Right from the start, Pony Island plays with your preconceived notions of what a game can do. There’s been a few instances of this in recent years, but a lot of the time, you come away disappointed because of poorly executed, meta bullshit. Pony Island could’ve easily veered into this territory by stretching things too far in one direction or another, but instead, it engrosses from puzzle one which requires you to mess about in the options, in order to choose “Start Game” on the main menu.
Initially, you find yourself standing at an arcade cabinet playing Pony Island: a cheery little endless runner where you hop over fences and aim to reach the flagpole at the end of the level, hoping to hear My Lovely Horse by Fr. Ted Crilly and Fr. Dougal McGuire. But you’re actually trapped in this dark and twisted game that Lucifer himself has created, in order to steal your soul. To ensure that The Devil doesn’t take what’s yours, you must solve numerous puzzles and destroy Pony Island, from within. Thankfully, Satan’s development skills haven’t been completely honed, meaning there are occasions where opportunities present themselves for you to take down The Antichrist’s putrid playground.
While the story isn’t exactly ground-breaking, sole developer of Pony Island, Daniel Mullins, can be likened to Frank Carson in that it’s the way he tells it. Every moment is a wonderfully paced, convention-busting trip down video game lane, where Mullins breaks every window, knocks over every post-box, and sticks his middle finger up to every run-of-the-mill release that puts the word “experience” on the back of the box. I mean, I’m dancing around the fact that I can’t tell you about those moments where I smirked at a clever quip, or sat mouth agape staring at my monitor in disbelief. The reason for this is simple: Pony Island is best played with little to no knowledge of its tricks.
If you’ve decided to read on and find out what Pony Island actually is, though, I better continue. Even with all of the bells and whistles, it’s still a puzzle game, wrapped up in an infinite runner where you jump over fences and shoot lasers out of your face. Hopping over obstacles and disposing of despicable, flying demons is surprisingly good fun and gets progressively more difficult, without ever becoming an insurmountable challenge. The puzzles often involve you trying to crack a code by moving a number of tiles around, attempting to get a key from a starting point, to an end goal. New tiles and obstacles are introduced over time that change the direction and trajectory of said key, which keeps staleness at bay, but there are a few instances of things getting a little overwhelming which can slow things down, when all you want to do is progress the story and see the next way it will mess with your head.
As I’m sure you’ll have figured out, the pointy-eared, red-headed Prince of Darkness plays a pivotal role and pops up quite a bit on your journey through this equestrian tale and adds some glorious colour to proceedings. His devilish dialogue is very well-written and like the rest of the affair, never gets close to going too far off the deep-end and into embarrassing meta territory. He’s just as clumsy as he is evil, meaning this character that can only communicate their message through text, is a very early stand-out, this year.
Like a lot of Steam’s library, Pony Island embraces the retro stylised look. The difference is that it makes sense here and doesn’t just want to fit in with all the cool kids that chat for hours on end about their new cinnamon apple vaping juice, while sipping on their £5.80 glass of neon alcohol. The minimalist approach to visuals and sound fit the atmosphere, and it just wouldn’t be the same without this presentation.
It baffles me as to why more don’t choose to play with our expectations of video games. Over the years, we’ve been trained to think a certain way and within minutes (or in some cases, by the time we’ve hit start) we can predict every big twist before it happens. There are certain games that wouldn’t work as anything else and use the tools at their disposal brilliantly. Games are wonderful and we need to be reminded that there are specific things they can do that films, books, and TV shows can’t. Pony Island captures that, and it captures it well.
Plays with your expectations.
Fun "typical" gameplay.
Some puzzles get too hard and hinder progression.