Secret Ponchos Hands-On: Good, Bad, and Dead

While there have been plenty of great single-player games – Outlaws, Call of Juarez Gunslinger – that replicate the feel of a movie-style Old West duel, there’s a conspicuous absence in the multiplayer realm. There are a few, such as the mod Smokin’ Guns, but they almost universally feel awkward, especially since they are inevitably first-person shooters. After all, shooting a pistol should be done in the first-person, right?

Secret Ponchos says no, and makes an extremely compelling case as to why.

Secret Ponchos is a top-down shooter set in a comic-like, exaggerated version of the Old West. You and a few other people control Western stereotypes as they dynamite, shoot, and knife their way through multiple game modes towards victory. It’s an exceedingly simple game on the surface – deathmatch is not exactly hard to understand – but Secret Ponchos takes many cues from that bastion of arcades everywhere: the fighting game. As a result, it’s a game that rewards digging into the meat and gristle of how each character works, figuring out their strengths and weaknesses, and predicting opponent movements. It’s the sort of multiplayer that brings out the joy of competition in us all.

Secret Ponchos may have an easy-going exterior, but the execution of all its moves is quite difficult. You have a primary – always a gun – and secondary weapon. Each has an alternate firing mode or some other trick to it, such as cooking a stick of dynamite or throwing your knife across the field. Characters have stamina, which is used to perform some actions as well as the universal dodge. Cover is present, but the map in the demo was very constricted, so it didn’t matter too much; positioning yourself based on the timing of enemy attacks is far more important. Rather than constraining the execution to just “Aim better,” like a first-person shooter style game would do, Switchblade Monkeys focused on more tactical, frenetic play. All of these elements combine into a fast-paced deathmatch where you leap around, throw molotovs, spray bullets, and hope you don’t get caught in a position where you might get killed.

The characters are what make Secret Ponchos shine, though. Each character has a unique look and playstyle, and no one character seems to be definitively better than another. For example, my personal favorite character — due to my fighting game predilection of chasing down opponents whenever I get the chance — is a gnarled gunslinger with a shotgun and a whip. He uses the whip to smack enemies to slow them down, or drag them closer to blast them with his shotgun. However, he’s not quite as tough as other characters, forcing his player to dash around the field to avoid fire and get in a kill or two. Other characters include — but are not limited to — a revolver-wielding sociopath that can hurl knives, a Civil War soldier that can charge with his musket, and a red-haired kid with akimbo pistols and a penchant for hurling dynamite. They were all fleshed out and interesting, and each forced a different mindset onto the player.

Secret Ponchos enforces the sort of frenetic mindgames that local multiplayer games, such as the newly-minted Samurai Gunn, are most notorious for. It’s not a game you can play casually; you must fight to survive, and your blood ensures victory. Thoughts such as “I should use my lasso to drag the enemy into my teammate” or “Molotoving this area will force them into a tight spot where I can blow them away with my Gatling gun” are common, although not quite so eloquent. Players seem to run on instinct, using their guts to determine how they play, and the player that inevitably succeeds is the one that uses their mind to outsmart opponents, rather than being purely reactive.

Unlike many other indie multiplayer games shown off at PAX, Secret Ponchos includes an online multiplayer component. While it includes the standard “gain levels, receive bonuses” persistence structure that multiplayer games have followed since Battlefield 2, Secret Ponchos also includes a few kinks in the thread. First, players who are excessively good will have bounties placed on their heads. If you win against a player with a bounty, it is added to your total score for the match, which gives you a dramatic boost to how fast you level. Second, you can wager part of your money on a match. Win, and you get it back with a little extra. Lose, and it’s all gone.

On top of the involved multiplayer and interesting metagame, Secret Ponchos is also an exceedingly pretty game. The art style is ripped straight from comic books, with great character compositions, effective use of colors and shadows to frame important parts of the game, and fluid animations linking each character’s actions. The only element missing is “Kapow!” action bubbles. As for sound, it was functional but less important. Secret Ponchos is a game you can play silent and get the same experience out of, as most of the jaw-dropping bits are in the visuals.

While Secret Ponchos didn’t quite reach the heights of other local multiplayer games on the PAX show floor, such as Towerfall or Samurai Gunn, it provided one of the better versus experiences of the convention. Darting around and blasting bad guys with shotguns is such a simple premise, but Switchblade Monkeys elevated that concept and made it more than the sum of its parts.

Secret Ponchos is due on Playstation 4 in Q1 2014, and is being considered for PC release.

Don’t miss the rest of our PAX Prime 2013 coverage all this week!

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