Category: PC

Done Playing: PONCHO (PC)

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PONCHO is one of those ultra-mysterious indie games I first latched onto at the Independent Games Festival back in January. Tantalizing as it was, the problem with falling for an indie game early on is never knowing exactly what you’re going to get. I assumed the preview build I played was only a taste of an expansive, fleshed out world but it turned out to be the whole thing, sans a little polish. I’d hoped for much more time for the gameplay and story to “breathe” but find myself a little deflated and yearning for more. Still, I’d rather take my chances on something new and unfamiliar than just another action game with level grinding tacked on. That’s where PONCHO excels, with its wonderful pixelart visuals and parallax effects, nonexistent combat, existential hints of a bigger story, and of course, its signature gameplay mechanic.

I still think the intro makes for both a great tutorial and a stunning setup, one I don’t want to spoil with any more details. Suffice to say, once the dust settles you wake up into a post-human world of self-sustaining robots as the titular poncho-clad automaton. Poncho’s only motivation is to find out what happened to the mysterious Maker whose final words echo through that opening scene. To do so means exploring 9 stages that scroll both left and right and are packed with puzzles and secret pickups. This is the “open world” that the game advertises, allowing you to return and explore any stage once you find the exit.

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For reasons unexplained, Poncho can instantly swap between Z planes — background, middleground and foreground — at the touch of a button. This lets the designers build platforming puzzles that tweak your spatial awareness in ways I’ve not experienced in a “2D” game before. Yes, not even in Fez; PONCHO has a dimension-jumping feel all its own. All you need is clear line of sight and you can jump forward and back as the three planes ripple in and out. It remains a satisfying and mesmerizing feeling as the pixelized world whips in and out of sight, changing scale and transparency as you leap around. There’s even a subtle distortion to the music when you move behind foreground objects.

From the moment it opens the whole experience is made into something bigger than the sum of its parts thanks to Jack Odell’s splendid soundtrack. With a powerful, lo-fi explosion the simple title screen takes on dramatic importance, layered with a melancholy synthwave melody. It’s not always so dramatic but even the lighter pieces have a forlorn vibe with mechanical beats and simple, lonely synths. It culminates in “The Tower”, a powerful, bitcrushed dirge of synth organs that accompanies one of the game’s most daunting sections.

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While I absolutely love that PONCHO has no form of combat, the mechanic that introduces the game’s challenge can be quite frustrating. The good ol’ moving platform gets a three dimensional upgrade in PONCHO, moving in and out instead of horizontally or vertically. At first they’re not bad but all too quickly they’re stacked side by side and used to build unexpected and confusing pathways. There are also platforms and barriers that move with you between planes but it always came down to blind luck as to whether, on the tenth try, they moved in the direction I need them to.

There are moments when the moving platforms feel perfectly balanced. They’re used to great effect in the lead up to the final level and really make you feel like a platforming genius. Leaping across gaps while simultaneously transitioning through the layers is a great sensation but these moments are rare. In contrast, in the very next section of the final level — a terrifying climb up The Tower — it’s possible (and very easy) to fall almost all the way to the bottom with a single mis-timed button press.

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For a game this short it’s disheartening to see so many moments that could have been clever and fun turned frustrating. For me, PONCHO shines the brightest when you’re simply navigating its ruined, reclaimed world and poking your head around its many clever corners. A few more stages of this simpler exploration before the moving platforms take focus would have helped me. Instead, I came to dread the sight of them and it was only thanks to a launch week patch that adjusted their timing that I was finally able to finish the game.

Frustrating as some of the platforming was I was still sad to see there wasn’t more PONCHO to play. The lo-fi music and vibrant, layered, pixel visuals combine to create a world I’d love to hang out in for more than a handful of hours. It’s an experience worth having but there’s not nearly enough of what I loved — and a little too much of the stuff I didn’t — to justify the $15 price.

[PONCHO is developed by Delve Interactive and published by Rising Star Games. At launch it is available on Steam and PlayStation 4 for $14.99.]

Prison Architect Pardoned from Early Access on October 6th

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My god, it’s finally happening: Prison Architect is going to be a really real, for-real final released video game as of October 6th. This year! Prison Architect always looked really great but after being burned by Don’t Starve and its early access changes in 2012 I kept my court-ordered distance for a while.

I eventually got Prison Architect for about $8 on a Summer sale or in a bundle and fairly quickly logged 40 or so hours with it. But I never got too attached to my prisons because I assumed they’d be broken by an update or wiped completely when I came back to them. Such are the tribulations of getting in early. I last played the game almost a year ago now so I’m sure the “wealth of new content” promised in the upcoming release version will be immense. Gosh, has it really been nearly three years since I first saw the game? Crazy.

Ahead of the release, you can get a look at the game’s new content as Introversion takes center stage at the upcoming EGX gaming event in the UK on Saturday, September 26th.

Rocket League’s Supersonic Fury DLC is Out

Rocket League‘s first major free update and paid DLC are out now so I did a quick video to show off the recent changes, upgrades and new content. Included in the free update is a new arena to play in, a spectator mode with full camera controls, over 70 country flags, and some bonus antenna toppers and wheels.

The $3.99 Supersonic Fury DLC gets you:

  • Dominus (classic American muscle car)
  • Takumi (’90s-era Japanese street racer)
  • 6 New Decals for both new Battle-Cars
  • 5 New Paint Types (Brushed Metal, Carbon Fiber, Metallic Pearl, Pearlescent, Wood)
  • 2 New Rocket Boosts (Burnout, Nitrous 2)
  • 2 New Wheels (Cristiano, Spinner)

Check out the video to see it all in action!

A Hands On Preview of PONCHO

What is PONCHO? Since I first saw it six months ago all I knew was that it looked gorgeous and was mysterious as can be. Having finally laid hands on a preview build of the game I’m happy to bring you some of an answer to that burning question. Like that indie darling, Fez, PONCHO is a mysterious, 2D, platforming adventure with brain-tweaking dimensional gameplay and lush pixelart visuals. But those high level characteristics are where the similarities end.

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At the outset you’re given the most succinct of explanations: mankind rose up, created self-sustaining robot life… and then went extinct. Centuries later you wake up into a new world as Poncho. Cities have fallen into crumbling ruins, nature has taken over and the remaining machines may have evolved on their own. Part of the game’s charm are the tiny, pixelated details like robotic caterpillars that wriggle like clockwork and mechanical frogs that bound out of the bushes. Did mankind create robot animals or have the machines grown to fill in the gaps? It’s just another of the questions that so easily cross your mind as you poke around while the perfectly fitting, lo-fi chiptune soundscape washes over you.

Besides being the only robot in sight wearing a poncho, you also have the unique ability to leap between Z planes — background, middleground, and foreground — at the press of the shoulder buttons. The story intro and tutorial for this mechanic make for a damn striking first impression but I don’t want to spoil any of that. The defining difference with the gameplay compared to similar titles like LittleBigPlanet or Mutant Mudds is that you can change planes anywhere there is line of sight between the overlapping layers. The effect is mesmerizing as planes ripple back and forth, changing transparency and scale as you rapidly move between them.

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Beyond mechanics, the real point of PONCHO is simply to explore, and I love that. You arrive in a forest and you can head any way you want, periodically running into scholarly bots who spew existential quips about the meaning of life and the absence of the Maker. As you explore you’ll find shimmering pickups scattered around and cleverly tucked behind the multiple planes. Eventually you’ll come across a warp gate that lets you access new zones but you’re always free to come back because, chances are, there’s still stuff to find. Those pickups can be swapped for keys (from one of the best shopkeepers ever) and used to unlock new paths. There’s also an NPC who shows you how to awaken his dormant followers and rewards your efforts with a new ability.

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Moving platforms are also present and you probably guessed they aren’t the traditional kind. These platforms jump in and out of the three planes and were incredibly challenging for me to navigate. The color coding as they move is helpful but in my time with the game I never managed to really nail it. It’s a bit of a bummer but for a game with no combat (love it!) I suppose some aspect of it has to be challenging. PONCHO is no slouch when it comes to precision platforming and while I am no master, the moments where I got into a groove sure made me feel like one.

This build has a few other surprises that I’m not going to detail but they do hint at a bigger game and more narrative. The complete history of this post-human world may never be laid bare but it looks like we’ll take part in some interesting stories on the search for the Maker.

I’m thrilled to have finally played PONCHO and even more excited to say the magic didn’t wear off. I’m just as clueless as before about what’s happening but still as excited as ever to explore and find out. Developer Delve Interactive and publisher Rising Star Games just recently announced the game will be out on Steam this September with Wii U, PlayStation 4 and Vita versions alongside or close behind. I have a hands on video of PONCHO up if you want to see the game in action (which you should) and will be back once it’s released with more Now Playing impressions as I work through it.