Pinstripe charts a difficult course for itself. Created by solo developer Thomas Brush (you may remember his Newgrounds hit, Coma) over a five-year period, it tries to tell the tale of a father's attempt to atone for past mistakes and rescue his daughter through the medium of a combat-light puzzle platformer. It's not an impossible task, as demonstrated by similar games such as Limbo or Braid, but it requires a tightrope walker's precision to successfully balance presentation, story, and mechanics. From its opening moments, Pinstripe nails the presentation, but falls flat on its face otherwise.
The game begins promisingly, as falling snow and a lilting score fade into a scene of a father (Ted) and daughter (Bo) aboard a train car. The pair engage in some banter that should immediately endear them to most players -- not a simple task given how stilted and unnatural these relationships often come across onscreen. The paper cutout visual style is clearly inspired by the likes of Edward Gorey and Tim Burton, but it's distinct enough to stand on its own rather than just being a pastiche. Your own taste will dictate how you feel about the game's appearance, but the art is undeniably well crafted throughout. Gentle music continues playing and remarkably rich sound effects complete the picture of the journey.
Making their way through the rattling train, players will quickly come across the game's antagonist and namesake, Mr. Pinstripe. Pinstripe is genuinely unsettling, projecting menace in his design, his voice, and the incredibly creepy dialogue with which he introduces himself. After solving a brief puzzle and interacting with one of Pinstripe's addictive but noxious "sacks" (don't look at me, that's what they're called), which will come into play later in the game, Ted is called to action by Bo's abduction.
Players are greeted here by a gorgeous and dark landscape. The burning wreckage of a train lies strewn across the snowfield that makes up the game's first section. Snowflakes fall in the foreground, lending a serene beauty to the carnage. Elevating the atmosphere is the sparse but surprisingly moving soundtrack -- the music is great throughout, but this simple tune may be my favorite part of the entire game. A similarly lovely track accompanies the ending, which provides an unexpected bookend to the adventure.
Up to this point, Pinstripe looks promising. It quickly establishes a nightmarish fairy tale world haunted by a malevolent spectre for our likable hero to overcome, and it's all presented with a grim beauty. Up to this point, players have only had presentation to rely on, and that is the game's biggest strength. But as soon as Pinstripe starts in earnest, the game's lackluster mechanics completely hamstring it. Players may have brushed aside the one quiet alarm bell of the first scene -- the simplistic and dull opening puzzle -- and assumed that it only gets better from here. Unfortunately, the gameplay never finds its footing, and players who have been even half-awake so far have already seen everything the story has to offer.
Pinstripe is primarily a puzzle game, but its puzzles are uniformly unimaginative and provide nothing but a slight pause in progress. Most puzzles take the form of a series of switches to be pressed in the environment to open a gate. There are no complex sequences or tricky timings; in most cases you'll stumble across at least one switch before even finding the puzzle it belongs to. Another common puzzle is finding clues that form the combination to a lock. At one crucial juncture, you're forced to play a couple rounds of a Flappy Bird knock-off with worse collision detection, and the game even contains a couple of "Highlights" magazine-style spot-the-difference puzzles. There are a few slightly trickier puzzles to work through, but they're no more satisfying to solve.
Combat, the other gameplay pillar, hardly bears mentioning. There are two types of bomb-dropping airborne enemies, which are functionally identical but with different sprites. You shoot them with a slingshot that has a simple but unsatisfying control scheme. There is one ground-based enemy that charges at you. Your talking dog companion (we'll get to it) tells you to jump on its back, so you do. This enemy shows up twice in the game. The game's only boss shows up at the very end, and it's actually a decent battle compared to the rest. It's nothing special, but it's the only encounter that requires any thought or packs any emotional resonance.
So about that dog. Ted, being in Hell, is guided through most of the game by his dead dog, George. I don't know what a dog does to get sent to Hell, but that's beside the point. George is delightful. It's a clever, funny variation on Dante's Virgil, and the voice performance by musician Nathan Sharp is unerringly charming. In fact, the game's voice acting is fantastic across the board, with the highlights being the malice-dripping Mr. Pinstripe and a sort of robotic desk clerk encountered near the game's end whose voice is tinged with unnerving static and distortions. The same level of care and inventiveness goes into the sound design throughout the game, which features well done sound effects, judicious use of audio filters, and clever sound cues that help amplify the game's tense, creepy tone at key moments. This may be the first game I've ever played where the sound was undoubtedly my favorite aspect.
Unfortunately, this bright spot can't make up for the game's awkward pace. Neither combat nor puzzles provide any real hurdle to the player's progress, which keeps things moving at a fast but unrewarding clip. This all grinds to a halt around two-thirds of the way through the game when, to progress to the final stage, an NPC tasks you with retracing your steps to gather a truckload of previously inaccessible pickups. This bit of exploration and puzzle solving provides probably the most significant challenge of the game, but having to trek back through old environment for a fetch quest is incredibly irritating. From this point essentially to the end of the game, my tolerance wore thin and I was ready for the ordeal to end.
This harsh break in the game's flow is indicative of the way it handles narrative in general. You have a clear task to accomplish -- rescue Bo from Pinstripe -- but none of the steps you take to get there feed directly into that goal. Instead, you're jumping through whatever unrelated hoops the game chooses to put in front of you, just hoping that you'll be closer to your daughter once you do. Without a sense of escalation, the game's narrative hangs limp, allowing you to almost forget that the point of all this is to rescue a kidnapped child. Mr. Pinstripe himself even begins to undercut the game's tone as he inexplicably speaks like an angry teenage YouTube commenter, flinging sophomoric jabs like "douche" at Ted in what would otherwise be pivotal emotional encounters with his nemesis.
The game's lore is revealed in a similarly halting fashion. Throughout the game, you'll stumble upon a variety of totems from Ted's past that reveal his life leading up to the events of the game. This could be a powerful narrative device, but finding these items isn't tied to the action in any satisfying way. They're mostly just lying around waiting to be picked up, and the lore revealed by these items is so readily apparent from the game's start that I wasn't sure if they were supposed to be revelations or not. Either way, they're doled out seemingly at random and land without any impact. Ted's story of guilt and redemption was supposed to be this game's selling point, but the story and the game's mechanics are so separate that they never add up to a coherent whole. One can certainly feel for the protagonist, but the game does nothing to establish his character, and everything interesting about his story happened before the game began. Within the game itself, everything is static, a redemption story without an arc.
Even after writing this review, it's hard for me to pin down my feelings about Pinstripe. I don't hate it, despite the negative review, but I certainly didn't enjoy it. I found it boring and lacking in any sense of cohesion, but there are elements of it that do deserve praise. It's an original game that's trying to do and say something different, and that ought to be commended. For a one-person team, it really is quite a feat. I'll be keeping an eye on how Brush's next project, Once Upon a Coma, turns out, because there is a lot of promise in what he's made up to this point, even if it's fallen flat. And I can't overstate how much I loved the presentation. Setting aside some stiff animations, Pinstripe looks and sounds incredible. I can't recommend picking the game up, but I don't regret having sunk a few hours into it either. Pinstripe's opening and closing scenes are legitimately touching, and they've been running through my head since I finished the game. I just wish the journey between the two had been more fulfilling.