What’s your head worth?
Secret Ponchos is a competitive twin-stick shoot-out fest with MOBA styling’s set in taking in an isometric Old West world. Developed and published by the small studio of Switchblade Monkeys the game was announced at PAX East in 2013 then formed part of Sony’s PlayStation 4 press conference at E3 the same year. Since then the game has received a lot of interest and now this wagon rolls into PC via Steams Early Access initiative.
Pick a miscreant from four characters, partner up with another player to create a gang, albeit a small one, then head out to the digital frontier to find another like-minded couple and do them more harm than they can do to you in the time that’s allowed.
The game plays much like an online battle arena title as the classes selected play an important part of the game. Each of the characters posse has a unique trait, weapon and play-style. The four currently available are: ‘The Killer‘; a balanced all-rounder with medium range and movement speed with a six shooter and a throwing knife. ‘Kid Red‘; who’s a quick lad but deals light damage however does have a mean arm to throw sticks of TNT! ‘The Deserter‘ has better range, but slower rate of fire/movement but carries a deployable medic bag, then finally the ‘The Phantom Poncho‘. The mysterious Phantom uses a double barrel shotgun and is a lethal whip wielder able to stun at a good range.
Like Team Fortress 2 (a game the developers have stated as an influence), the title plays the most fun when understanding your buddies and baddies abilities because working effectively with your cohort will win the duel-duel (double-duel?). Playing as the ‘Phantom Poncho’ for example you’re able to use your whip to snare or stun the enemy while a ‘Deserter’ class can then impale an opponent dealing an impressive 1-2 of massive damage. This is not a game to play lone wolf – unless the match making is broken …which it is from time-to-time.
On the subject of bugs the game is still in it’s “Early Access” cycle so as you would expect it has some stability issues and as well as absent features. The game will crash out from time-to-time or you’ll encounter ‘quirks’ – such as if you’re in the lobby on your own you can force the match to start with just your character leaving you to wonder the badlands on your lonesome.
Three maps are available to duke it out in. This is quite a small amount, but each does offer a different scale, style and are well crafted enough to allow for plenty of choke points or spots to hide and ambush an opponent using the cover, such as behind barrels and walls. These items are however destructible so you do have to pick and choose your hideout wisely. Although a player’s health doesn’t regenerate, around the map, you’ll also have access to random pick-ups that spawn (along with other perks).
At the end of the round, doing well in a match allows you to level up and to increase a characters reputation/notoriety. This progression results in points to spend on boosting the base stats and abilities of your character (movement speed, fire rate etc).
Graphically Secret Ponchos is slick and polished. The characterisations are amazingly animated, look detailed and have a fun Gorillaz-esq style to them. Levels and environments are created with a lot of care and attention to detail. Touches like bottles on tables in the saloon can be shot/knocked are small, but add to the overall feel. Aurally the music is a real highlight with selection of distinctive western style melodies that are both catchy and memorable. The four characters are also well balanced towards each other and give a solid learning curve that when you proficient prove complementarily to your duelling partnership and to be feared.
Currently the game has no keyboard and mouse support, but thankfully the game works really well with a twin-stick controller (either Xbox 360 or DualShock game pads). Controls are responsive and layout is intuitive/easy to pick up and play after only a few minutes of game time.
The biggest issue, and one I completely understand how it has occurred, is that the game doesn’t have enough bodies playing, making its matchmaking at ‘off-peak’ times decidedly difficult. When you do manage to play, the only team sizes are 2-vs-2 and in addition having only one flavour of game mode available, Domination, does tend to make things go stale shortly. Four playable characters and three maps, as wonderful as they are to play and look at, are too few to allow you to get stuck in or hold your attention for any duration. If you do wish to hone your skills away from real people, the offline practice mode consists of a measly match against constant respawning lifeless and stationary opponents. This brings us on to….
The unattractive truth is that Secret Ponchos is a toothless prospector; the game is missing a lot but knows where the gold is! Players will need to be patient before we can finally hit pay dirt.
Number 1 on the Wanted list has got to be increasing the team sizes. Four players (2 vs. 2) is simply not enough. Next new characters and game modes are also needed. Stable mates of any such game of this ilk should include free-for-all or even some sort of capture the flag/objectives are needed. The maps I also feel should be more interactive and have elements that can be used against your opponents – such as TNT crates that explode, or some sort of hunters traps that stun.
After this the top priority for the devs should be adding AI and then using them to craft s a singleplayer experience with a narrative (as these characters are crying out for a back story or an adventure) or even better still co-operative mode with you and a buddy, Butch and Sundance against the ‘horde’ of desperado’s.
Options are woefully missing from the menu for the basic and usual technical titbits you’d expect from a PC game. No interface exists for changing the screen resolution; this is instead managed via a keyboard combination, nor an option to even quit out of the game at the time of writing.
It appears although not implemented that eventually you’ll be able to see how you stack up against your internet brethren in official league tables. At the moment the Leaderboard to check your standings against other players, ‘Blood Bets’, gang management and an Online Store for what appears to be character customisation lead to nowhere.
So what does the future hold for Secret Ponchos? Well although Switchblade Monkeys have confirmed very little of a development timeline, they have said that many of the wish list (maps, modes, AI and even split-screen etc) are coming to the game at launch. Two more characters are due. A lady Matador appears in promotional material who is seen to be lightning fast, but has to utilise melee attacks only, and the other being teased by the development team is a “Trapper” (whom I envisage as a brawler Davy Crocket type fellow) who they hint at will be able to lay suitable ambushes for other dastardly outlaw types. As well as new characters and more maps are mentioned throughout development and more post launch to expand the universe they’ve created.
Secret Ponchos is not a bad game. It’s not an overly buggy game. It’s just a very early release of something that could be amazing. For the money and its status I’m not expecting League of Legends or Team Fortress, but at this moment it just has too few ways for you to die in the Old West. The game is paper thin, but on that paper it has jotted down some good ideas, created some wonderfully presented art work and a detailed treasure map for its planned journey ahead.
Those that are keen to get in on the ground floor of a new game, work with the developers to find bugs and perfect character balance will be appreciated, however if you are looking for something you can get your teeth into you most definitely will want to wait.
Secret Ponchos is available now on PC Steam Early Access with a full release for both PC and PlayStation 4 coming “this fall”.