Poncho is a fun but sometimes ponderous platform puzzler, with an impressive core mechanic and fun visuals that are slightly let down by moments of frustrating gameplay.
For developers without huge marketing budgets, it’s vitally important for their creations to have something that can immediately catch the eye and imagination of the gaming community. Nowhere is this more true than in the world of platformers, where a single unique game mechanic can make the difference between commercial success and obscurity. One recent example is Extreme Exorcism, which gave players enemies that followed the steps of their own movements from previous rounds.
Now, there is another platform game that has built itself around an interesting mechanic. Poncho gives players the ability to move between the foreground, mid-ground, and background, solving puzzles and progressing through levels with a simple switch. The game’s developer, Delve Interactive, has even coined a term for this type of gameplay: parallax platforming.
The idea of parallax scrolling may well be familiar to any 16-bit console fans. Nintendo used parallax scrolling as one of the initial selling points of the SNES, which allowed background layers to scroll at a different rate to the foreground, giving an illusion of depth missing from all but a few ambitious NES titles. Use of this layering in actual gameplay is an ingenious step, delivering something fresh alongside retro-tinged nostalgia.
Poncho is certainly banking on some of that retro gaming market, and veteran fans of the 16-bit era will most likely feel right at home with the game. Delve Interactive, who reached out to Kickstarter to help create this project but failed to get sufficient funding, has delivered a retro graphical style with eye-catching sprites and fantastic environments to explore, and the player’s own character is the pick of the bunch.
The game’s titular protagonist is a robot who awakes to find that all of humanity has disappeared from the world. Poncho, named for the garment he wears, sets out into a world on the brink of collapse and inhabited only by other robots, in an attempt to find both answers and a means to save the planet. Halfway between V.I.N.CENT from Disney’s The Black Hole and the robots from cult sci-fi classic Silent Running, it’s safe to say that Poncho definitely falls into the cute hero category.
Along the way, the player will encounter all number of fellow robots, left behind in a world without their creators. The other bots are varied in their designs, but perhaps the biggest graphical draw is from the game’s levels themselves. Poncho’s planet is a hybrid, mixing and matching futuristic technology with reborn natural elements, similar in feel to indie smash Fez.
Indeed, the similarities between the two titles do not end there. Alongside the graphical feel, both titles include compelling and nuanced soundtracks, with Poncho’s score composed entirely by designer Jack Odell. Meanwhile, both titles also include a pitch-perfect tone that walks the line between cutesy innocence and underlying tragedy of a world on the brink of destruction.
Of course, both Poncho and Fez also include puzzle-based platforming based around a core mechanic that deconstructs traditional platforming norms. In the case of Fez, it was the ability to switch dimensions, revealing hidden routes or pathways up the (often vertical) levels. With Poncho, players can finally answer the question of exactly what is happening behind the scenes in a 2D platformer.
Unfortunately for Poncho, the gameplay itself is not quite as enticing as the world that Delve Interactive has created. Although for the most part the core mechanic works well, delivering engaging puzzles and platforming sections for the player to overcome, there are sometimes issues with the game’s pacing - particularly when Poncho is reliant on waiting for moving platforms to come back into the layer of choice. Sometimes, this can be a little jarring – particularly when the player is required to quickly switch between parallax layers after being forced to wait.
Compounding this problem is the issue of restarting puzzles. Although a player’s death means little, with an instant respawn on the nearest stable platform, unfortunately the same cannot be said for some of the vertical puzzles to be completed. Failure to complete some of the more fiendish parts of Poncho will not grant players a quick respawn, but instead send them dropping back to the ground level, being forced to complete the puzzle from scratch. This can sometimes be frustrating, reminiscent of some of the more awkward moments of early Sonic games, albeit at a slower pace.
One of the other issues apparent in Poncho is that there is a certain level of backtracking required. Poncho is not separated into stages in the same way that Super Mario Bros. games are, instead delivering the entire game world for the player to explore. However, certain sections are not immediately open to the player, who is then required to track down color-coordinated keys to unlock additional parts of the game. Thankfully, tedium is dramatically reduced by a quick travel system of portals, which deposits the player close to their location.
The level of backtracking needed may well have been necessary to develop one of Poncho’s other core strengths, however. Although the game is low on action, there are plenty of similarities to be had with the Metroid series or later 2D Castlevania games. Through Poncho’s adventure, the robot can discover additional skills throughout the game world.
Sometimes given by other characters, and sometimes simply discovered on their own, these extra skills allow Poncho to reveal more and more of the world itself, getting closer to reaching the end of his quest. It’s a fun element of the game, allowing players themselves to feel a level of progression aside from the ever-expanding map that unfurls around them, as well as giving additional skills and abilities to make Poncho’s gameplay more complex.
In the end, this helps make Poncho a rewarding platform puzzle experience. When the player has truly got to grips with the ‘easy to learn, difficult to master’ parallax layer mechanics, together with additional skills Poncho acquires, the player will find themselves with a pretty, interesting, and fun platformer. Although the game’s pacing may leave some players wanting for a little more urgency, overall Poncho is a good addition for any platform games enthusiast, particularly one that has enjoyed other titles such as Shovel Knight, Fez, or VVVVVV. Poncho is not without its issues, but it’s a worthwhile purchase for any retro gamer’s library.
Poncho is out now for PC, Mac, and PS4. Game Rant was provided a PC download code for this review.