Review: Pony Island (PC)

Pony Island
Genre: Platformer/Puzzle/Alternate Reality
Developer: Daniel Mullins Games
Publisher: Daniel Mullins Games
Release Date: 01/04/16

One of the most exciting things, potentially, about the expansion of indie gaming is that most indie devs are taking the sorts of risks mainstream devs used to take in the eighties and nineties, albeit in a different way, by expanding what can be done conceptually with gaming now that we know the upward limits of what can be done technically. Granted, that’s not always a winning formula, as for every Undertale or The Stanley Parable there are five Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture’s out there, but when a developer makes something special, really special, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to experience that. Pony Island has ambitions of being exactly that sort of game; developed almost entirely by one Daniel Mullins, it’s a game that combines multiple play styles and themes in an attempt to tell multiple stories and ask some interesting questions of the player, and possibly of play in general. Well, the good news is that this thing mostly works out as intended; Pony Island presents an interesting story in an interesting way that’s really unlike anything you’re likely to have seen before. It’s not an experience players who have little tolerance for existential rumination and simplified play will find appealing, as it’s a little play-light, but for anyone who doesn’t feel gaming should be mechanically complex first and foremost, let’s get into what works and why it does.

Welcome to Pony Island

The core narrative of Pony Island is a simple one, and the game tips its hand on this thing fairly quickly, honestly: you’re playing a cursed arcade machine developed by a malevolent creator, and your objective is to see it through to the end and find a way to break out of captivity. The text of the story is honestly pretty simple, and even with the hidden elements associated to this story, it’s an interesting tale, but not really a tale that carries the experience by itself. Rather, it’s the subtext that’s the winning aspect of the game here, as the dialogue and character establishment is absolutely top notch, and it’s the personality of the game that carries it by and large. For example, some of the narrative elements get a bit into conversations surrounding the want to create being drowned in a bucket by the lack of skill to do so, or the need to appease players versus having a vision for how a product should ultimately flow. This could be a ham-fisted metaphor in the wrong hands, but here it’s played entirely for laughs, and it’s great because of it. The game also does a great job of creating several memorable characters, and the game even goes out of its way to encourage multiple playthroughs narratively, including a separate finale for completionists that’s surprisingly moving in how it chooses to engage the player. It can come off as pretentious if you’re not into what the game is trying to do, but honestly, it never actively overstays its welcome or tries too hard to get its point across, and it really feels like a story that needs to be experienced if you’re up for something different.

Pony Island mostly succeeds on its technical and artistic merits, as while the game is clearly on the low end of the technical spectrum, it’s clearly done as such for intentional reasons, and the artistic elements that define this are very well executed. Elements that take place within the game-within-a-game that is Pony Island vary as the game goes on, evolving from a dismal and primitive aesthetic toward something more pleasing and purposeful, while other versions of the game vary up the aesthetics in novel and interesting ways. The game also does a great job of conveying whatever it’s going for at the time, from terror to sadness to odd instances of amusement at the ineffectual efforts of others, through visuals that really hit the themes needed at just the right time. Another big part of what makes the game as enjoyable as it is comes from the soundtrack, as Jonah Senzel has put together a masterful score here. Tracks like “Enter Pony” and “Louey’s Playhouse” sound like music you’d expect from games of the time period Pony Island is trying to emulate, and leave plenty of room for tracks that are setpiece defining, like “The Machine” and “Sanctuary,” to create instantly memorable moments in the game. The remaining aural presentation is such that you’d expect from a game developed in the early nineties, meaning bleeps and bloops accompany jumps, text conversations and so on, and while nothing especially stands out, they sound good for what they are.

You Just Had to Fix It, Didn’t You?

Mechanically, Pony Island is a hard game to describe, because there’s honestly a lot going on here at once, and much of it either doesn’t lend itself especially well to description or spoils a bit of what the game is trying to accomplish. The core of the game is the game-within-a-game that is Pony Island, which is your standard runner-based platformer at its most simplified level. The pony you control runs forward, and as it runs, obstacles appear in your way, which you’ll need to click the left mouse button to jump over. After the initial stages, you’ll also be given a beam attack to shoot down enemies coming at you, which is accomplished by using the mouse to aim and the right mouse button to shoot at them. In fact, the game is almost entirely mouse-based, and in the infrequent instance where the keyboard is needed, the game makes it plainly obvious that such is the case, so you won’t have to spend your time guessing too hard at what to do next. This portion of the gameplay is honestly one of the two most prevalent in the entire game, and the game mostly explains how the mechanics and upgrades you eventually receive work, so you won’t be in the dark, but even if it didn’t (twice), it wouldn’t be terribly hard to figure out and work with.

The other gameplay type that comes up frequently is that of coding, more or less. The Pony Island front end, as it turns out, is designed like absolute garbage, as your primary antagonist is a terrible coder and half the things he creates don’t work as well as he thinks they do. You’re given the ability to work around this a bit, whether you need to make something actually work correctly or you need to hack your way past elements he put in place to be a jerk, by way of manipulating code instructions into the right places. Essentially, this works as a puzzle game; various blocks that represent specific functions (move forward, terminate, split, teleport) can be slotted into sections of code to complete a function and allow a key to move forward toward the end of the code line. Early code segments simply need you to move one code segment into a block to move on, or swap out a bad function for a good function, but later puzzles involve value checks, swapping code as the key is in motion and puzzling out how to open code blocks with other code blocks. The game offers very minimal tutorials about most of this (with much of them being hidden in the code), but it’s mostly all pretty easy to figure out until the late game, and figuring out how things work is honestly part of the fun in solving these puzzles.

Along the way, the game will throw some other novel curveballs at you, mechanically, from having to fix specific parts of the game world to having to screw around in the OS proper to resolve things, and while these parts are far more subdued, they’re no less interesting in how they’re handled. The game breaks up its pace quite a bit in this way, honestly, moving from one mechanical element to the next in a way that keeps the player guessing constantly, as one minute you’ll be jumping over gates with a pony and the next you’ll be having conversations with other people stuck in the same position you’re in. There are also some really interesting boss fights in the game that break conventions a bit, either by changing the rules you’re subjected to or by actively screwing with your perception of how things are supposed to work, and it all works pretty well. There are even other mini-games that pop up here and there that, aside from serving the plot, also keep you guessing as you move along in the story. Put another way, Pony Island goes out of its way to keep the player guessing constantly, and it does a very good job of keeping you on your toes all the way to the very end.

… You Again?

Pony Island isn’t an especially long game, as you can complete a single playthrough in two to three hours depending on how well you do at the puzzles and such, but for its five dollar price tag that’s honestly not a bad deal for a single go-round with the game. However, playing through the game once is only part of the fun, as the game is designed to allow for, and even encourage, multiple playthroughs in a few ways. First off, the core narrative surrounding the character you’re playing can only be completely understood by going through the game twice, as you’ll need to repeat certain sections and choose different options to do so. You can even miss the sections where you can learn these options in the first place, as they’re entirely optional and (in some cases) fairly well hidden, so you might pass them by entirely on your first go. The game also has collectibles, in the form of Pony Tickets, which can be acquired through various means, from the obvious to the incredibly obscure, and again, unless you’re following a walkthrough you’ll almost certainly miss some. Collecting these is important, however, as the game actually has a final, and more interesting, ending associated with collecting these things that you’ll almost certainly want to see, making doing so less of a hassle than collectibles can often be in games. Finally, there are also a handful of Achievements to unlock, of which a few are fairly beyond the norm, which will also be worthwhile to come back to for those who miss some on their first go-round.

As mentioned, Pony Island can feel a bit too self-important or navel-gazing at times, and while it’s not nearly as bad about this as some games, there are points where the subtext of the plot can feel a bit inside baseball at times. Assuming that’s not a problem for you, though, the only significant issue with the game is that, honestly, a couple of the sequences within the game don’t translate as well to the final product as they likely did in the design phase. There are two mid-game sequences where you have to go through the runner sequences several times in succession, including one sequence that changes up how you prioritize enemies, which can feel a bit off in their pacing considering the pace of the game prior to those points. There’s also one specific puzzle/hacking section very late in the game that is frustrating in comparison in terms of how it’s laid out that I could only complete by performing an action that I’d never been able to perform before with teleporters (basically teleporting a unit and teleporting it again in the same move), which is either a glitch or unintuitive. It’s only one puzzle, and it’s not impossible, but it was a big moment of frustration in an otherwise intuitive and challenging experience, so it stands out by its singular existence.

Honestly, though, if you’re open to fourth wall breaking game narratives and you like experimental games, there is absolutely no reason you shouldn’t pick up Pony Island as soon as you get a chance, as for five bucks it’s an outstanding piece of work that is easy to recommend. The storyline takes a fairly solid core concept and attaches all sorts of interesting subtext to it that’s engaging, intelligent and amusing, and the game does a lot of artistically interesting things with its visuals and audio to make a purposefully outdated presentation look fresh and interesting. The mechanics focus on equal parts runner-style platforming and puzzle hacking, but the game actively shifts its play style around frequently enough to keep the player guessing constantly and rarely relies on any one set of mechanics to drive things forward for long, and there’s plenty of reason to come back to the game on completion, as the game offers a fair amount of unlockable content for the dedicated player that’s worth seeing through. The story may feel pretentious to some, occasionally spends too long on one specific concept and has one specific section that’s far more frustrating than the rest of the game around it, but honestly, these are minor complaints at best. Overall, don’t be surprised to see Pony Island on a bunch of awards lists for 2016, as it’s a smart, funny and engaging experience that’s easily worth its asking price and then some, especially if you like your gaming experiences a bit on the experimental side.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Pony Island is a textbook example of why so many people love the indie gaming scene, as it takes a purposely outdated presentation and stuffs it full of smart writing, artistic charm and engaging gameplay to make a game that’s well worth its five buck price and then some. The story takes a fairly simple concept and layers intelligent and engaging subtext onto it multiple times over, and the presentation is artistically interesting and well done, both visually and aurally. The gameplay focuses on a combination of runner platforming and hacking puzzles, but it frequently shifts gears and pacing to keep the player guessing constantly, and there’s a lot of interesting and actually worthwhile content to see here that will keep most players attention after a single playthrough. The plot could potentially feel a bit too self-interested and experimental for some, and there are a couple of sequences that either feel a bit too long or (in one case) a bit too frustrating, but these issues are few and far between, and honestly very minor overall. On the whole, Pony Island is one of the first must-play games of 2016, and for its price it’s easily recommended, especially if you love smart and experimental storytelling and gameplay, in which case, I cannot recommend it strongly enough.