By: Matthew Striplen
Humanity has vanished. All that remains are ruins of once-great civilizations and multitudes of robots without purpose. The only thing we know is that the “Calamity” wiped people off the face of the Earth long before the time of this game. You, a tiny poncho-wearing robot, suddenly activates and must find the fabled Maker, the being who supposedly gave rise to the robots. The journey is perilous, but you must succeed if you are to unravel the mystery of humanity’s demise.
Most of Poncho‘s controls feel good, although sometimes they are a bit stiff when jumping. Also, a handful of glitches completely lock up your controls for a second or two. One appears predictably when transitioning to a new screen and the other appears at random, but this freezes the entire game for a moment as well.
In a market flooded with retro indie games making an 8/16-bit game that can manage to stand out is quite a feat. Poncho‘s visual presentation is beautiful. The environments burst at the seams with detail and care. Plus, the design of Poncho is absolutely adorable.
Poncho‘s music also has plenty of charm. The enhanced 16-bit tracks add a sense of wonder and expansiveness. Plus, the soft *plink* sound made when collecting items is oddly satisfying. Overall, the audio/visual presentation is top notch.
Parallax scrolling. Now there’s a term you don’t hear thrown around much anymore, but roughly 20 years ago, parallax scrolling was all the rage. It refers to when a game scrolls two parts of the screen at different rates, which is used to simulate a character moving against a backdrop.
Poncho decides to make parallax scrolling a big deal again by having players navigate three different planes of existence, all of which are simultaneously visible and scroll at different rates. This gets pretty intricate, as many jumps require midair plane switches.
Unfortunately, the three simultaneous scrolling planes don’t work as well as planned. Foreground planes often block the player’s view of the current plane, and sometimes it’s not readily apparently which plane is currently being inhabited. This remains an issue for the entire game.
Another major gameplay element is the shifting blocks. Everything in the environment stays locked into a single plane except the shifting blocks that phase through all three. Each set of blocks shifts at a unique pace, which can range from a comfortable snail’s pace to not more than second or two. This mechanic has plenty of potential, but it’s marred by several problems.
It’s not always clear on which plane the blocks are currently residing. This becomes a major problem when the blocks move quickly. Also, the blocks signal their impending movement with a series of flashing lights, but it’s very hard to predict them when the blocks move very quickly or very slowly.
Lastly, if the player misses a jump or another block shifts on top of Poncho, your character will die and respawn. Normally, this means you’ll respawn at the place where they last touched the ground, but if you’ve been navigating shifting blocks, things get trickier.
If you’ve been crushed by a shifting stone, the game tries to respawn you in the same exact location, but if the block is still there, you will continue to be crushed. If the block doesn’t move away fast enough, the game will move you backwards to an unpredictable location. This means that sometimes you will lose a tremendous amount of progress for a relatively minor error.
That problem is similar when falling to your death. If the block you were previously standing on moves to a different plane before you can respawn, you’ll be moved backwards, potentially a great distance, to a safe location. This is very frustrating and could be remedied by having players respawn in different planes.
Poncho is an extremely challenging game and its difficulty is not eased by the issues mentioned above. High difficulty should be welcomed, as long as it’s fair, but the problematic shifting blocks will frustrate even the coolest tempered gamers.
Another major game mechanic is collecting currency and keys. Currency is scattered throughout the game and is a fun collectable. Once you have enough, you can find special robots that sell colored keys.
Locked gates appear throughout the game and must be unlocked to reach certain areas. However, many gates lead nowhere in particular and offer little reward for being unlocked. This is frustrating because keys are very expensive, and wasting money to open the wrong gate can cost a lot of time.
After completing a handful of objectives, Poncho will be awarded some extra abilities. These provide a fun twist on the gameplay, but sadly only a few upgrades are available. Unlocking new abilities made me wonder what might come next to help in my quest, but additional power-ups are strangely absent.
Lack of variety is another issue with Poncho. Much of the game has the player traversing similar environments. While these locations are all visually stunning, they don’t mix up the gameplay much. Different elements appear late in the game, but it ends up being too little too late.
Easily my favorite part of the game is the story. Although not much is explicitly told to the player, the other robots hint at something dark and mysterious. The game’s secret unravels just quickly enough to keep most players engaged, despite the game’s other flaws. Although the difficulty can feel punishing, I highly recommend finishing as the ending is truly wonderful.
I wanted to love Poncho. The great art style and compelling story coupled with seriously challenging platforming seems like a winning combination. Unfortunately, Poncho feels unfinished. Too many bugs and other problems bog down the game. However, Poncho is still enjoyable and its fantastic story is almost enough to forgive its other imperfections.