February 9, 2016

Pony Island - I love pony, pony don't lie, I love pony, almost much as Undertale

2016 is off to a good start

Pony Island almost seems like a game that didn't want to be discovered. It's called Pony Island; it has a yellow-pink-purple logo; its trailer begins with a pink pony running through a green field; everything about it reads like a guide on how to make mainstream audiences lose interest, like a game version of that Achewood strip where Ray decides to make it easier for people to rent gay porn videos by giving them boring false covers (we were still kinda renting videos back then). But through the combined strength of its own quality and the morbid fascinations of the fringes of the gaming community, Pony Island found its critical attention and approval, and we are all the better for it.

As the trailer is quick to clarify, this is not a game about ponies - well, maybe just a little. It's mostly a game about game design. Yes, it's another one of those meta indie games, but unlike most of its predecessors, Pony Island does not feel smarter or more special than its audience. It's frank about the frustrations of a developer without wallowing in self-pity, showing how the special dynamic between designer and developer can, despite its aggravations, lead to making better games, to the benefit of everyone involved.

Of course, how Pony Island does that is a secret that I prefer not to divulge. It's the kind of story where even knowing the genre and basic content matter is something of a spoiler, and Pony Island is a game that absolutely everyone should experience, though its deeper themes will appeal mostly to more veteran gamers. Suffice to say, the game is chock full of surprises, secrets and easter eggs that, almost a month after its release, still have fans looking everywhere for more things to discover.

On a gameplay level, Pony Island is divided into two parts: the first is a side-scrolling runner, and the second is a riddle game where you have to guide a key to a lock through various obstacles, a bit like a very basic version of The Incredible Machine. Both are functional, and at times, the riddles can be fun to figure out, but gameplay is generally Pony Island's weakest point. Unlike games such as Arkham City and Shovel Knight, where entire challenge modes could be made consisting solely of variations on bits of the main game, the non-narrative parts of Pony Island are very much a one-trick... well, you know.

It's the narrative where Pony Island truly shines, though, and a major part of that is the incredibly oppressive atmosphere the game creates. Though not an outright scary game, PI's minimalist design and its intentionally vague and unfriendly communication with the player give the experience a sense of alienation and paranoia on the level of early Silent Hill games and parts of the first Metal Gear Solid. It's incredibly creepy, and while it's certainly not a game you'd have a hard time playing in the dark, it does feel pleasantly uneasy all the way through.

While the basic gameplay never changes all that much, the scenarios surrounding it are constantly evolving, in what is clearly a commentary on the evolution of video games throughout the years. At first you go through levels one by one, but eventually, the game does open up and allow you to explore a world map to varying degrees of freedom. It's a nice touch, and it's also where many opportunities lie to engage in another important part of the game: collecting tickets.

There are 24 tickets in total, received for completing various side goals that the more diligent players will come across. Most just require going off the beaten path, but a few need a genuine flash of brilliance or just a lot of patience and meticulous exploration to be found.

That is where another major flaw with the game is revealed: Pony Island is very bad at check-pointing. This isn't a problem in the runner levels, where failure only means starting the stage from the beginning, but with the more exploration-oriented parts of the game, or rather, with players' ability to access these parts. Pony Island's plethora of secrets naturally encourages replaying different sections and trying different things. However, while the game does allow players to jump between acts from the main menu, getting to certain sections is incredibly trying of one's patience, and the game is all too eager to throw points of no return all over, forcing one to repeat various mundane tasks just to get to the fun parts again. And while the dialogue is brilliant the first time it is read, being forced to stare at the screen and tap a key as the same text messages appear very, very slowly, inevitably breeds contempt.

All that being said, the extent to which I've been dancing around talking about the game's actual plot should clue you in to how much I recommend experiencing it for yourself. For all its flaws, Pony Island certainly merits a playthrough, even if I highly doubt that I will ever go back to play it again after playing the whole way through twice and repeating certain sections to find secrets. At 5$, though, that's plenty - certainly more than I've gotten out of many 15-20$ indie games, nevermind 60$ AAA games.

Besides, look at how cute that listless little pony is.

Score Calculation: Pony Island is one-half pony and one-half secrets. However, there's simply not enough pony, so that the pony part is in reality only four-fifths of a half, giving us

Final Score: 9

Verdict: I would like a listless pony plushy please.

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