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The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Of Secret Ponchos: A Review
If Team Fortress 2 moved to the wild west and met up with Quentin Tarantino on the way there, the ensuing product might resemble Secret Ponchos from developer Switchblade Monkeys. The game oozes the kind of pop-western sensibility that the director is famous for, while also featuring a cast of colorful and distinct characters. Add in a twin-stick shooter control scheme with some tense twitch gunfights and you have the core of Secret Ponchos’ appeal.
First off, Secret Ponchos looks and sounds beautiful. The game resembles a graphic novel in motion, with splashes of bold reds competing with strong lines and angular geometry. The characters themselves are instantly distinguishable from one another through their unique animations and color palettes. The soundtrack is lifted straight from Ennio Morricone, where tremolo guitars and bursts of trumpets underscore your rampage of death and destruction. The little touches are nice, too– each menu movement is accompanied by the shake of a rattle and the Matador’s special move erupts with castanets.
Switchblade Monkeys went all in with the stylized western approach, but there’s some substance here too. The cast of five outlaws is varied for each and every playstyle. There’s the hulking Deserter, the nimble Kid Red, and the challenging, melee-focused Matador. Kid Red is agile and a straightforward experience, just dodge, shoot, and use his dynamite like any other grenade. The Matador, on the other hand, requires precise use of all of her skills to be effective.
Consequently, the learning curve can be a bit steep depending on your character choice. The game rewards careful, methodical play for sure, but devolves into twitch gunfights when things get hectic. Players dance with each other, just out of range, waiting for an opening. Good players can use quick characters to overcome the game’s heavy focus on keeping your enemies out of firing range. It takes a while to learn the ins and outs of a character, and there will be a lot of embarrassing deaths before you’re any good at all.
Each character has a primary, secondary, and sometimes, tertiary fire for both of their weapons. Couple this with a unique dodge skill, and the game elevates from a simple isometric shooter to something closer to a MOBA. Additionally, characters are persistent and earn upgrades through Secret Ponchos’ unique bounty system. Experience points are replaced by a cash bounty on your character’s head. Based on your performance in battle, it can rise or fall. The higher your bounty, the bigger reward your enemies get for killing you. Earn a big enough bounty yourself, and you can rank up and upgrade your stats.
The game is pretty unforgiving about end-of-match rewards, though. Losing automatically docks your total by 100 xp, and then your kill/death ratio is taken into account as well. Finally, there’s an “odds” system which assigns your team as either the favorite or the underdog, and computes a corresponding bonus or penalty that is completely out of your control. This system can be especially cruel in ranked play, where you can actually go negative and lose experience (bounty) at the end of the match.
Sadly, the game modes are lacking compared to the wide variety the characters and weapons offer. There is a no-respawn team deathmatch and an 8-player free-for-all. My favorite is domination mode, where your team must get 5 kills above the opposing team’s total. This game mode avoids the usual resolution of the team deathmatches where numbers are the biggest factor. I’d love to see some more game modes, though. Secret Ponchos has too much potential to be stuck in deathmatch all the time. Switchblade Monkeys must implement more game modes that make use of the characters’ varied applications.
The map selection is similarly limited, and there isn’t much nuance in their design– though that is more a symptom of the rather vanilla game modes than anything else. Either way, the environments are still packed with details that you’ll most likely miss during the frenetic gunfights.
The game runs well enough but I did encounter a few bugs and odd design decisions. I still have a hard time finding matches. The lag can be pretty bad as well, with enemies either teleporting around the map or freezing in place completely. In one match, both members of the opposing team left in the middle of the round and there was no option except to quit and eat the bounty penalty. Other times, I would start searching for a game and find three other players, only to realize that my own character had been inexplicably removed from the lobby. These issues are semi-forgivable, but one bug has frequently caused the matchmaking to erroneously enlist three enemy players against my partner and I.
All in all, Secret Ponchos has a personality and charm that’s buried underneath some bugs and lackluster content. The eventual addition of new game modes, maps, and characters should turn this decent game into something even more special.
- Slick, stylish art direction
- Intense, surprisingly complex combat
- Fun cast of distinct playable characters
- Limited map selection and game modes
- Matchmaking bugs and long wait times
- Infrequent but crippling lag issues
- Experience system is unnecessarily punishing