Sunday, February 7, 2016

Pony Island Review

Welcome to hell!

I'm not the biggest fan of puzzle games. Whenever I play a puzzle game, it usually revolves around me attempting to play the game, getting some satisfaction out of it for about an hour or so, then dropping it and never playing it again because I get bored of the mechanics. Games like Catherine, Portal, and Braid are all examples of games that I can say have solid mechanics, but took me an eternity to actually force myself through to finish. Pony Island is thankfully about two hours long, and it's packed densely with rich material and an interesting premise.

I just wish that the actual "game" aspect of it was as god as its metagame.

In Pony Island, you are a man who is forced to play, well, Pony Island. You're stuck playing the same video game for all eternity as punishment created by Satan. Yes, Satan himself has designed Pony Island, and it's up to you to find a way to escape the game, save your soul, and save the soul of everyone else stuck in the game.

As a concept, it's brilliant. Satan himself will directly talk to you and make asides about how you're playing the game. As you keep playing the game, the only way to actually win at Pony Island is to hack and make the game crash. So several minigames will have you accessing portals to hack the code of the game in order to make the game easier, like unlocking demon wings, lazers, or new information about yourself. Yes, this game also has a secret story in the same vein as Five Nights at Freddy's, though the story here is admittingly more complicated, yet less fulfilling. If you forgot about the secret story, then you're not really missing out on much.

In all honesty, there's not a whole lot that you're missing out from Pony Island. The game is incredibly short, but has enough juicy moments that will make your time with the game memorable. Many people like to talk about with Pony Island is how much it's a commentary between a video game developer and it the player. To me, that's probably the least interesting aspect of the game. There are a few lines of dialogue in the main story about the perils of expectation and development, but the entire secret ending (yes there is a secret ending) is dedicated to the very idea of post game content and overall design philosophy and it's... alright?

This is one of those cases where the actually true ending of the game is not as fulfilling as the normal ending of the game. Just like how Undertale's true ending was not as interesting from a gameplay mechanic, Pony Island's ending is unfulfilling from a narrative perspective. Is that the point of the game? Probably, but it seeks to undermine the actual game itself and make the story less engaging. I can understand where the appeal comes from, but the secret ending, as well as the secret story, does absolutely nothing for me.

Speaking of Undertale, I can't help but draw a lot of comparisons to Undertale and Pony Island. Both of them are very minimalistic representations of a video game genre (JRPGs and puzzle games respectively), both have a very in depth story, simple visuals, and speak about the nature of video games design. However, I think that Undertale succeeded in all of these areas while Pony Island failed to capture that same charm for me because the actual "game" is more focused about the message than telling it. Undertale was a game that was built on solid mechanics as well as a deep understanding of player choice. They complimented each other hand in hand to enhance the experience. Pony Island seems like the game and world the game creates are two entirely oppositional forces. They don't compliment each other, especially when Satan legitimately makes you play several levels repeatedly because that's the only way to progress the game.

The actual concept is brilliant, but the game has really only two modes to it, and not very good modes at that. There are the puzzle sections, which mostly involve trying to get a key down to a certain point, and endless runner sections where the goal is just to reach the end. The puzzles were fun, but there were way more than there ever should have been in the game, especially towards the end. As for the endless runner segments, these are probably the most difficult parts of the game, but they're a cake walk in actuality. It just takes a bit of practice and not much depth in order to master it. And then once you figure out how these two elements work, you're just left to repeat them for the next two hours.

Granted, I can't really complain too much about a game that lasts only two hours. Yeah some of the mechanics may not be that enjoyable, but I can't complain when the mechanics are in a game that's shorter than an average movie. Now if the game was six hours, then I would complain more strongly, but that just isn't the case here.

Overall, Pony Island is a game that is just as long as it should be. It's two hours long, has a good hook that'll keep you entertained for those two hours, and will leave you satisfied by the end. It's nothing particularly revolutionairy, and it certainly doesn't have the staying power of most Indie darlings, but it's a $5 game on Steam that at least attempts to try something new. Give it a look if you get the chance, but don't expect this to be the next FNaF or Undertale. 

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