A scientific experiment has gone wrong and humanity has been wiped out. While the world that was left behind may be starting to recover, all that is left as a reminder of humanity are their robot assistants, doomed to a life without purpose. No, this is not the apocalyptic world of a certain RPG from Bethesda that was released this week; this is a side-scrolling puzzle platformer from Delve Interactive and it goes by the name of Poncho.
After witnessing the apocalypse in the game's introductory cutscene, players assume the role of a poncho-wearing robot who has been tasked with finding his creator and to save humanity. The thing is that not everything is as it appears. The world around him takes the form of three parallax planes - front, back and centre - and the robot must transfer between the three to pass obstacles and climb to higher positions. The game eases players in gently with stationary obstacles where they must either press to move backwards to another plane or press to move forwards. As the game progresses, players then have to time their jumps and drops with transferring between the planes and things get more difficult. Then the game introduces platforms that move between the three planes and perfect timing becomes vital.
The challenge in Poncho is not so much in working out what you need to do, it's in doing it. Like the game's extremely pretty pixelated graphics, the gameplay also harks back to a forgotten era. This is an era without checkpoints. If the player mistimes a leap or fails to judge the parallax view properly, the robot will fall to his death. This will happen often. The game should then place players on the last fixed platform on which they were standing so that they can try and try again. We say "should" because this doesn't always happen. Sometimes the game will try to place players in their last position in the plane in which they died, which results in an infinite loop of plummeting to their doom. The only way to get out of this is to quit the level and restart, something that is extremely unfortunate if you happen to be close to the end or had just tackled a particularly challenging section.
This level will make you cry and not for good reasons
The lack of checkpoints also has its downside in levels where verticality is the main focus. As players climb higher and higher, there are no safety nets for a mistimed jump. Players can't die by falling from a great height, but they can find themselves having to start the level all over again from the very bottom. These are by far the most challenging type of levels in the game. The final level is especially sadistic with a combination of narrow fixed platforms, moving platforms that move in different directions at different intervals and vertical climbing. The game's previous eight levels took six hours to complete between them, even with all of the backtracking. On the contrary, the final level took four hours on its own. When the developer released a trailer that was titled "Rage Quit", they weren't exaggerating. Most people would have given up by this point.
Luckily, the game's earlier levels offer flexibility in how they are tackled meaning that players can get used to switching between the planes at their own speed. Each level consists of several separate scenes that are connected in a loop. Players can choose in which direction they want to head - left or right - to tackle the level's challenges. If a puzzle is encountered that seems too difficult, players can just turn around and head back in the other direction, eventually arriving at the other side of that puzzle to see if they can tackle it from another angle. As the game progresses, these levels become less common with the game opting to send players in a single direction instead, be it up, left or right - rarely down - and this is where the difficulty also starts to increase when it becomes clear that there is only one way of succeeding.
You're likely going to end up buying those keys
Each level ends at a portal that players must activate to be transported back to the level select screen, but the path to this portal could be blocked by gates that can only be opened with one of three different colours of keys. Players may find the game frustrating at this point when progress is blocked after conquering a particularly difficult obstacle and backtracking through both the current level and previous levels becomes a must. Throughout the levels, players can collect these keys to help them progress, but while the game does tell players how many keys are in a level, it doesn't tell them their shade. Players never know whether they will be able to collect the right key to open a door until they actually locate the key. There are also not enough keys in the levels to open all of the locked doors. It's a good job, then, that the game has its own version of black marketeers for those of less patience. In some levels, players will encounter robots that will open their trenchcoats to reveal keys that can be bought for the right price.
Keys can be purchased using the game's second type of collectibles: red gems. These are littered throughout almost every level and their sole purpose is to purchase keys from the black marketeers. Unlike the keys, there are plenty of red gems to go around, meaning that you are rarely likely to be short of currency unless you make an active effort to avoid the gems. If that wasn't reason enough to backtrack, the third type of collectibles may also force you to retrace your steps in previous levels. After a while, players will encounter the Junkmaster who is trying to reassemble his troops in the Junkyard. Your task, if you choose to accept it, is to locate these broken robots throughout the levels and send them back to their master to receive a reward. Like the keys, the game tells you how many robots can be located in each level. Even if the reward is not incentive enough, there's a trophy for finding all of the broken robots.
A junkyard devoid of robot troops
Speaking of the game's trophies, there is no Platinum trophy to be found in this title. The game has two alternative endings and there is a trophy for completing each of those. There are also progression trophies for completing each of the eight levels prior to the final level. Alongside the aforementioned trophy pertaining to the broken robots, there are three other trophies that can be considered missable and are tied to tasks that do not have to be completed before the end of a level. Luckily, level select makes backtracking extremely easy and you will be able to do all of the trophies from within the same save file, even if you missed them the first time.
SummaryWhile not a completely unique game mechanic, gameplay across three parallax layers marks Poncho aside from your standard puzzle platformer. The game does not hold the player's hand and allows for some exploration to enable players to tackle some puzzles in their own way. Once the main mechanics have been learned, the game then changes tack and sets players off in a definite direction and at a more challenging pace. The major point to consider, though, is that the title can just be a bit too over-the-top in places and is not without its bugs. Poncho is a game for players with a lot of patience and persistence. It's for the people who laugh in the face of adversity. It's for those who pick themselves up after failure, dust themselves down and try again and again, for as many times as necessary until they triumph. If none of this applies to you then I suggest that you find your gaming fix elsewhere.
- Game does not hold your hand
- Some flexibility in how to tackle levels
- Very pretty pixelated graphics
- Infinite loop of death bug
- Platforming is almost too sadistic in places
The reviewer spent 10 hours guiding a robot through the three layers of his world. Four of those hours were spent turning the air blue over the last level. Despite cursing the robot and its sheer existence, she still managed to be moved by the game's ending. She also perservered enough to get all of the game's 14 trophies. A Playstation 4 copy of the game was provided by the publisher, Rising Star Games, for the purpose of this review.
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