Review: 'Poncho' (Wii U)

Poncho. Poncho. DELVE INTERACTIVE

I'm generally a fan of indie platformers, as evidence by my love for Shovel Knight and Shantae and the Pirate's Curse, so I went into Poncho with high hopes. The game has solid controls, a good atmosphere, appealing visuals and a decent premise. Unfortunately, I ended up leaving the experience rather disappointed.

The story of Poncho is delightfully minimal. Some accident has wiped out the human race, activating a small robot wearing a poncho, and that's all you really know when you start the game. As you explore, you'll hear bits and pieces of dialogue from other robots, helping to clue you in on what the world was like before and after the fall, and you don't get the full picture until you complete the game. Meanwhile, this dialogue is also good for a laugh, or for feeling sad about these robots that no longer have purpose. It's a great method of storytelling.

Poncho.

The game bills itself as more of an exploration-based 2D platformer, as opposed to the more linear affairs of games like Super Mario Bros. where you simply run to the right. Here, figuring out where to go, and how to get there, is part of the puzzle, and often times levels will loop all the way around, connected from end to end. This is a little confusing at first, but not too bad once you get the hang of it.

The main twist of the platforming is that the world is composed of three different planes, like in Mutant Mudds, and your poncho robot has the ability to jump between whenever you please. This is where most of the puzzles come from, as you jump between planes to get to platforms of increasing height, or to hop onto plane-shifting blocks in order to get to your destination. Unfortunately, this is where my biggest problem with the game lies: the platforming puzzles just aren't very fun.

I'm not really sure why, but looking through the landscape for the one spot where you can plane-shift, or shifting scenery back and forth in order to create paths, was not a particularly enjoyable experience for me. The game also has a couple of different block types that create more puzzles, but they don't really help this situation. One kind of block shifts between planes at fixed intervals, meaning you have to time your jumps properly, but they always felt a little out of sync with each other, making navigating them more difficult than it had to be. There's another kind of block that shifts when you shift, but only sometimes, and based on a bizarre and arcane set of rules that I never deciphered, even after I beat the game. I have absolutely no idea how these blocks work.

Poncho.

Overall, when the puzzles weren't confusing, they just weren't that engaging or satisfying to solve, which was really unfortunate. And while the open-ended exploration is nice in theory, the result a lot of the time was just a general feeling of not knowing where I should be going. It wasn't so much feeling lost as it was feeling aimless. Of course, the idea is to explore as much of the levels as you can, in order to find keys and currency, but the design of the levels often meant that I had to backtrack through parts I had already completed, because I bypassed the level exit so I could see everything.

Speaking of which: in each level you can collect small red blocks that act as currency, different colored keys, and lost junkyard robots to return to the king of the junkyard. The keys are necessary because your path will occasionally be blocked by a locked door, and if you don't have the right color of key you can't progress. The currency lets you buy keys of whatever color you like, though as you buy more keys they will get more expensive as you open up the store's "key grid". I actually really like the key system; attempting to keep enough keys of each color gives you a good reason to explore without having to set explicit collection goals. It made me want to explore each level, but I also didn't stress out about getting every last secret I could. Meanwhile, bringing more robots to the junkyard unlocks things like new abilities, though I never got much use out of them.

The game's controls are pretty tight, really. Moving and jumping are solid, and most of the time you can plane shift without interrupting your current jump, which makes the plane-shift mechanic feel much more natural, and it's easier to incorporate into your movement. What drove me crazy through the entire game, though, was constantly forgetting what button took me forward and what took me back; "left = back" and "right = forward" is not a super intuitive setup when your character is constantly moving back and forth. You're going to end up falling a lot, because a lot of the puzzles are trial and error, but falling into a pit immediately puts you back in the place where you fell, so the penalty isn't very harsh. At one point this mechanic glitched out, though, and I ended up in an infinite fall loop, where it kept placing me above a pit. Thankfully, moving fixed this.

Poncho.

There were some other general errors, though. On the title screen at the beginning of the game, it was extremely unclear that I had even started the game, and I just hammered all the buttons until something happened. More annoying, however, are the game's bizarrely long load times. For as little as there is on each screen, it sure takes a while to load up; it feels poorly optimized.

The overall presentation is nice, though. The graphics are pixelated and 2D but are pleasant to look at, and the world has some very nice visual design, filled with lots of great little touches; seeing the dynamically-generated creatures and robots populate the landscape helps make this post-apocalyptic work feel like it's coming back to life, reclaimed by nature. My only real complaint is that sometimes it's unclear what's in front of you if you're on one of the back planes and one of the further-forward planes has, say, a huge wall on it. The music is pleasant as well, setting the mood nicely and being well composed, even if it isn't too memorable. (Yes, I am going to complain about this in every game, so long as Shovel Knight, Shantae, and Undertale exist).

Poncho.

If you're just looking to get to the end of the game, you can do it in a couple hours. Getting every last collectible is going to take a good deal longer, though; there were whole areas of some levels that I never figured out how to get to. The game helps by putting collectible counters under each level in the world map, letting you know how much progress you've made toward 100%. I sort of wonder how appealing this will be, though; I don't have much desire to go back and collect more currency for its own sake.

Overall, Poncho is a good game concept, with good presentation and great storytelling, undermined by the fact that the puzzles just don't seem very well designed. I like exploring the world, talking to robots and testing my plane-shifting skills, but the specific challenges I was given were never too stimulating or fun to complete, which is a real shame. Poncho gets within grasping range of greatness, but sadly stumbles and falls short.

Final score: 6 out of 10

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