Secret Ponchos Review
The Good, The Bad And The Ugly
Describing Secret Ponchos from the get go is somewhat difficult. In a way, it’s what you get when you cross fighting games with cover-based shooters, and then putting it all in a gorgeous looking 3D isometric package. And with the game visibly drawing inspirations from staple elements of other competitive online games, one thing’s for sure – you’re in for one hell of a fun ride.
But before going into the basics of the gameplay, I must point out how stylistically impeccable this game is. Its gorgeous cell-shaded graphics, the mean looking renegades you get to play as, the spot-on moody and desolate music – every bit oozes a classic western vibe that is, quite frankly, the perfect setting for a hectic top-down shooter of this nature. Anyway, booting up the game for the first time, you’re immediately prompted to choose an “Outlaw” – a character you get to name and level-up. With about 10 being available as of now and each one being free, I went with “Kid Red” – a fast-paced class specializing in dynamites and dual pistols – and upon a quick tutorial I was pretty much set with the game’s main mechanics. It’s all pretty simple really – aim to shoot, switch between a primary/secondary method of attacking (both of which have an additional two separate modes in most cases), dodge and take cover.
This isn’t your typical twin-stick shooter, though. No regenerating health and a stamina bar that requires you to stand still in order to refill it end up delivering a pretty tense experience. In fact, the overall system works surprisingly well when you start learning its elements, especially when you realize how to utilize dodge and cover maneuvers more tactically in relation to what range your abilities have. It’s certainly no easy task in the beginning, but once you start getting the hang of each Outlaw there is a tremendous amount of hidden depth to be discovered. After two or three hours, I found myself starting to jump away from projectiles in the right times, staggering opponents with carefully placed shots and generally using my resources in more clever ways.
And as with any class-based game, the real fun starts when you begin to memorize what other Outlaws are capable of doing, allowing for several types of combos and just feel right. For example, if you choose to take the role of “Phantom Poncho” – an epic looking skull-masked, shotgun-wielding legend that wears a sombrero and a poncho, you can whip your enemies to stun them or to pull them closer. Mix that with the “Mad Trapper”, a crazy hunter who can immobilize people with elephant shots or by putting traps on the ground, and you have a deadly combination at hand. Even better, due to the fact that each Outlaw gains a bounty the more you play, leveling up various stats such as speed and damage actually makes a noticeable difference. Plus, having your character rise in the ranks from “Thug” to “Death Bringer” fits extremely well with the underlying theme.
Sadly, when it comes to the various game modes at display, what you get is 4 similar ones that are simply not enough to keep players interested for an extremely long time. Most of them operate on the format of best of three matches, with the simplest one being your good old Deathmatch (which despite its name plays more like Team Deathmatch, minus the respawning). Other modes include Free-For-All, which really doesn’t need any explanation, and Domination, requiring your team to get a 5 kill advantage on the opposing forces. In fact, the most interesting game type was “Posse Leader”, involving a 3v3 standoff in which each team has one player marked as a “leader”. Eliminate said person and you win the round, simple as that.
In a way, it seems that the lack of varied game types stems from the overall design of each map. While there aren’t any complaints in terms of their variance, each playing field is highly asymmetrical to the point where implementing something like Capture the Flag would be almost impossible. Luckily, playing on a train track or in a classic western-themed bar can be extremely satisfying, so there’s that. In fact, the visuals of each map and the way various props are positioned do help the current game modes, resulting in lots of tense standoffs between wounded foes waiting for the right opportunity to strike. As it is, crazy gun battles are enabled constantly whether you’re fighting in a mine or in a graveyard riddled with tombstones providing cover. Visually, maps are also a spectacle to look at in terms of the staggering amount of little details riddled across each one.
In the same time though, there are lots of small issues riddle across the game, ones that people don’t immediately think about when purchasing a game. I am not talking about game-breaking bugs, but rather focusing on minor things such as the main menu not having any mouse support, something that can be infuriating as you learn the user interface for the first few hours of spending time with the game. There is also the inexplicable decision to not include any sort of team chat within matches, with players only being able to type messages for everyone to see. No way of seeing your score in-game can also be infuriating, especially when so many other games include such a basic feature. Those are certainly minor gripes, but they certainly might be the deal-breaker for some people. Luckily, the developers have been fast to update their game in the days after its official release, with a very recent example being a patch fixing a rare issue having to do with a certain map rendering blue terrain for some users.
Ultimately though, the appeal of Secret Ponchos surely lies within its mechanics and its addicting combat. A lot of people will agree that there is an extremely high skill ceiling at display, and it’s that type of difficulty that makes you wanting to go back for “just one more game”. It’s just a shame that such a well fleshed-out backbone is set back by an essentially non-existent ranking system, which is currently simply represented by a leaderboard, spanning between tiers ranging from “rookie” to “master”. Keeping that in mind, it’s really hard to see any true appeal in Secret Ponchos from a highly competitive standpoint, as this might also be the partial reasoning for the current lack of any type of streaming activity related to the game, on top of the somewhat small player base that’s actively playing.
Above all, Secret Ponchos is a ridiculously fun and hectic arena brawler. If you’re looking for an addicting, balanced and unique multiplayer experience that mixes the best elements of fighting games and tactical shooters, look no further. Just don’t expect to be wowed by the amount of content at display.