Pony Island – Sorta Review
In the interest of both me keeping a record of what I’ve played, and to get myself to do more writing, let’s bring back the sorta reviews. Starting with the first new game I played this year.
I started hearing talk of Pony Island while I was still deep in my Xenoblade Chronicles X binge ( which lasted most of January ), and while people had quite varying opinions on how good it was, there seemed to be a general consensus that it was at least interesting. With the understanding that it would be short, I decided to see for myself.
I’ll keep the spoilers mild. I don’t think I’m giving away much more than you’d find on the game’s store page.
I did not go in completely blind. Before I fully committed to the idea of buying it, I looked at Jim Sterling’s Squirty Play of it, so I was spoiled on the first 20 mins or so of the game.
The basic idea of the game is that it is not what it seems, oooOOOoooo, spooky noises, etc. With the success of The Stanley Parable, and more recently Undertale, I have a feeling we’ll be seeing more and more of these self-aware meta games.
Pony Island does not completely parrot either of those titles though. It more goes for the “the game is just a façade, the one running it is not who you think, and you have to break free” angle. So you have to try work as much within and against the computer running the game, and in the game menus, as the game itself. You have to break the game, and the developer’s control of it, to be able to proceed. So you use the mouse and some limited text inputs to achieve your goal.
As a concept, I quite like this idea. It’s not the first game to have done something similar, but it executes things fairly well, and the writing is a fairly clever. Though it has obvious limitations, and even undermines itself in certain ways.
I’ve heard it started as a Ludum Dare creation rather than a carefully planned idea, and it makes sense. It’s a bit fleshed out from that, but I can see how some of its limitations and weaknesses stem from those roots.
First off, the game is completely linear. There are some collectibles and such on the side, but the game will never progress until you do exactly the one thing it expects in the one way it expects you to do it. It’s a small indie game, I get that, but I still feel like it goes against the spirit of the game itself.
This was most clear to me during the text input phases of the game. This will most often take the form of chat boxes where you talk to one of the characters. Some accommodation has been made in that it is often more important that you just say something at all, rather than saying some specific phrase, and it does occasionally perform some clever twists with it.
However it takes only a tiny bit of trying to go outside the rails to realise what a hollow representation of a dialogue it is. And trying to go outside the rails is the whole point of the game! Perhaps it would have been better to not give the player the option of text input at all in that case.
The actual Pony Island game itself is also a big weakness of the metagame, if that makes sense. The actual game within the game where you’re a pony navigating a simple obstacle course. To an extent I can see that as being intended. It fits into the narrative that this game is not very good. But you still have to play it to progress, and as it throws more complications into the mix, it just gets worse to play. If you had to endure less of it, it might have made the overall game stronger.
Yet for all my criticism, I am still here talking about it. I am a critic at heart, so finding flaws to talk about in detail is my most natural instinct, but there is enough interesting stuff here to make the game worth talking about.
Like I said, I quite like the idea of it. And when you’re examining the menus for stuff to exploit, and hunting for glitches to hack, the game is definitely at its strongest. The “hacking” minigame where you manipulate programming loops to get the desired result is probably the cleverest thing in the game on a purely mechanical level, and I generally found them to be fun puzzles to figure out.
There are also some optional puzzles to acquire the ticket collectibles, and they can be very varied. I got some satisfying “A-HA” moments out of those, and the way some of them play around with the mechanics of the game often feels more thought-out than the actual progression of the narrative.
As for the narrative itself, I’d say it’s decent. In a way, it feels like the writing is better than the plot it put together, if that makes sense? There is hidden, optional text in the game, and some of that is quite strong writing. The plot on the other hand doesn’t quite reflect that, and I would only rate it as decent. Good enough to experience, maybe not good enough to think about too much. Some of the hidden stuff is certainly more interesting to contemplate.
However the weakest part of the game’s writing is in the main character’s hidden backstory. It doesn’t fit with the rest of the game at all, kinda makes it make less sense, and feels more tacked-on than anything. It’s strictly bonus stuff though, so you might not even see any of it, but it stuck out enough for me to consider it worth mentioning.
On the whole, I still think it’s worth giving a shot. It’s really cheap, and it only takes about two hours to get through. You’ve probably seen plenty less interesting movies at a higher price. Maybe you’ll end up enjoying it! At worst, at least you’ll know what people are talking about.