Generously swathed in vibrant colour and hue against the backdrop of wonderfully charming pixel-art and eardrum soothing chiptune serenades, it becomes immediately clear that you haven’t seen a post-apocalyptic scenario handled quite like the one depicted in Poncho. A two-dimensional scrolling platformer with puzzle-solving elements, Poncho thrusts players into a world sometime after a great calamity has occurred, wiping out the human populace but leaving the animals, natural environment and a multitude of robot servants behind.
Cast as one such robot (the titular Poncho no less), the ultimate goal for players is to fulfil that most noble of quests; to discover who their maker is and just why humanity was wiped off the face of the planet so many years prior.
How you actually achieve this is by roaming the landscape, looking for keys to unlock gates that allow you to advance further into the game world. These keys can be obtained by either stumbling across them naturally, or, by scooping up a number of crystals and turning them at the nearest friendly merchant for one or more of keys in return. It’s worth noting that these trinkets are colour-coded too, meaning that while the game offers non-linear exploration, progression through the game is cleverly funnelled by these coloured gates. It’s not all just about finding the right key for the right gate either, as Poncho must also restore any broken robots that he comes across, which adds further variety to the game and story in the process.
If Poncho looks a bit like Fez that’s because it would appear to be inspired in more ways than one by Polytron’s indie hit. From the charming pixel-art presentation to the whimsical musical score and tightness of the controls, comparisons to Fez are certainly not wide of the mark. Like Phil Fish’s opus, Poncho also invites players to muck about with the camera perspective, though rather than rotating the background by ninety degrees increments, Poncho instead allows the player to leap between multiple layers of the foreground and background.
This particular gimmick actually succeeds in feeling fresh and entertaining as the shifts in perspective allow you to reach areas and platforms which previously appeared inaccessible. It’s a neat ability certainly and one that, similar to Fez’s background twisting, provides the backbone to the entire experience as new pathways and secret areas open up with satisfying regularity to the player.
Unfortunately, while these layer switching shenanigans sits at the crux of Poncho’s appeal, so too do they act to its occasional detriment with the level design not always being clear on where you should make your leap. More often than not the upshot of this is an unwanted death because you thought the platform that you were jumping towards could be landed on, when in fact it was never on your plane of movement in the first place.
Luckily death isn’t really a problem in Poncho, which is a good thing considering how often you’ll be doing it. Again though much like Fez, biting the dust tends to be a merely minor inconvenience with your character appearing right where they were a mere second or so later; ready for another attempt at whatever it was that led to your downfall in the first instance. This ostensibly makes Poncho far less frustrating than it otherwise could have been.
Arguably, the layer switching ability wouldn’t be half as effective without the platforming of the core game being competent, which thankfully it really is. Crisp, responsive and pressure-sensitive jumps exist alongside a smoothly animated and easily controllable main character that is as much a joy to use when he’s just traversing the terrain normally as he is when he’s leaping between layers.
Something else that also helps to keep you glued to the proceedings unfolding on screen is that the game world itself is simply an adorable place to explore. Lush plant life and overgrown vegetation give way to complex metal structures, seemingly held captive by Mother Nature’s tendril-like vines while elsewhere, the robotic denizens of this world add to the whimsy on display as their charmingly garbled speeches provide precious crumbs of insight into Poncho’s narrative.
Disappointingly, a significant misstep comes in the form of a bunch of unsightly and really quite frustrating bugs and glitches. Foremost among these is one especially annoying glitch which locks your character in a death loop after a mistimed leap, while another causes the screen to remain dark in-between when moving from one part of the world to the next, with only sound effects being produced but no menus whatsoever. In both cases the game needed to be reset and while no real progress was lost, it was irritating all the same that these issues cropped up more than once throughout Poncho’s duration.
If you can look past such technical transgressions though, there is a lot to love about Poncho. From its heart-meltingly twee presentation to the refreshing spin that it puts on both the apocalypse and platforming in general, a few frustrations aren’t quite enough to dull the appeal of this otherwise well-crafted and engaging effort.