For a game with such a unique premise, I found myself rather let down by Pony Island. When just about every horror game in existence is based solely around the concept of “run and hide from scary monsters,” one would start to gravitate towards more unique horror games. I always have had a preference for games that can unnerve and scare the player through its sense of atmosphere, storyline, and events rather than just having you run from invincible enemies. That is not to say there is anything inherently wrong with the latter, it is simply that horror games seem to forget that there are other ways of being scary.
One of my favorite horror games is a 2008 platformer called Eversion. Yes you read that correctly, a horror platformer. What I enjoyed so much about this game was just how it created a dark and unnerving atmosphere based around simple platforming mechanics and no cutscenes or dialogue, and without gimmicky mechanics like tank controls that just make the game more tedious; the game was still as accessible as any other platformer.
Pony Island is a game that looked similar in concept to Eversion in many ways. Both games are ones that put up a facade of being a cutesy light hearted title, only to contain something dark and sinister underneath. If you haven’t caught on by now then I will just spell it out for you; Pony Island is not a game made for young girls about ponies.
Pony Island is instead, a horror game about an arcade cabinet created by the devil himself. Specifically, the game takes place in limbo where your character can never leave the cabinet until he either turns over his soul, or deletes the core programming of the cabinet and frees himself. As a result, he works with another trapped soul, simply referred to as “hopeless soul,” in order to take advantage of Satan’s poorly coded games to access his core programs and delete them.
This idea for a game is something that naturally comes across as very similar in concept to haunted game creepypastas. For those unfamiliar, a haunted game creepypasta is a specific variant of creepypasta (which can basically be summed up as an internet horror story) that details the writer’s account with an evil or possessed video game; it oftentimes being an altered version of an existing game. This specific type of story did not really blow up in popularity until about 2012 when the BEN Drowned creepypasta first appeared and inspired several other amateur writers to create their own creepypasta (with mostly poor results), it is important to note that the basic elements of these have always been there, mostly from myths and urban legends.
These types of games tend to come in two variants. The first variant applies to games like Eversion or Imscared that mimic the effects of these demonic games by repeatedly breaking the forth wall and directing its scare factor at the player directly. The second variant is where you play as characters that are playing the evil game that instead has its horrors directed at the characters in question. The first variant usually allows for greater scares when done well than the latter due to it simply cutting out the middle man altogether. However, it is not an easy concept to execute well so the second variant is generally the safer route that allows for a more multi layered and detailed storyline.
Pony Island is an example of the second variant of this storyline in that your main character is not simply a player stand in and has his own backstory. However, the game frames itself as if it is the first variant and almost never touches upon this backstory nor is there much information given at all about the world this game takes place in during the main plot. Pony Island’s storyline is similar to that of Five Nights at Freddy’s where the majority of the game’s storyline is put off to the side into areas where most players are never going to notice.
If I’m being honest, I am not a fan of this approach to a game’s storyline. While subtlety is an important storytelling tool, there can be such a thing as too much of it. While there are some people that actively prefer to put together the story and hidden meanings on their own, most gamers such as myself see it as the equivalent of McDonalds only giving you half the ingredients of your burger and telling you to buy the rest elsewhere.
It is true that sometimes, games should reward players who look deeper into things, but that should not consist of the entire game. The game needs to at least provide some part of the base storyline that is good enough to make players WANT to seek out deeper meanings. As pretentious as I find Braid’s storyline to be, I will give it credit in that there was an actual plot that could be gathered from playing the game while there was still enough hidden material for people to come up with a theory of it being about atom bombs.
To be fair, Pony Island does still have a coherent and fairly easy to follow plot. In fact, the base storyline that is provided in Pony Island is a lot more prevalent than in Five Nights at Freddy’s. The problem is that the base story and events of the game are just not scary. There were some very smartly implemented fourth wall breaking interface screws that I did not see coming, especially with Asmodeus, but there was never a moment where I actually felt scared or even intimidated. In regards to atmosphere in horror games, I would say that Pony Island is only slightly creepier than Luigi’s Mansion.
I will admit, that it is not exactly easy to pin-point the exact reason Pony Island fails to be scary, but I think the biggest reason would have to be the man downstairs himself; Satan. Despite the fact that he is supposed to be the lord of all evil, Pony Island’s incarnation of Satan is one of the least intimidating horror villains I have come across. The key reason for this has to be due to how incompetent he is. Despite the fact that the driving force of horror in Pony Island is the fact that you are playing Satan’s evil game, Daniel Mullins decided it would be a good idea to give Satan the coding skills of an LJN employee.
Such a thing would not be a problem with the game if it were supposed to be a comedic parody game; but unfortunately, Pony Island is a HORROR game! It is not impossible to implement some dark humor into the storyline of a horror game, but someone really should have told this developer that writing your game like Undertale is not a good idea when your game is trying to be scary. This is not the only instance where the game has trouble taking itself seriously.
For instance, some of these include moments that try to give off hints that Satan is really a nice guy and that he wouldn’t care about being unable to collect souls if people would just tell him they enjoyed his game, lampshading plot points (at one point, Hopeless Soul literally says “but you can’t advance the plot until you delete this core), including Joseph Stalin, Caligula, Heinrich Himmler, Pol Pot, and Ghengis Khan in the game’s credits, and frequent references to Pokemon, Zelda 2, and Undertale. These silly moments would not be a problem if this game was any genre other than horror, but unfortunately that is not the case. In addition to this, Satan seems way too easy to outwit and outmaneuver for someone who is supposed to be the ultimate trickster. The plan that you use to escape the arcade cabinet is so simple that literally anyone should have been able to do it.
Now that I have discussed why the main plot fails, it is time for me to dive into the previously mentioned background lore of the game. To put it simply, Pony Island’s background lore is made up of stuff that should have had much more of a focus in the main game. For example, it would have made for a much more interesting plot if the protagonist’s backstory as a crusader from the 1200s actually had some sort of role in the plot, but it instead is something that has no impact on the story whatsoever and it is entirely possible to go through multiple playthroughs without discovering this. There are some lines in the game that literally change a player’s entire perception of the story that can only be seen under very obscure and out of the way circumstances.
Of course it is not a bad thing to have hidden subtle elements to the game, but it would have been much better if the main storyline actually displayed this kind of creativity to begin with. It is the equivalent of having seasonings prepared by a five star chef placed on generic store bought burger; the ingredients taste better than the actual dish. All of the best elements of Pony Island’s story are ones that are barely present in the game, and this leaves Pony Island with a lot of untapped potential. The game rubbed salt in further into the wound by hinting heavily that Hopeless Soul would betray you, only for this plot point to never be addressed. Yes if the game did go with the twist of Hopeless Soul being evil, it would have been predictable as all hell, but it would at least have added a bit more depth to the main storyline that this game could have desperately used.
I would like to take a short time to deliver a PSA to all game developers; heavily foreshadowing an event and never addressing it does NOT make your game deep or artistic. Claiming that it is a red herring is not an excuse either. A properly written red herring will still be implemented in the plot, it will just be used differently than the player expects. Introducing a plot point and ignoring it on the other hand, is just bad writing that only serves to mislead the player into thinking the game will be better than it actually is.
Despite its weakness in the story department, one of Pony Island’s greatest strengths is its presentation. When you start up Pony Island, the game will be presented in a bright and cartoony aesthetic. Most of the game, however, will be in grayscale with no backgrounds given that you are inside an unfinished game. Additionally, the game is in a first person perspective, but in the perspective of the game’s main character while you view the screen that resembles a let’s play filmed with a camcorder.
The grayscale imagery mixed with several glitch images and sound effects definitely help this game give this game a unique visual style. The music is made up mostly of chiptunes with the exception of the title theme and the ending credits theme. The chiptunes properly use the sound style to sound intimidating and atmospheric. Unfortunately there are not a lot of songs but it isn’t too much of a problem given that the game is short.
Pony Island is a game that is hard to categorize based on its gameplay alone. The reason for this is that the game tends to change its gameplay style up depending on the moment. If I had to slap a genre sticker on it then it would make the most sense to label it as a puzzle game, but there are also elements of adventure games and side scrolling action games in there.
In order to properly frame it, I will simply describe how the game starts up. You start out on a computer start up screen that looks like Windows 95 in monochrome. At this point, you can either talk to Hopeless Soul through a chat box, or start up the Pony Island game. The base Pony Island game is one where you play as a pony that needs to jump a bunch of hurdles until you reach the flag pole at the end of the stage. It starts out very basic but you there are then other mechanics thrown in where you need to defend yourself from enemies with lasers and glide over pits.
These levels are often very short and over in under a minute, so they naturally would not be enough to carry the game on its own, but they are thankfully, not the meat of the game. The deeper gameplay elements exist in the game’s puzzle section. The most common puzzles are ones where you need to guide a key along a set path to a locked door by moving placing icons in pre selected locations. The icon’s effects will either move the key in the direction it’s pointing in, or will transport you to the location of another icon.
While the puzzles start off simple enough, they gradually introduce more mechanics that make them trickier and more intricate. For instance, you will often times need to take advantage of the fact that the key stops moving when not every icon is placed, and use the added time to switch the icons around. Some later puzzles will even need you to get the key to loop around the screen multiple times in order to increase various stats so that you can get past barriers that are set up. Despite the intricacy of these puzzles though, I rarely felt like they were overwhelming or confusing.
Pony Island is a game that offered a unique premise, but failed to deliver on it due to its misplaced priorities. The entire concept behind Pony Island is based around a cutesy innocent looking game that, on the inside, is actually dark, evil, and horrifying. What Pony Island actually is, however, is a game that is not all that much darker on the inside then on the out. Quite simply put, I cannot take Pony Island seriously as a horror game.
Don’t try and tell me it isn’t supposed to be a horror game either, because taking one look at how this game is advertised will tell you that it WAS in fact, intended as a horror game. Its Steam page is quick to remind you that “this is not a game about ponies” and that it is actually a dark horror title masquerading as a kid’s game. The problem is simply that, by advertising this game as horror, you give away the game’s main twist before the player even purchases the game and leave the game with nothing left to stand on.
There were a few moments where the game may have surprised me with a few fourth wall breaking interface screws, but there was nothing that actually scarred me. This is partially because the game has difficulty taking itself seriously, but it is also because of just how by the numbers the plot was. This game thinks that, because it has a unique premise, that it is okay to do absolutely nothing with it. Pony Island never strives to be anything other than “a game about ponies that isn’t actually about ponies.”
It is amazing how this game can take two ideas that allow for nearly limitless creativity (those being both an evil video game AND an afterlife setting) and still drop the ball completely. Hell they even had some interesting plot elements that they could have used but simply left out. I could probably spend days ranting about everything this game could have done but choose not to.
While yes, the main gameplay of Pony Island is kind of fun, it is not why people are going to be playing Pony Island. Yes the puzzles and action stages are somewhat fun, but why would you play this game for them when you could play an actual puzzle or action game as opposed to a horror game that happens to have them? The only way Pony Island can actually impact you is if you go into it without any idea of what it is, and chances are, if you are reading this review, you know longer fall into that category.
This review was originally posted to GameFAQs on October 20th of 2016 and has since been re-edited with enhanced presentation.
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