PONY ISLAND Review
Here’s a story for you: Satan is real, and in addition to reigning as the Prince of Darkness, he’s also a prolific game developer. Over the years, he’s programmed and released countless iterations of a pernicious, derivative and shoddily-programmed titles that literally rob their zombie-like consumers of their souls. No, I’m not talking about the FIFA franchise, but rather PONY ISLAND, the new experimental, interactive experience from Lucif– I mean, Daniel Mullins.
Like FIVE NIGHTS AT FREDDY’S, PONY ISLAND is an indie “horror” game set in a malfunctioning arcade, but perhaps a better comparison would be to 2010’s EVERSION. Both PONY ISLAND and that game share cutesy facades that give way to a demonic underbelly. They also both cost five bones on Steam and take roughly two hours to beat. EVERSION is the more mature game, but while its subtlety is like a scalpel to PONY ISLAND’s sledgehammer, it’s the newer game’s cleverness, scope, and ambition that ultimately sets it in a league of its own.
Gameplay is instantly familiar to any Chrome user who forgot to pay the internet bill
PONY ISLAND wastes no time getting to business. You find yourself alone in an arcade with a malfunctioning and, as it turns out, possessed machine running the eponymous game. This greatly assists the game with its breakneck pace, but zaps any notion of suspense or horror from the package. From the word “go” you know exactly what the game is about, and while the marketing material itself lets the cat out of the bag, it would have been far more rewarding if, like EVERSION, the mystery was stretched out longer to keep players on their toes.
On the flip side, there is a lot to do in the time provided here. In order to secure your freedom, you must beat the game, a casual platformer where you alternate between jumping gaps and shooting enemies. Unfortunately, Satan is a poor sport and rigs the game against you, meaning some hacking puzzles and desktop exploration will be necessary in order to progress. You’ll play multiple versions of Pony Island throughout the story, each offering a different gameplay mechanic or precept, which ensures that the cursed machine never overstays its welcome.
As mentioned earlier, PONY ISLAND’s story shouldn’t take more than two hours to complete, but the game provides around twice that amount of time in content spent searching for secrets and hidden ticket stubs, as well as a subplot where you uncover just how you ended up in the arcade. The length is perfect and paced excellently. While it sacrifices scariness for spectacle, PONY ISLAND manages to remain intriguing throughout. The game is best experienced in one sitting, easy considering how engaging it is, and is good for one more playthrough before the charm wears off.
Me, trying to figure out Unity
But what an adventure that first playthrough is! The presentation is the main attraction here, and the game is as meta as they come. From the very beginning, PONY ISLAND is framed by the machine it is supposedly being played on, viewed through a dust-streaked monitor. The sentient, Satanic programs inhabiting it are fully aware that not only are you playing a game, but that you are playing the game. Many puzzles and bosses utilize some truly devious tricks that, without giving anything away, hearken back to ETERNAL DARKNESS, blurring the line between game and reality. The unsettling ludonarrative elements of what’s real and what’s not permeate both story and gameplay, making the concept of being trapped in a haunted game machine all the more immersive.
You can almost hear the bronies creaming their pants
What PONY ISLAND lacks in discretion, it more than makes up for in devilish creativity. Its bewitching atmosphere can’t be explained in words, but can only really be played. I was ready to call the upcoming OXENFREE the first hit of 2016, but PONY ISLAND beat it to the punch. Though its brevity makes an ideal Let’s Play game, don’t settle for a Youtube walkthrough. This pony will take you for a ride to remember.
Reviewed on PC