By: Jeff Cater
A good Old West style game is a rare treat for gamers, as they are few and far between. The team over at Switchblade Monkeys has been working on Secret Ponchos, a top-down showdown where the West is won by both team play and clever uses of your chosen character’s abilities.
Killing in the Old West can be a bit complicated sometimes, but the core mechanics work very well. Secret Ponchos is a twin-stick shoot ’em up, and the movement (left) and aiming (right) sticks are perfectly responsive. Firing with R2 feels natural, as does switching weapons with Triangle. To evade enemy gunfire you are given two options — you can use the circle button to activate an evasive lunge, or you can hold X or L2 to take cover.
The trouble with the controls is that the Secondary Fire mode (activated by L1) is usually coupled with using the right stick and R2 or R1 (Secondary Fire), while simultaneously moving your Outlaw into position. This isn’t exactly terrible, but it feels cumbersome in the middle of a smoky saloon showdown. There is no alternative control scheme, so it will take a small period of adjustment to really get a grasp on nailing specials when you should.
It also appears some of the menu buttons are broken, as in the lower portion of the screen it says you can access the Main Menu by pressing the left d-pad button or Mute Menu with the right, but the only results of input affect the highlighted feature.
Secret Ponchos looks as if Red Dead Redemption had a Saturday morning cartoon spinoff, which is not a bad thing whatsoever. The stages are damn pretty, and they’re full of details like tumbleweeds getting caught up on a tombstone or the candles of a saloon swelling behind the bar. The exaggerated character models fit the levels like a perfect “Tetris” and are injected with tons of life and expression.
Small touches to certain characters can also intimidate as well as endanger. For example, the Phantom Poncho character has an extremely long whip, which drags behind him at great length and can easily lead an enemy to him, and maybe a trap. Kid Red has sticks of dynamite that explode with a nice snap and fireball, but naturally you will want to stay very far away from that.
The music bed for the menu is a mix between slow jazz and steel guitar country, which is just weirdly soothing. In battle, the steel guitar picks up with a complement of trumpets and maracas to give each fight that nice “Any Eastwood Cowboy Flick” tone. The weapons all sound true to the era, and every shot feels deadly just hearing it. I am a sucker for dark country, and just listening to this game was a joy.
Secret Ponchos is a strictly multiplayer affair — that includes split-screen (!!!!) — and there are three modes of play to choose from. Although they all ultimately boil down to just shooting the crap out of your enemy repeatedly like Deathmatch mode, Domination mode is definitely where it is at.
Now, in Domination you’d expect to be controlling points on the map. No way, not in Secret Ponchos. Secret Ponchos wants you to DOMINATE your opponent and his partner by getting ahead by five kills or until the timer runs out. In Deathmatch, it can be 1v1 or 2v2, last Outlaw(s) standing win by getting two out of three matches. There is also the complete chaos that is the eight-player Free-For-All mode, which is amazing to watch much less participate in.
Clever utilization of your character’s abilities along with cooperation with your teammate is what will win you the most matches, but absolutely nothing beats some spiffy twitch skills. Winning matches increases the Bounty on your head, which is basically just your experience level. When you reach monetary milestones, you’ll be able to allocate skill points into a variety of stats like damage, speed, health and more.
With a currently active online community and split-screen available, Secret Ponchos is a wonderfully fresh shooter to pick up. It does have a few glitches, like when a 2v2 Deathmatch suddenly turns into a 3v2 Deathmatch, which is not even a selectable option in the menu, but there are no issues with the core mechanics other than getting used to pulling off your special attacks. Secret Ponchos is FREE right now for Plus Members and priced modestly in the first place, so if you’ve got an itchy trigger finger, scratch it with Secret Ponchos.