Secret Ponchos Hands-On Preview: The Secret Is Shooting. A Lot.

Every year at PAX East, I get the chance to see a lot of games from smaller indie developers. While they might not be games that you’ll see on big TV commercials, they’re always games that end up being a lot of fun. This year was no exception, and one of my favorite indie games this year was a little top-down shooter from developer Switchblade Monkeys called Secret Ponchos.

Secret Ponchos is a Spaghetti Western-themed, top-down shooter for the PS3 and XBox 360 that puts you in shoes of one of six characters. Each of these characters has a primary and secondary weapon, and all of them are quite unique. From The Killer, who packs a revolver and a hunting knife, to Gordo, who sports a Gatling Gun and a Molotov Cocktail, all the characters are quite distinct in visuals and play style. Each looks like something out of a graphic novel about the Wild West, and all of them are very fun to play.

Secret Ponchos pits you against other players in online combat on a variety of Western-themed maps. You can play in a variety of game modes, including one-vs-one duels, western style gang fights, or Free-For-All mode. Free-For-All was the only playable mode at PAX East. According to Creative Director Yousuf Mapara, the team hopes to add more game modes if time permits.

Gameplay is fairly straightforward. You’ll use the left stick to move around, the right stick to aim, and the right trigger to shoot. Pushing the right stick causes your character to draw their weapon, so you can’t shoot without it pointing where you want to aim. Each character has a different primary weapon, and each one is different. For example, The Killer’s revolver has a long range and is very accurate, but has only 6 bullets to fire before reloading. Meanwhile, the Phantom Poncho’s shotgun has a much shorter range, fires only 4 bullets before reloading, but has a wider shot spread. The weapon’s range is represented on the screen by a red line that points where you are aiming, so you can easily see if a target is in range.

Secondary weapons also play a large role. From bullwhips that can stun and disarm to dynamite that blows up everything in a radius, each character has a little something extra to use to their advantage. This is where the strategy really emerges. The Phantom Pancho’s bullwhip not only disarms targets, it also stuns them, making it easy to close in and get a devastating shotgun round off. Synergies like these are all over the place, and it makes what could be a shallow little fun game much deeper than your first glance might reveal.

Each character also has a stamina bar. As you use abilities and your evade skill (activated by pressing the X button), you’ll deplete that stamina. Run out, and you can’t dodge anymore. It’s a major hindrance in a game where mobility is everything.

The most intriguing part of Secret Ponchos isn’t the weapons or the characters, as cool as they may be. No, Switchblade Monkeys has tossed in another nice piece of game design – true line-of-sight. You see, if your character ducks behind cover and they can’t be seem by another player, you’ll actually disappear on their screen. So if you can run behind a wall and hunker down, you’ll vanish off your opponents screen, and can move around and attempt to evade or ambush him. It’s a small thing, but the effect on gameplay and strategy is huge.

Cover is also a vital part of the strategy I mentioned earlier. Duck into cover, and your stamina recharges faster. You can also reload faster in cover than you can when out of cover. Ammo is limitless, but the only way to replenish health is to grab health pickups. In fact, it’s a good strategy to grab them whenever you see them, just to keep your opponents from getting them.

While the game will initially be launching on PS3 and 360, Mapara told me that they would love to create a PC version down the road. The console versions needed to be finished and launched for business reasons, but if the funding is there, we could see Secret Ponchos on PC in the future.

Secret Ponchos is just the sort of game you go to PAX to see. It’s fun, fast, and fresh, and it’s also as indie as it can be. You won’t see a game like this on anyone’s AAA schedule, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s totally worth your time. Here’s hoping that Switchblade Monkeys gets the funding to bring Secret Ponchos to PC, because this little game is too much fun not to let everyone on every platform play it.

Be sure to catch all of our PAX East 2013 coverage here.

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