Poncho is an attractive, retro-inspired puzzle-platformer by Rising Star Games that overturns its genre with a mildly clever twist. While its cool soundtrack and artful retro-inspired visuals make for a pleasant playthrough, frustrating moments, a lack of complexity, and regular performance issues heavily impact what could have otherwise set the stage for a great game.
You play as a small robot named “Poncho.” Appropriately enough, his only defining feature is consists of his bright red poncho – a touch that’s perhaps too similar to the eccentrically garbed Fez. Also similar to Fez is Poncho’s ability to defy his genre: whereas Fez could rotate his world, Poncho can “shift” between layers of his 2.5-D environment. Levels are constructed around this mechanic and require constant environmental awareness and a bit of flair for completion. As difficulty ramps up, players must execute rapid successions of precisely timed shifts to overcome shifting platforms and “anti-shift zones.” This, as developers dubbed it, “pixellated parallax platforming” makes up mostly all gameplay. It can get hard but never gets complex enough to exercise your brain. In most cases, when I got stuck on a puzzle-like segment, it was because I was simply overlooking something, like a platform I’d thought I was too high to land on. Maybe such is the nature of this parallax-driven mechanic but most of these moments I didn’t find thought-provoking.
While Poncho doesn’t present much of a story, it successfully conveys a loose narrative with its rich tone. Poncho’s journey is one of self-discovery. While quite uninteresting on its own, this journey leads players to explore a highly detailed, light-hearted robotic universe with limitless charm. Levels come in the form of planets and play out in sections. “The Forest” level, for example, contains five sections, each of which plays out like an independent puzzle with its own unique structure, secrets, and knack. Progression, however, does not rely upon meticulous playthrough; the “end” of each level can typically be reached by simply travelling far to the right of the map. Somewhere there, a warp gate unlocks the next world. Collectible red, green, and blue keys can be essential to navigating some levels and carried across worlds, i.e. a key from “The Junkyard” world will unlock a gate in “And the World Shifts With You.” This element of nonlinear progression was cool and allowed me to somewhat tailor my experience. While in a later level, I required a red key to advance but couldn’t make it past the obstacles to reach the level’s only red key. My solution was to visit the merchant back in The Forest, purchase a red key by exchanging items, and return to the red gate, temporarily bypassing said obstacle. There were times when this same freedom left me unsure of the story’s next step; however, getting back on track was usually a matter of paying attention to what NPCs had to say or thoughtful exploration. Despite their great detail, worlds felt bite-sized and never overstayed their welcome. In fact, I really enjoyed memorizing the content of each world for later visitation and looked forward to hearing each world’s unique jingle over again.
Between its enemy-less environments and unlimited respawns, Poncho has a calm, peaceful tone that seemingly invites players to take their time. While there are a few skills to acquire throughout the game, Poncho can’t run, doesn’t double jump, and can solve most of the world’s problems with his shifting abilities. And so, I was surprised to get frustrated while attempting to complete some of the simpler platforming puzzles. Part of my frustration stemmed from Poncho’s omission of rebindable keys. Left and right arrow keys are used to move, up and down to shift, space-bar to jump, and “enter” to interact. I would’ve had a much easier time if I could’ve rebinded movement and interaction controls to WASD and E. While the Steam game page reports “full controller support,” I synced up my DualShock 4 to find some of the strangest controls: left analog for movement with no D-pad functionality (Really? No D-Pad functionality for a retro-style platformer?), Square to jump, and right and left triggers to shift forward and back. Perhaps the bindings were configured more appropriately for the new Steam controller; even so, limited gamepad functionality isn’t quite “full controller support.” Patching in rebindable keys would really work miracles for the overall experience.
Adding to the frustration is Poncho’s counterintuitive checkpoint system. Poncho creates checkpoints by making contact with non-moving platforms. That means that anytime you miss a jump, don’t die – which can be often, and fall onto an earlier part of the level, your previous checkpoint will be overwritten and you’ll have to complete a chunk of the level over again. This became frustrating really quickly and, I believe, is an issue that needs a fix. Moments of concentration on a puzzle or difficult segment were completely thwarted and it soured my appreciation for clever obstacles as I was made to do them over and over again. It also occurred more than once where my checkpoint spawned me into a horizontally enclosed area with nowhere to go or a death loop, i.e. midair with nowhere to land. My only solution each time was to reload the level.
Between its artful environments and a lush score, Poncho is gorgeous. Environments are vibrant and, thanks to some thoughtful sound design and a versatile score, feel like they’re teeming with life. NPCs are well animated and bring environments a welcome liveliness through their abundance. The three-layered levels look good but sometimes don’t represent dimension clearly: the light shadow that distinguishes faroff layers wasn’t always enough to communicate distance. Both gameplay and visuals take a hit from an inconsistent frame rate. I tried running the game on both “high” and “low” graphic presets (i.e. the only graphic options available) and found the same inconsistent frame rate in the same areas: standing still evoked a smooth, high frame rate, whereas movements as basic as jumping would slow the game down to sub 30-fps. And so, I spent most of my playthrough stomaching a span of 15-60 fps every few seconds.
Poncho’s attempts at innovation fall short with more notable self-aware, genre-bending titles like Fez, The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds, and Braid already available. While it’s “parallax platforming” puzzles can often present a challenge, the satisfaction gained from completing them was only slight. I often felt that I only was exercising a platform mature enough for greater, smarter things. In my experience, the complexity of most of Poncho’s puzzle solutions was ultimately measured in attempts rather than wit.
All in all, Poncho is held up largely by its charm. Its bright, playful tone and world are admirable and refreshing. Despite my few frustrations, gameplay was enjoyable in a calm, relaxing way but not quite clever or daring enough to live up to its predecessors. Hoping that developers are keen to solve its performance issues and controller issues, I would gladly recommend visiting Poncho after some patchwork.