Nowadays, when we see the words “indie pixel platformer” we can’t help but roll our eyes. It’s more of a passive reflex than a gesture of loathing, no doubt induced by the genre’s sustained proliferation over the years. Where some of these retro throwbacks have made for excellent games – just look at Fez, Super Meat Boy, and Cave Story – there are plenty out there which fail to do anything meaningful with the timeless 2D platformer template. Although far from perfect, Poncho certainly doesn’t belong to the latter group, experimenting with our perceptions of the genre – quite literally.
The game hinges almost entirely around one core mechanic; the ability to switch between three parallel lanes at the simple press of a button. Sure, you’re probably thinking, we’ve seen something very similar in games before – hell, it’s pretty much been a staple of the LittleBigPlanet series since its debut in 2008.
In Poncho, however, this plane-shifting feature is used for more than just navigating the game’s nine individual stages. By juxtaposing it with depth-enabled platforming elements, it creates a level of challenge that is both unique and frustrating, especially in later levels. By forcing the player to monitor objects that move along the z-axis, navigating some of these parallax gauntlets can feel like a juggling act. Instead of simply leaping between platforms, you’ll need to be constantly aware of your positioning within Poncho’s three-dimensional landscapes.
This often means deft and precise phasing between the three lanes. For instance, throughout the game, there are blocks that move towards and away from the player, each one fitted with a visible timer. As with platforms that shift along the vertical and horizontal axes, failing to judge their next move will often result in our little robot friend falling to his doom.
Thankfully, there’s an immediate retry system in place. With no health bar or lives to keep track of, Poncho simply spawns at the nearest perch, ready for another go. Although fast, we’d hesitate to call it fair. During our playthrough there were countless times when Poncho would appear only to plummet immediately into blackness or get squashed by a moving object.
Even more frustrating is the lack of traditional checkpoints. Mistiming a jump in the later tower sections of the game can often mean losing several minutes of hard work. It makes Poncho needlessly infuriating for a game that is, for the most part, fairly relaxed. Equally as inconsistent is the way the levels themselves are structured. Very early on, Poncho introduces collectible coins and keys that, in conjuction, open new areas. Their presence gives the suggestion that each level will have a degree of replay value later down the line. This never quite materialises, however, with most later stages being fairly linear – some of them harbouring no collectibles whatsoever.
Although cute and quirky, it has to be said that Poncho can’t really do much beside his default plane-shifting ability. Each of the game’s overgrown environments is populated by machines that idly roam in the periphery yet interaction with these other characters is whittled down to the occasional line of text. There’s no combat of which to speak, nor is there the option to manipulate objects in any way that constitutes actual gameplay. Poncho is a platformer through and through but fails to be anything more.
One aspect that really works in the game’s favour is its pixel art. The retro design work of artist Matt Weekes is simply gorgeous, perfectly suiting Poncho’s parallax focus. The soundtrack, by Jack Odell, is equally as compelling, beaming players into a rather unconventional take on the apocalypse.
Still, this beautiful wrapper isn’t enough to cover up Poncho’s fundamental flaws. It’s a lovely experiment and although it works well in some parts, an overall sense of cohesion is missing. Being able to move along the z-axis is a clever feature yet Poncho uses this as a crutch, failing to flesh out other essential areas of the game. In short, there’s certainly something special here yet, sadly, only a minority will succeed in finding it.
Version Tested: PlayStation 4