'Poncho' is simultaneously familiar and charming0 Comments
You may not have heard of Delve Interactive before this, but I can guarantee that you'll be hearing plenty about them soon enough. Within 15 minutes of experiencing their first game 'Poncho,' I found myself quickly drawing comparisons to another title that ended up being a critically well-received indie darling: Fez.
After all, both games share immediate similarities: they're puzzle platformers that feature short, stubby, pixelated characters and they embrace retro-ish, pixel art visuals. But beyond that, the similarities are more apparent in each game's narrative, both of which can be downright esoteric at times. And despite the game's deceptively cute and seemingly friendly exterior, it became clear right at the outset that Poncho is a much deeper, and somewhat darker experience than I was initially led to believe.
Set in the future after the world has experienced a cataclysmic event known as 'The Calamity,' the story centers on a short robot named 'Poncho,' who wears a garment of the same name. Not much is said early on about what The Calamity actually entailed, but you'll pick up hints from your surroundings almost immediately. For example, you'll find other robots roaming around and spouting off thoughts and philosophies as you walk past them. Their words reveal that it's actually been centuries since The Calamity and that 'The Old Ones' are now gone.Basically, an event has made mankind extinct, and all that's left are robots who are trying to make sense of living a life with no purpose or direction. It's definitely dark when you consider that this actually is a post-apocalyptic world, but there's an interesting combination of melancholy and hope at work here. Things are desolate, but the Earth has started to reclaim its land, and much of the old civilizations are now covered in plants and have become forests. Mankind is presumably gone for good, the world is at peace, and you're left wondering if maybe that's actually a good thing; a moral dilemma that's actually not brought up often enough in games these days. Yet Poncho, the little robot wearing his namesake, is mysteriously tasked with seeking out the 'Maker,' and so begins his journey.
The game itself plays as a 2D puzzle platformer with a few interesting twists. First, this is not your typical, linear, left-to-right platformer. Each level is open for you to explore, whether you go to the left or right, or even straight up. There are specific areas you'll access from a hub menu, but where you go in each area is up to you. Further, the main game mechanic hinges on moving between 3D parallax layers (on the Z axis). Each level is made up of many layers, with a foreground, background, and more layers beyond even that. When you encounter a wall or an obstacle you can't pass, you can jump to the layer in the background to proceed (if the way is unobstructed), then jump back to the foreground when you have clearance to.Technically, this isn't a brand new concept, as other games such as Donkey Kong Country Returns, Mutant Mudds, and Xeodrifter have all featured this as a core mechanic of their gameplay. However, Poncho takes the layer-hopping mechanic to a whole different level by designing complex puzzles out of it. By the third area, you're introduced to timed platforms that move between each layer, and buttons that change the position of another layer entirely. It's almost reminiscent of the type of puzzle gameplay you'd find in games from the Legend of Zelda series, and it's fascinatingly deeper than any other game that I've seen work with multiple layers that you can move between thus far.
In addition to the layer-hopping puzzle mechanics, you'll collect little red computer chips along the way that hover in the air (much like coins in Super Mario Bros. games) and are scattered about in each area. These chips will then allow you to buy various color-coded keys that will allow you access to new areas. And, similar to games like Metroid and Castlevania, you'll acquire new skills for Poncho as you progress that will further aid you in your exploration of the world. In my time with the game, I only received one skill that didn't seem entirely vital at that point (it was a ground pound move), so they appear to be a bit more hidden at first. However, you'll begin to find a lot more as you delve deeper into the game and explore all of its nooks and crannies for secrets.One of the most impressive things by far about Poncho during my initial time with it was its 16-bit inspired visuals. Every aspect from the foreground to the background contains highly-detailed, complex pixel art, and it all looks extremely beautiful; especially the forest areas. The soundtrack is equally promising, with tracks that are atmospheric and ambient as well as ones that are more electronic in nature, not unlike what you'd hear in popular electronic/ambient musical groups such as Boards of Canada.
For the first ten minutes, I wasn't sure what to make of Poncho, but I came away hugely impressed after spending a few hours playing through the first four levels. It starts off a bit tame, challenge-wise, but picks up in difficulty fairly quickly. My only fear is that it might be too challenging in certain areas for some people, especially in some of the timed platform sections. Other than that, everything about the game from its visuals to its game mechanics and even its music shows immense promise. If the experience holds up till the end, this could very well be one of the year's biggest breakout indie titles.
Note: The preview copy of this title was a digital code provided by the publisher.