Indie games embrace disasters and calamities, using them as the setting or inspiration for their stories. Perhaps this acts as a metaphor for the development cycle where things can, and often do, go wrong. We’ve had games like Bastion and Transistor from Supergiant Games, Fez, and now Poncho draws upon this theme.
Poncho opens with a mysterious message from your father that the world has ended and that you need to rescue him to set things right. Armed with your ability to shift planes and a fashionable poncho, you set off for this red tower.
Between you and this tower stand nine chapters packed full of challenging puzzles, platforming, and collectibles. The opening chapters are straight forward enough; you can move between three layers of the 3D environment, but it’s typically optional and done so that you can gain access to more floaty red squares. The difficulty ramps up fairly quickly with platforms split between layers and even moving platforms that, unlike traditional platformers, you don’t stay rooted to.
For the most part, mistakes result in a quick restart on a nearby surface, which is just as well because you will make mistakes; you simply reappear on the surface that you most recently dotted down on. But there are issues that may cause you to feel like some deaths or loss of progress could have been preventable.
Poncho is a platformer built across three depths, yet level transparency becomes an issue. There are times when you can’t see where you need to land, resulting in a leap of faith. This is compounded by an inflexible camera that will move slightly right or left, but not vertically.
The checkpoint system could also use some work. Sometimes you will reappear in a moving platform, which causes another death, and this can cause you to start even further back than the most recent truly safe spot. Vertical level design causes even more problems because a fall may not only cause you to have to restart that tricky segment, but also navigate your way back up to it. And in some cases, this can involve another platforming section that caused headaches.
Poncho is a deceptively tricky game. It may lure you in with its gorgeous art style, its cute robot protagonist, and its chilled and catchy soundtrack. But this game requires a certain amount of patience and stubbornness.
There are times when Poncho feels at odds with itself. It, like Fez, is all about navigation and exploration, but it tries to harken back to classic games with the inclusion of gates that require certain coloured keys to pass. Occasionally, you can make a dexterous leap to cheat the system, but you’ll often need to backtrack for more keys or track down a key seller, who looks similar to every other robot if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
Poncho’s story seems like it could be an intriguing tale, but it’s never quite fleshed out substantially. Still, there is a fitting end to the tale that answers some of the questions and leaves you with an intriguing choice. Plus, you can see the other ending play out by simply hitting ‘Continue’ after the credits, which is always a welcome touch. Completionists should do all they can do before playing through the last chapter though.
For the most part, Poncho is a delightfully charming and challenging title, but there are platforming sections that detract from it as what could have been small gripes manifest into something substantially more frustrating.
Plenty of comparisons can be made to Fez – even the name references the character’s distinctive item of clothing – so if you’re after another challenging platformer with an interesting core mechanic and a wonderful soundtrack, Poncho may be worth your time.