Spaghetti Western shooter Secret Ponchos battles for its place in the fighting game genre while offering a unique setting and perspective. With mechanics orientated towards zoning and spacing, developer Switch Blade Monkey’s promise fast paced, frantic western gunfights with a diverse cast of characters.
Characterised by a striking, cell shaded artstyle Secret Ponchos sets the scene for a western shoot-out terribly well. The games presentation is stellar and everything from the soundtrack to the menus and character profiles are stylized with a distinct, yet unique western vibe. The colour pallet compliments the game perfectly, as the splashes of red that permeate the landscape pleasantly contrast the otherwise bleak, frontier-esque environments. Sadly, this aesthetic is the beginning and end of Secret Ponchos character, as the game lacks a narrative of even briefest of forms. You’re quite alone here, with no rationale provided for these shoot-outs, and no singleplayer or even co-operative options to be found. The focus of Secret Ponchos is very much on competitive multiplayer and as such the games quality is dependent on this aspect alone. Unfortunately this, single aspect, is where Secret Ponchos begins to fall apart. While the game claims to take inspiration from fighting, and MMO based combat in order to craft something of their own, the end result is one that’s derivative without clear benefit.
Secret Ponchos functions as a twin stick shooter, where each character has a unique set of abilities and subsequent fighting style. You run around the games maps, using these abilities to best other players in shoot-outs. Character abilities offer little to surprise, with stuns, blinds and occasionally additional attacks providing an alternative route to achieving a kill. You have two weapons at hand, with a primary attack, and secondary ability on each, so this totals four options at your disposal at any one time, plus a dodge roll. Unfortunately, the interplay between these abilities is rarely intelligent or interesting, and as there are a grand total of five playable characters, online players tend to clamour towards those that are easier to play. Kid Red is the most basic of characters in this regard, and you can simply shoot your six shot revolvers until the enemy goes down. The Phantom Poncho is similarly simplistic and although described by the in-game difficulty rating as the most difficult character to play generally only needs to stop shooting to either reload, or stun someone.
Of course, the game can be enjoyable from time to time, gunfights have an almost visceral feel and it can be satisfying to rack up kills. My experience with characters like Phantom Poncho proved to be an absolute slaughter, and it wasn’t particularly difficult to decimate most foes through repetition of a basic strategy. Despite this, any sense of satisfaction doesn’t last for long, and the victor of many encounters tends to be the result of circumstance rather than skill influenced, carefully chosen or executed manoeuvres. On paper if the objectives of the game were more advanced, the the interplay between abilities and characters might become more salient and rewarding a mechanic. However within the games provided Free for All, and Team Deathmatch multiplayer maps the proceedings are tediously simple. It’s hard to understand why this game exists, as a fighting game the the careful navigation of the arena through spacing and strategic employment of your attacks just isn’t there, while from a MMO perspective Secret Ponchos simplistic gameplay isn’t likely to prove engaging, or compelling either.
Furthering these issues, the mechanics themselves are often temporamental. For instance Phantom Poncho’s whip attack is generally easy to hit, but on occasion won’t hit when it seemingly should have. Some of the attacks have relatively over the top animations that blatently don’t represent their underlying hit-boxes, and this combined with an occasional lack of visual clarity afforded by the top-down perspective makes Secret Ponchos simply sub-par as a competitive platform. To add to these problems, on more than one occasion I encountered network related issues causing players to become permanently invisible, or seemingly stuck on zero health.
With merely four maps and five characters these issues aren’t even partially mediated by the games content either. Secret Ponchos Poncho’s has no saving grace, there’s no singleplayer or co-operative offering to resign yourself to if you come away disappointed from the competative multiplayer, something that’s quite likely if not for dislike of the games mechanics but on the basis of sheer lack of content and subsequent replayability. Making matters worse are a plethora of technical issues currently plaguing the Playstation 4 version of the game. While it’s not clear if by design or technical failure, every time you finish a match the game decides you need to find a new group of players to compete with. Not an issue, if it weren’t for the fact that it often takes nearly five minutes to find a game. Similarly the interface structure is convoluted, and counter intuitive, map voting takes place before you’ve found a match, and character instruction sets can only be viewed in a match itself, where of course other people can shoot you.
- Unbalanced gameplay between classes
- Overly simplistic mechanics
- Technical issues undermine the validity of competitive play
- Lack of modes and maps
Ultimately Secret Ponchos is game without the carefully considered underpinnings to live up to its aesthetic merit. Despite being produced by an independent studio, on a relatively small budget, the game presents itself with remarkable visual flair. Unfortunately however, Secret Ponchos doesn’t put its inspirations to good use, and the amalgamation of twin-stick shooter, brawler and MMO-esque gameplay simply doesn’t come together to produce a consistently compelling, competitive experience.