Brush follows in the footsteps of similar visionaries such as Mike Bithell and Jonathan Blow, hoping to emulate their success. Brush served as programmer, artist, musician and writer, and invested five years into its creation — so it’s just as well that the end result is a moderate, if not overwhelming win.
A journey into Hell awaits Father Ted, a spindly, dishevelled priest in search of his kidnapped daughter after she is snatched from him on a train. The antagonist is a vile, cursing creature named Mr. Pinstripe, who wants nothing more than to convert little Bo into his own creation during a nefarious ceremony. Aided only by your pet dog George, you need to guide Ted through a series of grotesque landscapes and track down your precious child before it’s too late.
The platforming mechanics are dated but familiar. You’ll traverse tundras and sewers while hopping between ledges and collecting the frozen oil drops which act as the game’s currency. Enemies appear in the form of weird mine-spewing balloons, but should pose no problem to Ted’s slingshot. Even using a controller — which is far more cumbersome to aim with than mouse and keyboard — you’re unlikely to be challenged at any point in the game. The puzzles you encounter unwind at a leisurely pace, and serve up a roster of spot-the-difference paintings, Helicopter Game- (or, for younger readers, Flappy Bird-) style control segments, and timed reaction challenges.
Over the course of the short two-hour running time, the diversity of each obstacle keeps you playing, even if there are actually only four or five different types of minigame repeated with variations. Other obstacles are typical item location fare, pushing you to track down whatever is required to unblock whatever is currently impeding your progress. This will often require Ted to chat to the weird denizens of wherever he’s found himself, but the voice acting for each character is excellent so you’ll almost always be entertained. The exception is George, who is used early on to open up new areas, but then serves as something of a mouthpiece for Ted’s ruminations. His earnest preppy vocals feel at odds with the foreboding atmosphere. Conversely, Mr. Pinstripe is a wonderfully vicious, foul-mouthed and occasionally hilarious metaphor for Ted to overcome.
The map is a lot smaller than one might expect for a platform game, but it admirably crams in some memorable locations. The Sack Chute level, which relies on basic appreciation of the environment to progress, is wonderfully icky. The despondent village with a pub full of drunkards offers up a neat physics-based challenge via a pool table. And the overall vibe is Tim Burton-esque, if The Nightmare Before Christmas was transplanted into Hell.
However, it often feels that Pinstripe puts its aesthetic ahead of its gameplay, dishing out ideas but then ultimately discarding them in favour of the next new area. For instance, the oil drops you collect are really only of use for one particular obstacle, and require a lot of backtracking in order to find them all. The screens are simply not interesting enough to warrant the number of repeated viewings required here, as often you’ll just be walking across empty landscapes for the sake of it. Similarly, a simple ground-based boss turns up a couple of times for you to jump on it, Bowser-style, but then disappears with no explanation of its place in the world. Enemies in general appear to be an afterthought, with the focus primarily on gentle puzzles; the less said about the final encounter the better, as it disappoints on almost every level. There is also a light/dark element to some conversation choices, but its purpose isn't explained and you're left wondering how much impact it has on the narrative.
Replay is minimal unless you plan on subsequent playthroughs to collect more frozen drops to unlock various items in the scattered shops. Given the game’s linearity, this is probably not going to be the case for the majority of players — unless you’re a Kickstarter backer who really wants to see your name in lights.
Yet, there is a persistent charm to Pinstripe and if you look closely you’ll find the clues to the reason for Ted’s journey. They’re not overt, but there’s enough information for you to form your own conclusion about the nature of his quest. It’s held together by a sublime soundtrack which meshes seamlessly with whichever environment Ted is wandering through, and is a highlight of the game. If you approach it as a casual puzzle game with some light platforming thrown in, you’ll find an entertaining diversion. It’s not spectacular, nor is the story’s denouement as hard-hitting as one might have hoped, but it certainly showcases the range of a very talented developer.