It would be a shame, a real damn shame, if even one person misses out on Pony Island based off of its name. But give the game just a few minutes of your time, and you’ll see that it’s much more than you might think. In the words of Daniel Mullins Games, it’s “a suspense puzzle game in disguise”. And it’s brilliant.
On the Steam Storefront, Pony Island is quick to distinguish itself. Just a few seconds into its autoplay video, it downright tells you that it’s not what it seems; it’s more than a cutesy pony-themed runner platformer, hinting at a narrative that’s altogether darker. It knows the danger of people skimming past it, and takes sure steps to draw people in. You play as a person trapped in purgatory, forced to play a game programmed by Satan himself: “Pony Island”. The twist is that while he can lock you into unbeatable loops, enticing you to sell your soul in order to make it stop, you can “hack” the game to cheat your way past his unfair levels.
The runner parts consist of your pony running towards the end of the level, while you control its jumps and shoot lasers from your mouth to navigate barriers and oncoming enemies. Honestly it’s a little bit dull and quite unforgiving, which makes them all the more frustrating as you must restart each section if you so much as brush against an enemy attack or barrier. There were a couple of occasions where I was driven to shout at my screen while my pony was sent to the start of the finicky, repetitive level again. It controls fine, but there’s small margin for error and it can really grate.
It’s in the other, thankfully more prevalent parts of the game where Pony Island gets really interesting. Much of the game is taken up by hacking puzzles and sections where you delve into the arcade cabinet’s files to delete core programs to bring yourself closer to freeing yourself. You’re trying to find places of low security among the arcade cabinet’s files, and the game is just short enough that each time you have to find a new way to initiate or carry out a hack, you’re pleasantly surprised at each little show of design ingenuity on the part of Mr Mullins. The game’s constantly coming up with these “gotcha” moments; even on the game’s opening screen, the “Start Game” option needs to be fixed by going into the options menu and checking on the “Fix Start Game Button” option from there.
It’s a quirky little early puzzle, but sets up the board for a frankly astounding array of clever little moments throughout the game that I won’t spoil for you. The game knows how to unsettle you, making you second-guess your every move.
In a word, Pony Island is subversive, and if you enjoyed the fourth-wall-breaking and player-tricking moments from the likes of Batman: Arkham Asylum, Undertale and Metal Gear Solid, this is a game that takes those elements and runs with them for its duration in an effort that more than earns it a place among those games.
Of course, these interesting puzzles wouldn’t be much use without context to string them all together, and Pony Island lays out an excellent, unique narrative. Satan is a delicious character, although it’s not clear what the game’s getting at with his arc. Is he a commentary on developers who exploit in-app purchases? Or is he a budding designer that really wants to make a good game? Or is he a designer that’s passionate about his project, yet is forced by his job to implement exploitative design? I’m not sure. But it’s still a joy to play out the game, and it speaks volumes that a game can make me ask such questions about its narrative after only a couple of hours.
Pony Island, then, is a game that glued me to the screen with its cleverly interwoven narrative and ingenious puzzle mechanics. It’s just the right length at just over 2 hours long, and for £3.99 it’s a fair exchange rate for a game that’s sure to blow your mind a number of times. Since the game has caught some decent traction, I won’t be alone in paying close attention to what Daniel Mullins and co come up with next.
If you have a little bit of time and £3.99 to spare, I can’t recommend Pony Island enough.
Image credits- metro.co.uk