PONCHO Review

poncho12

I’m going to get straight to the point, Poncho is really short. It’s beautiful, charming. It costs £10.99 on Steam, and I beat it within 2 hours. I then went back and completed the only side quest, and whittled down the remaining collectibles as much as I could manage (588/667 of the little red diamonds, that’s 88.2%!) before closing the game, satisfied, with three hours played. It’s a real shame, because despite Poncho’s problems, I mostly enjoyed my time with it.

Poncho is a 2D puzzle-platformer developed by Delve Interactive, set in a world where the human race has perished in some unknown event. The titular character, presumably named after his choice of attire, is an adorable robot with the ability to shift back and forward between 3 planes. On a controller, this plane shifting mechanism is represented by the shoulder buttons, which my mind had trouble associating with backwards and forwards movement on this new-fangled z-axis. Eventually, I switched to a keyboard, which used the most sensible choice of the up and down keys. As an exploration mechanic, it’s lovely, flipping to another plane to make your way past an obstacle in your path is a simple idea that provides immense satisfaction. However, as a platforming mechanic, it lacks development.

poncho1

The only real obstacles in your adventure come in the form of plane shifting platforms, which come in two flavours; platforms that move relative to time and platforms that move relative to your own shifting. These are often combined to make clever little 3d puzzles that test your internal metronome. It’s a neat idea, but one that certainly wears out quickly. Making a jump only to see your destination literally disappear from under your feet becomes a common occurrence, then to add insult to injury, Poncho respawns back above a platform that has since moved on, or worse, inside a platform that you were moving to avoid. It’s infuriating.

So, after all that, why did I want to love Poncho? Well, despite my platforming grievances, I really enjoyed exploring Delve Interactive’s post-human world. What exactly happened to the humans is your job to discover. What remains of the world is populated by robots, which are scattered around the game in various states of deterioration, and lost without their human masters. It might seem like a simple inclusion, but it’s one that breathes a whole lot of life into Poncho’s world.

poncho14

As for the world itself, it’s truly beautiful. Most of the game takes place in a city reclaimed by nature, a vibrant urban forest that begs to be explored. The coolest thing about these forest levels is that almost all of them have more than one route to completion.  Occasionally, your path is blocked by locked doors, which require a key of matching colour to open. To progress, you can either explore the level and collect whichever keys are lying about, or buy a key from a creepy robot vendor using the little red collectibles you pick up on your journey. Other levels sacrifice the non-linear approach in order to provide more focused narrative experiences, ranging from something as simple as traversing a cave, to a level populated by a masked tribe of robots who claim they’re human. It’s through these levels that the quirky, yet melancholy atmosphere of Poncho is best communicated.

And so, we return to the tricky issue of the game’s length. Obviously, not everybody will finish Poncho in the same amount of time. I personally finished it fairly quickly, without being particularly good at it. There was a point in one of the vertical levels where I lost a huge amount of progress after horribly mistiming a jump and had to walk away from my keyboard for fear of mashing it into dust. Even after opening the game various times while writing this review to double and triple check things I’d glossed over in my notes, Steam tells me that I’ve only clocked 4 hours in-game. For a £10.99 game, that just doesn’t feel like enough.

 

Score: 5/10

Pros:

Pixel graphics are lovely to look at

Beautiful soundtrack

Charming NPCs give life to the world

Cons:

Short

Very little puzzle variety

Buggy respawn mechanic adds to frustration

GALAK-Z Review

9bIKXVjQEqfvTh0A-srFRYm24Gu3nkTGkdaBAvZTIfk

GALAK-Z, the second game from indie developers 17-Bit, is a procedurally generated 2D space shmup heavily inspired by 80s sci-fi, available on PS4 and Steam.

The game’s events begin just after A-Tak, an inexperienced but ambitious fighter pilot escapes an ambush that almost completely wipes out his fleet. It soon becomes clear that it’s up to the rookie pilot, with the assistance of a surviving science vessel, to warn Earth of an impending attack by the nefarious Imperial navy. Luckily, it turns out that the ship A-Tak used to escape from the bad guys is actually a top secret prototype, with the ability to transform into a mech!

As 2d shooters go, this one’s pretty good. In ship form, you have laser shots, as well as missiles to take out enemies. A bit bland, but they get the job done. Defensively, you can strafe, using boosters on the side of your ship, or dodge bullets with the press of a button, at the expense of having to wait a small time before being able to do so again. This cool down period is brutal, as many of the enemy ships shoot at a rate faster than you can dodge, especially later in the game. Enemies are also able to effectively gauge where your ship will be while you strafe, which is a pain because you can only strafe in one direction (presumably because the devs ran out of gamepad buttons to map actions to).

Banner for review

So, defensively, the ship isn’t up to all that much. What about the mech? I’m glad you asked! Not only can the mech still strafe, but it also has a shield that can block or parry attacks, as well as a sword that can deflect bullets. Okay, but does the mech have a good offensive capability? Yes! Not only do you get the aforementioned sword, which does double the default damage of the ship’s laser, but you also get a grappling arm, which can either be used to throw all sorts of objects at enemies, or to grapple the enemies themselves. In short, the mech is truly brilliant, which makes it utterly bizarre that its inclusion in the game was kept secret until less than two weeks before the game’s release.

At this point, I’d forgive you for wondering why you’d want to use the ship form at all. Pretty much anything pales in comparison to an anime style mech with a laser sword. Luckily for the maniacs who still prefer to use a fighter ship to a giant suit of space armour, you can spice up your ship with upgrades. These upgrades are unlocked by collecting blueprints, either from defeated enemies or from special blueprint chests. Once an upgrade is unlocked, you can acquire them by opening upgrade chests within levels or purchasing it from the shop with salvage, the in-game currency.

IyUVj6DE0Qgw7MpZPLaDtAng6vU3pKOTkhYX-fjeGWc

It’s clear that 17-Bit really put a lot of time into these upgrades, as there are a lot of them. Most fall into ‘ship abilities’, which range from basic stat enhancers like increasing health/thruster speed to upgrades with more specific uses. For example, there’s an upgrade which guarantees that bugs will be stunned for 2 seconds after being struck by a melee attack, or another that makes your ship immune to fire damage, which is incredibly useful for idiot pilots like myself who blindly drift into lava at an embarrassing rate.

Upgrades to the ship’s laser are given their own category, as they can be equipped and unequipped at your leisure. There are no less than six different types of bullet upgrade, each affecting things like bullet spread, fire pattern, elemental damage type and so on. These upgrades blow ship combat wide open, as they accommodate for all sorts of play styles. Want to punish enemy ships up close without worrying about taking damage? Equip a wide range muzzle with large, freeze type bullets. Are you more of a sharpshooter? Try the precision muzzle with the charge laser, using bullets that can pierce multiple enemies. Personally I prefer freeze shots with the precision muzzle, to keep me as far away from enemy fire as possible.

Unfortunately, once you’ve built your dream spaceship, you don’t get to spend long with it before you have to start again. GALAK-Z’s plot is split into 5 mission chunks called ‘Seasons’. Once you complete a season, you lose all your upgrades and you have to start again. Players have the choice of two difficulties, rogue and arcade. In rogue difficulty, if you die, that’s it; you have to start the season again, with nothing but your collected blueprints carrying over. In the more lenient arcade mode, your mission is re-rolled and you get to try again, only losing the upgrades you gained since finishing the previous mission.

PdLdNIKhLqheZSL5c0v3WbTHzqc4IXQ2TmYZimBpgNQ

For the most part, episodes in a season are put together from a randomly selected combination of objectives and environments. If upgrades are where 17-Bit put the hours in, missions are undoubtedly where they skimped. In each season, it’s clear to see that there are only a handful of different objectives the game will give you, all of which involve you travelling to an asteroid or space hulk (or space hulk hidden inside an asteroid) to destroy or steal something, and then head back to the warp point. The last mission in each season has a set objective, which then leads into a boss encounter. These boss battles stir up something of a conflict within me. On one hand, they’re epic encounters; each boss is a pleasure to fight. On the other hand, I want the battle to be over as quickly as possible to reduce the risk of losing an entire mission’s worth (or worse, an entire season’s worth) of upgrades.

As it currently stands, there are four seasons in GALAK-Z, with a fifth on the way. It’s not a whole lot of content for the price (£14.99), and the lack of mission diversity severely damages replayability. However, during my time with GALAK-Z, I had great fun engaging the enemy with my transforming fighter, or leading enemy factions into fighting each other, if I didn’t feel up to it. If a rogue-lite game about an anime style mech appeals to you at all, definitely give it a go, but if you’re unsure about rogue-lites or space shmups, don’t expect this to change your mind.

PROS

Great cel-shaded visuals

Lots of upgrades to choose from

Mech is great fun to fly

CONS

Lack of mission diversity

Only a few different environments

SCORE: 6/10