Secret Ponchos Review – Wild, Fast-Paced, and Dangerous (PS4)
The art style drew me to this game initially. There are very few Western themed games out there. I just had to play this one; it seemed very well crafted and stylized. The gameplay is fast-paced, multifaceted, and extremely fun. Secret Ponchos is indeed a one-of-a-kind, multiplayer twin-stick shooter/fighter hybrid that introduces a unique motivation system using outlaw bounties — the more you win, the higher the bounty on your head, proving you are the most bad-ass outlaw in the west.
Come for the Art, Stay for the Gunslinging
The entire game is wrapped in thorough, gritty, fascinating, and sleek art that completely supports the slick, lawless West feel of the game. You start the game with the elegant and dark outlaw selection menu, which highlights the most fun part of the game: the outlaws themselves. There are five outlaw characters to choose from, each carefully balanced and designed to stand apart from each other. Balance between all characters is something many games strive for, and I believe Secret Ponchos accomplishes that. This lets you test your skills and focus on tactical elements of gameplay, which is what Secret Ponchos is really about. It’s not just a twin-stick shooter, it’s also a fighting game, meaning you need to be able to deal with close combat, stealth, and traversing the level to become the top outlaw.
Not only does the character design instantly translate the personality of each bandit, but the sound design is plucky and immersive as well. It reminds you of the best soundtracks of old spaghetti Western movies and provides the perfect courageous spurring for kicking other outlaws’ butts. And every menu movement plays a sound that fits with the song, so you can provide instrumental backup if you want. This provides entertainment while waiting for matchmaking, which, if you’ve played the game before the recent patch, you know that matchmaking was taking quite a while. No surprise, considering it’s an indie game with less than 10 developers trying to handle its recent skyrocketing server load due to being a free PS Plus game this month. After the update, however, the game is fast and fun. Matchmaking now gets you to your next match quickly.
Varied Outlaws Test Your Skill in the Dusty West
All of the different game modes provide enough variation and challenge to dispel any initial misconceptions about the game not being able to hold your attention. Games that are simply online matches can seem that way, but this one is finely tuned to offer much entertainment. You can choose from the type of match (deathmatch, team vs., etc.) and how many players (free-for-all, 2×2, 1×1 split screen, or 4×4). From my experience, free-for-all best represents the experience Secret Ponchos should be known for. Wild, fast-paced skirmishes where everyone is your enemy seems to embody the spirit the devs were trying to go for. You have to be quick on the draw and have confidence in your outlaw’s abilities.
One unique tactic I came to love was hiding. You wouldn’t think a fast-paced battle would have a place for a hiding mechanic. However, my favorite outlaw, Phantom Poncho, blends in to the environment with a swift flourish of his poncho and a sleepy tip of his sombrero. Waiting silently against a wall while the battle comes closer and blasting an unsuspecting victim repeatedly with my shotgun was great fun, and helped me tip the outcome of the match in my favor on more occasion than one.
You might be thrown off by the lack of a tutorial, but there is a practice mode. So before you go fumbling into a real match, change your game choice to a local practice match and test each character out few times. This mode is not made obvious, perhaps in the same spirit as being thrown into the water in the beginning to learn how to swim. But, teaching yourself lends to the independent, badass feel of the game.
Once you play enough of the game — and you do have to play a while to feel comfortable — you can switch away from ‘rookie,’ which caps you out at a certain level and doesn’t decrease the bounty on your head as much when you fail, up to ‘ranked’ mode. Ranked mode provides more of a gamble with your bounty in order to get more experience, which you can use to increase your outlaw’s stats. I chose to pick a character who had a handful of high stats I personally value to begin with, and then I focused on increasing the lower stats with my experience points.
Outlaws Only: Faint of Heart, Turn Back Now
This is not a game that pats you on the head and gives you a cookie after each match. The leveling up is slow and completely dependent on how skilled you are. If you a die a lot, you lose money. If you never gain enough money to reach the next skill point reward, you are stuck with the same old stats, giving you no new helpful advantage in battle. Yet another way Secret Ponchos adds to the down and dirty, rough-going feel of being an outlaw. While there are currently limited characters, levels, and modes, the game still scratches that itch and keeps you coming back for more. What is currently there is very polished and refined.
The setting, art style, sound design, and balanced characters in a unique gameplay style make this game a really great game to own. I love when games seem to walk into my life and satisfy some gaming desire I didn’t know I had. Secret Ponchos is a refined, intricate twin-stick shooter rooted in the Old West that, for those who enjoy simple, yet tactical, online battles, will stand on its own for a time to come.
Secret Ponchos review copy downloaded for free with PlayStation Plus membership (December 2014 only). For information on scoring please read our Review Policy here.