I've long lost count of how many times I've watched The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It was my first Spaghetti Western, and it sparked my long and involved love for the genre. As you can imagine, my trigger finger has been itching to pick up Secret Ponchos after seeing the teaser trailer at E3. It's currently in Early Access, but don't let that drive you away from this incredibly fun shoot 'em up.
I can't overstate how much I love the aesthetics of this game. If Jamie Hewlett were to do a remake of Muse's Knights of Cydonia video, it would look a lot like Secret Ponchos. The graphics are equal parts gritty and cartoony. The characters all have an evil glint in their eyes and death at their fingertips. They wear worn, dusty garments and stand in abandoned, mud-splashed alleys. They also have thick, chunky anime hair, grip oversized weapons, and have hyperbolic bodies that give visual cues to their play style. There's the hulking Deserter-at first glance you can tell he's the tank of the lot, The lanky Kid Red that's build for speed, the aged Killer that moves slow but is quick on the draw, and the ghostly Phantom Poncho that hovers through the battlefield as he ensnares his opponents. Every match is a concentrated shootout at the O.K. Corral but with outlaws on both sides on the fight. The combatants unload on each other as they dodge in and out of the line of fire, ducking behind cover to catch their breath and reload their weapons before diving back into the fray.
To keep with the western theme, experience and level are reflected as the bounty on your head. Instead of straight gaining XP, your bounty is fluid- it goes up when you do well, and down when you do poorly. As your bounty goes up, you reach higher tiers of notoriety and you can add more perk points to your stats. The best part is that losing doesn't guarantee that your bounty goes down. If you still get a lot of kills and deal plenty of damage, your bounty will still go up- and the inverse is true for doing really poorly on the winning team. I love the fluid XP system, and I'm glad there that there's some form character customization- especially since you can rearrange your perk points however you want between matches. The problem is that I found myself dumping all of my perk points into Damage instead of any of the other stats. Speed and Health are great (and to a lesser extent Stamina Regen and Fire Rate), but in a game about killing people, nothing trumps straight-up Damage. But maybe that's just my philosophy.
Secret Ponchos is a top-down twin stick shooter. As the name implies, you run with the left stick and aim with the right. But dual stick controls are the norm for shooters these days, first person and otherwise, so what sets Secret Ponchos apart from every other shooter? What really sells me on the game is that it has a unique focus on space and the player's area of effectiveness that you would normally find in a MOBA. When you use the right stick to aim, your character draws their weapon and a black line extends in the direction you're aiming. This black line (or cone if your character uses a shotgun) is your area of effect- your shots won't reach anything beyond or outside of it. Some outlaws excel at close-range combat, while others are better from a distance. They each have their own set of strengths and weaknesses, but the basic strategy to Secret Ponchos is to keep your enemies in your sights while staying out of theirs. Every character has abilities that stun, disarm, trip up, or outright blow up their opponents- so there's no shortage of ways to accomplish this. Additionally, every character has a dodge ability that makes it easy to adopt guerilla tactics- just remember that dodging consumes your precious stamina. But the strongest defensive maneuver by far is ducking for cover. You drop behind a tombstone, water trough, pool table, or whatever happens to be near you, and your stamina refills itself, you can reload your guns faster, and most importantly you break your opponent's line of sight. Line of sight works like the tall grass in League of Legends- If there's something obstructing your view, that enemy is invisible to you. Not only is cover a good defensive tactic, but it's good for setting up traps for overzealous players.
When the game releases, it will include 1v1 duels up to 4v4 gang fights and eight player free for-alls. Right now though, there are only two gametypes- Practice Mode and 2v2 Domination. Domination Mode is basically a tug of war match where the first team to net five kills wins. If the timer goes out and the teams are tied, it goes to sudden death where the first team to kill someone wins. Barring someone getting a five-kill streak right off the bat, Domination matches typically last between five and ten minutes. Teamwork isn't a vital part of the game, but things generally work a lot better with a wingman. It's easier to set up and spring a trap if you have a teammate that's on your level, which is why I can't wait for the local splitscreen to be added to the game. Also, this game was developed with gamepads in mind- the primary way to play is with a Xbox 360 or PS4 Dualshock 4 controller. You can use a mouse and keyboard, but I haven't found the keybindings written down anywhere. To make up for the game's current limitations, buying into the Early Access gets you the first DLC character for free (instead of paying $4.99), plus, the developers have been known to do a few giveaways and limited time offers. I'm not sure what the developer's plans are for adding more game modes, but I hope in the future there will be more than just Domination. I'd really love to see a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid-style Survival mode where you have to hold out against waves of enemies.
Although the game is well past it's early development stages, Switchblade Monkeys are still working on it. So picking up in Early Access comes with the usual caveats- there are bugs to report (I once impaled someone so hard they got stuck inside a wall) and you'll be battletesting features and balancing patches as they get added. Right now it has a small, dedicated community that is big on discussing the game and bringing new players up to speed, you can find them putting up Twitch streams, writing game guides, and talking about matches via Steam chat. But it is still a small community- there are peak hours (3pm and 8pm PST) that are the only reliable times to get a match. And to be honest there were days where I wanted to play, but there just weren't enough people playing. Thankfully, the developers are combating this by taking an active role in the game's community by doing Devs vs. Challengers events every weekend, and streaming them live over Twitch. And you can almost always find one of them playing around the peak hours.
All in all, Secret Ponchos is a really fun multiplayer shoot 'em up that looks great, has a good balance of strategy vs. twitch gameplay, and has dedicated community that wants to see the game thrive. The only problem is that it's so small right now. Right now is cheapest Secret Ponchos going to be for a while, so if you're comfortable buying into Early Access games, this is the best time to buy into it.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company for review.
I've spent an embarrassing percentage of my life planted in front of a screen. I'm pretty sure I know the layout of Planet Zebes better than my own home town, and most of my social life in high school revolved around Halo 2 and Super Smash Brothers. When I wasn't on a console I was playing every ROM I could get my mitts on.
These days I spend most of my time with games made by small studios, because they tend to make what I'm interested in playing. I love developers that experiment with new mechanics, write challenging and immersive narratives, and realize that a game's aesthetics are more than it's graphics. So long story short-you'll see a lot of posts from me about Kickstarter campaigns and Early Access debuts.