This is more than a one-trick pony.
Developer: Daniel Mullins Games
Publisher: Daniel Mullins Games
Released: January 4, 2016
Copy provided by Steam
Pony Island is bloody genius.
Many games have come and gone that try to play with the medium, break the fourth wall, and subvert a player’s expectations, but very few have stood the test of time. Metal Gear Solid, The Stanley Parable, most recently Undertale – these are all games that have managed to succeed in using interactive entertainment to its fullest, delivering an experience that only a game could, all in a way that ensures historical significance.
I feel confident in adding Pony Island to the list, a deceptive puzzle game that uses every trick in a book it helps write.
There is no secret to the main premise, though it could have been a twist in any other game – the initially cute Pony Island is the work of Satan himself, and he wants your soul. Trapped in an archaic arcade machine, your job is to solve the Devil’s puzzles and find faults within the code in a bid to escape. As you attempt to break free, Lucifer regularly mocks you, calls you a cheater, and expresses dissatisfaction at his inability to program an infallible product.
From the outset, Pony Island screws around with a mischievous glint in its eye. To even start the game proper, you’ll need to go into the Options menu and fix the Start command. This one little goof is only a sampler of what’s to come, as the game regularly addresses players directly, uses familiar interfaces to trip people up, and blurs the line between genres in order to craft a wholly unforgettable story.
At the game’s core is an unassuming “runner” style platformer, as you make a pony jump over gates to clear stages. From this benign foundation, designer Daniel Mullins crafts a narrative that isn’t just about escaping Satan’s clutches – it’s about the frustrations of game development and the associated demands of the audience.
The Devil is a hapless programmer as well as a cruel antagonist, and exasperation at his failing abilities becomes apparent throughout as you expose weaknesses in the programming to solve various coding puzzles and battle against semi-sentient daemon software.
Most of the puzzles focus on getting a key from a starting point to an end point, dragging and dropping tiles into a path of code to direct said key. While it initially may look like a run-of-the-mill hacking minigame, Pony Island is never content to tread water for too long, as various interface screws and challenging concepts consistently expand the scope and pull stunts no other game has.
While some of the puzzling can provide a roadblock, there’s nothing too challenging to keep players stumped for long – I’m quite certain that’s a deliberate move, as actually being “tough” isn’t the point. Pony Island exists more to deliver its sly exposition and show off how clever the developer is.
Normally, I’d say something like that to be disparaging, to accuse a designer of putting their own arrogant self-satisfaction above the gameplay. However, Mullins has succeeded where so many would-be smartasses fail – he has charm, humor, and genuine intelligence on his side, and he uses those talents to make a game too damn brilliant, amusing, and sometimes creepy to feel insulted by.
Pony Island knows what it is. It knows when it’s being smug, when it leans on the fourth wall to an excessive degree, and even when it’s not being as clever as it tries to look. Its most obvious “gotcha” moments are delivered with a knowing wink or a sense of playfulness, and these more blatant attempts to trick the player only make the genuinely smart stuff all the more surprising.
There was one moment where I actually found myself nodding at the screen and muttering “well done” out loud.
You’ll notice this is one of those reviews where I describe around the game rather than provide too much detail – and even in doing this, I worry I might be giving too much away. Suffice it to say that going in with as little information as possible is the best way of maximizing the fun, though even an exhaustive review might not quite be able to undo some of the magic of this thing.
The biggest criticism I could level at Pony Island is that, while it’s always doing its best to change its tone, some of the puzzling sections nevertheless grow to be a bit too familiar and run the risk of breaking the absorbing tension built throughout PI‘s story. Some moments come across more like “obligatory game segment time” than functional interaction, something done just to keep us reminded that we’re playing videogames.
Such moments are mercifully brief, however, considering the game itself isn’t very long. You’ll get maybe two hours out of the main game – which for the five buck asking price is well worth the trip – though secrets abound and it will likely take significantly longer to uncover everything Pony Island has to offer.
After all, this is one of those productions where simply “beating” it once isn’t the only thing to do.
It’s easy to draw comparisons between Pony Island and major indie darlings from last year – Her Story and Undertale make fine counterparts when describing this weird little game about games. Still, Satan’s little soul-grabber is most certainly its own work, and the things it does are, as I already said, bloody genius.
When the game allows itself to have music, the tunes are fantastic, piercing through an unnerving bass rumble that underscores the entire adventure. The retro-themed visuals serve a purpose in this particular instance, adding to the atmosphere rather than looking like a cheap attempt at indie cred. In fact, it looks like it should be a cheap attempt at indie cred… which might be on purpose.
Or maybe it isn’t.
That’s the other wonderful thing about Pony Island – you never know quite what it’s getting at. For all my authoritative reading into what Satan represents and the underlying themes of the plot, I could be completely off base and just sounding like a pretentious wannabe art critic. Or is that what the game wants me to think?
I can say one thing with confidence, however. I’ve said it already. I’ll say it again.
Pony Island is bloody genius.