You’ve got to admire a studio like Delve Interactive for the way they decide upon a concept and stick to it. Poncho isn’t the most sophisticated or even lengthy indie piece you’ll play this year – I attained completion over the course of a single lengthy (breaks included) weekend — and yet there’s something aesthetically charming and otherwise compelling to underscore both the structure and indeed adventure of our titular character. Some may sneer at games that offer an abundance of pixel graphics at the forefront of the work, but unlike a lot of misguided titles out there, Delve know exactly how to treat previous generation presentations with a bit more than mere nostalgia and/or (putting it bluntly) lack of further ideas.
It’s for this very reason why Poncho is immediately enticing and knows how to grab its player’s attention, literally, from the get-go. Be it the colorful-but-glitchy rhythms comprising its soundtrack, or the dreamy aesthetic that makes up the introductory cutscene, the effect is even more resolute given the tale underscoring is a rather gloomy and perhaps sordid affair. Humanity is long gone; robots roam the Earth alone and the World itself, though salvaging some of its former beauty, is torn between organic beauty and synthetic discomfort. It’s for this reason why Poncho’s excessively 16-bit throwback works so well — hearkening back to an age where backgrounds spoke volumes and sprite work could make or break an experience let alone a visual identity.
The art of Poncho most certainly slots into the ‘make’ category; intricately-slotted backgrounds sliding in parallax as you scroll left and tight through the factional regions — tiny sprites of robots aimlessly floating and wandering in the distance. Such is the focus on even the tiniest of details, the organic-synthetic fusion is easily reminiscent of 16-bit Megaman and even early Sonic titles from a world-building stand-point. But of course the gameplay is where the main focus lies, despite any and all forestry backdrops (of which comprises most of the in-game setting). Though bizarrely, this is where Poncho centers its objective; shifting, as you do, between the alternating two-dimensional planes in order to solve puzzles and open up further pockets of the World. The solution lies in recognising which way to shift and, more importantly, when.
Not only is your position taken into account when phasing between the layered environments, but so too your momentum — later puzzles involving blocks that either shift perspective or even change at the same time you do. Careful timing and quick reflexes are required in equal measure; fail, and more than likely you’ll find yourself falling to your doom. Yet death (albeit for a brief second) by way of a failed jump is nothing compared to failing a shift from high up. As the puzzles get more elaborate and platform-jumping ascends further vertically, accomplishing something as simple as reaching the top of a level can garner one of the most impacting sighs of reliefs you can ever usher. The amount of times I found myself blurting consecutive four-letter words after falling so high up to land back on the ground — back at square one — proved just as stressful, if not more so, than any boss fight I’ve encountered in (notably recent example) Bloodborne.
Yet like all rare, miraculous moments of accomplishment, the success — from something as simple as reaching the next platform — far outweighs the failures and for that, Poncho unquestionably resurrects a by-gone ‘I’ll get it this time’ obsession in level design. All this, from but a minor ability — a singular gimmick that rarely deviates — it’s so simple it works, so cunningly bare it lulls you, perhaps for all the right reasons, into believing you can beat it. There are times of course when the game inadvertently tricks you into perceiving an objectively impossible feat is possible, and at points it can feel unclear what parts are reachable and which ones aren’t. Despite how easy it is to get into a rut of dying time after time after time, its illusive difficulty doesn’t come across as either unfair or unruly. What’s more, death counts for little when the game feels like its been intentionally built to get you back into the motions just as quickly as you left it.
So it’s unfortunate that the same can’t be said for the programming side of the game wherein bugs and glitches can often crop up, with recurring frustration. Whether it be a bug that lands you in an infinite loop of dying as a result of a mis-timed leap, or a glitch moving in-between areas that causes your screen to remain black, what starts as fairly comical loses all humor very quickly. In both cases, restarting the level — subsequently losing all progress in the process — is the only fail-safe. A lack of checkpoints only goes to drive the issue home and while each region isn’t particularly big, this is the only time Poncho can cheat you out of accomplishment.
Another minor gripe lies with not knowing what keys — which come in one of three colors — are required to unlock the many gates beforehand, resulting in many a back-track to either purchase, or worse find, the right [number of] keys. But in the long-run, these short-lived mishaps and absences don’t take away from the inspiring depth and breadth that can take up but one solitary screenshot and while the game’s plot may not help elaborate or expand much past achieving your objective in meeting your maker and finding out what happened in years past, it’s the trustee ‘show don’t tell’ approach that does wonders to a game blossoming into life before your very eyes.
Though it’s a shame frequent bugs break the immersion of its world-building and lush detail from time-to-time, Poncho remains a bright, vibrant and well-sought puzzle-platformer that sticks to what it sets out to do, achieving it in plentiful amounts. While players may be put off by its seemingly simple appearance and minimalist design, it’s the visuals that truly strike a chord and — like Axiom Verge or Shovel Knight before it — marks itself as one of those great examples of a title that relishes the joy of sprite work. When game backgrounds can be so curiously immediate they feel like they may just be housing stories in of themselves, you know you’ve hit the nail on the head in regards to making your World a reality. Reality itself may be a lot less pixellated here, but Poncho‘s well-planned orchestration of sound, aesthetic and more importantly art direction resonate remarkably well. For a game so mechanically simple, it’s one of the better experiences out there — four-letter swear words and all.