Pony Island Review – Diablo Ex Machina

This is more than a one-trick pony.

01

Developer: Daniel Mullins Games
Publisher: Daniel Mullins Games
Format: Steam
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 SolidThe 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.

02

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.

03

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.

05

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?

04

I can say one thing with confidence, however. I’ve said it already. I’ll say it again.

Pony Island is bloody genius.

9.5/10
Superb

Jesse Helmfall
Guest
Jesse Helmfall

This must be how Jack Thompson sees video games.

Mark Davenport
Guest

Looks awesome.

thatdamnrat
Guest
thatdamnrat

Something makes me think you might be biased….

Mark Davenport
Guest

Something makes me think I don’t care what you think 😉

thatdamnrat
Guest
thatdamnrat

And that’s fine, I was just cracking wise about your avatar.

Mandrake42
Guest
Mandrake42

It’s ok thatdamnrat, I got the joke.

Sapphire Crook
Guest
Sapphire Crook

I dunno.
I thought it was a flat game and am surprised people think it’s majestic.
I guess…
This is what Undertale was to some people.
What an eye-opener. Golly.

The Guy
Guest
The Guy

I get the impression that this one isn’t quite as accessible as Undertale was.

SavingPrincess
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SavingPrincess

Yes, the point of this game is flying over more heads than a stunt flyer at a mid-west airshow.

The Guy
Guest
The Guy

But then, I’ve been hearing people say that same line about Undertale and innumerable indie titles in the last year, so it’s kind of becoming a moot statement.

I mean, I’ve heard that be said about Rocket League. You know, the game that’s just soccer with cars.

Jabroni
Guest
Jabroni

I’m so sick of those people who whine “You just don’t get it” when someone doesn’t share their opinion on a game.

Sissel
Guest
Sissel

Only morons use that as an “argument” anyway.

Ruud de Bont
Guest
Ruud de Bont

I’m not a moron, I’m a genius, you just don’t get me, yeah it seems to work

Max Whiteley
Guest
Max Whiteley

Said every great artist who ever lived.

Benson
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Benson

Is it really that common of a saying?

wvstolzing
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wvstolzing

I’ve been thinking the opposite — but I guess that’s because I’m completely ignorant about the Mother series, JRPGs in general, etc., while I like hacking/programming puzzle games.

The Guy
Guest
The Guy

Well of course. Personal taste is always a factor. Still, there’s a whole more of the former than the latter you mentioned.

Overblown Ego
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Overblown Ego

Will you be doing a spoiler cast or video? I played though it, liked it, but nowhere near as much as you seem to have. Kind of curious what I missed.

Richard Claus
Guest
Richard Claus

nothing. you missed nothing. it’s a flat game that caters to wanna-be gaming intellectuals.

Ian Smith
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Ian Smith

So salty.

Tyler Cataldo
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Tyler Cataldo

Incredible game, way to set the bar for 2016 Jim.

Newbiespud
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Newbiespud

There’s a difference between a developer going “Look how clever I am” and “Hey, look at this cool thing I made the game do.” Not a lot of difference – mostly in tone – but when the player agrees, “Yeah, that’s pretty darn cool,” I’d say it achieves the latter.

The Guy
Guest
The Guy

Normally I tend to agree with Mr. Sterling, but I thought this was repetitive trash. Eh! Guess this one’s not for me.

kunuri
Guest

I played this, crafted the badge, and got a 33% off coupon for Devil’s Share, I feel betrayed.

Stephen Mc Devitt
Guest
Stephen Mc Devitt

Looks like 2016’s gone off to a great start. I’m already seeing this getting a Jimquisition award later in the year.

Beginning Anew
Guest
Beginning Anew

I actually had to double check that ‘Diablo Ex Machina’ wasn’t part of the actual games name. Actually perfectly suits the game, very clever!

wvstolzing
Guest
wvstolzing

A little pedantry:

It should have been ‘Diabolus Ex Machina’ to make it Latin all the way through.

Benson
Guest
Benson

I thought ex machina was Greek…wait, are Greek and Latin the same language!?

wvstolzing
Guest
wvstolzing

It’s a Latin term (‘Deus’, ‘ex’, and ‘machina’ are all Latin words); but it refers to a device in Greek drama.
Greek and Latin are pretty distant cousins within the Indo-European family.

thatdamnrat
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thatdamnrat

And mixing your Greek and Latin roots is considered terrible for some reason.

Yaro
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Yaro

This looks like a stoner game.

Coolg82
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Coolg82

Are the TFA references real? Thats very current.

Forrest Kayssen
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Forrest Kayssen

I think that’s Jim talking to Satan, and Satan just telling him he’s going to ignore him until he clicks to enter the game.

prh99
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prh99

Gotta give it to Ludum Dare, their jams consistently turn out interesting indies.

The Interloper
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The Interloper

Yeah, I gotta agree. There’s one pretty good wave-based game with a pretty cool gun mechanic called “A Gun that Shoots Bees” that came from Ludum Dare. It’s one of the game jam events that I actually check out entries for.

RotwangRevived
Guest
RotwangRevived

And it runs on Linux Without having to deal with wine. Looks like I have no excuse but to try it.

wvstolzing
Guest
wvstolzing

Yes that’s great.
I wish Downwell had an official Linux port. (‘Unofficially’ it does work natively, with a Game Maker executable imported from elsewhere.)

CaitSeith
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CaitSeith

I think I reached my limit on subversive indie games for a while. I have lot of catching up to do from games in my library that I haven’t finished.

Steven White
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Steven White

Man, what happened? When did the best use of the phrase, “looks like it’s from [ ] era” go from games that wanted to look old because old sells, to games with such cleverness it could only exist now AND the visuals giving such a strong effect it probably wouldn’t work looking any other way?

bluemoon
Guest
bluemoon

The retro graphics help to make the game more disarming. Pixelated ponies gives way to Satan and glitches. Quite a few indie titles also go for the retro look because it has a genuine charm to it when done right. Think Nuclear Throne, Spelunky, or Binding of Isaac with the newer look. Realistic, high-end graphics would rob much of the minimalistic charm from these games. Sometime less is more.

someperson1984
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someperson1984

Also, many of these games are from small teams, or in some cases a single person. This doesn’t usually allow for lots of extraneous detail.

ghettojack
Guest
ghettojack

these little games like this and undertale and stuff seem so polished to the bunch of other trash being released these days. its so nice

SilentPony
Guest
SilentPony

Golden Veronica!

Sylocat
Guest

I’ve been seeing this pop up a number of places. What’s it a reference to?

Uzuki
Guest
Uzuki

There’s a MLP inspired game and one of the unicorn shots that every time she casts a offense spell. Unfortunately you do this a lot so that one phrase gets stuck in your head.

SilentPony
Guest
SilentPony
Benson
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Benson

That. Was. Amazing.

Mike Wallace
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Mike Wallace

An early contender for Best of 2016, maybe?

Sean Huckel
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Sean Huckel

I think it’s going to be in my top 5-10, barring 2016 becoming a truly great year. More legitimate moments in my 3-ish hours of play that gave me a genuine reaction than most 20+ hour triple A games have.

Gentleman Bork
Guest

This game looks pretty legit, don’t get me wrong, but I think the biggest contender for 2016’s GOTY has to be Fallout 5: The new one

iamagiantcat
Guest
iamagiantcat

at the same time dark souls 3 is on it’s way, fingers crossed

Sean Huckel
Guest
Sean Huckel

I look forward to a day when most have played this and we can talk about it. Because I think this game is even more meta than it’s outwardly trying to be, but getting into that means spoilers, so obviously can’t talk about that here.

SavingPrincess
Guest
SavingPrincess
The comments here by people are so amusing… calling it pretentious… calling it “repetitive trash.” I am overwhelmed by the massive “WOOSH” sound this game is making with some of the audience. I feel bad for the developer, half his audience isn’t smart enough to enjoy his product… and that’s not a “wah I’m so smart” comment, I genuinely feel bad that people are either writing this off before getting deep into the experience, or are playing through it and thinking it’s a “one-trick pony.” /lol Undertale was cute, which brought people in, this game is not “cute,” and actively… Read more »
Richard Claus
Guest
Richard Claus

you’re excrement. and full of yourself. are you smart enough to get that?

showersack.

SavingPrincess
Guest
SavingPrincess

No joke, get some professional help man. That ain’t healthy.

Richard Claus
Guest
Richard Claus

so that’s a no then?

SavingPrincess
Guest
SavingPrincess

Seriously, whatever impulse you felt to reply this way to some stranger you don’t even know… it’s not a good thing. I hope things get better for you.

Richard Claus
Guest
Richard Claus

good grief, you’re a snooty patronizing cat and when this unsurprisingly rubs other cats the wrong way your response is to be even more condescending snooty and patronizing? makes me glad i don’t know you.

Wait what
Guest
Wait what

I sincerely look forward to more articles added to the tag “Satan n’ Shit”.

Aiwass
Guest
Aiwass

I’d quite like to play it, but I feel like it’s been ruined a bit by watching both Jim and VideoGamerTV play it.

TheTopHat
Guest
TheTopHat

You know with games like undertale and pony island, we might find a renaissance/resurgence of adventure games on steam in the coming year

Chris N
Guest
Chris N

It takes more than a year to build something like this, really. To really nail not just the theme but also the execution takes a lot of time iterating. Maybe 2017, but probably not anything really noteworthy in 2016.

spyro2060
Guest
spyro2060

Na, we’ll definitely see games trying to copy the likes of Undertale and this, but they’ll just be crappy Steam Early Access games or Steam Greenlight games, it’s like the walking simulators, they all want to be the Stanley Parable with none of the effort

Manioc
Guest
Manioc

Makes sense, we’ve already seen a revival of the CRPG genre, which also had its heyday in the 90’s. Both were also genres largely abandoned by big-budget publishers.

I suspect RTS games will be next. The market is ready for a game which brings back the simple magic of the original Starcraft.

Robert Williams
Guest
Robert Williams

I also found myself talking to the game – “Yup. You got me. Fine. “

Sean Huckel
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Sean Huckel

Same. Absolutely loved every minute of it.

xCROOKEDx
Guest
xCROOKEDx

Me too, I’ll totally admit I shift-tabbed at that one part.

Lasse Andersen
Guest
Lasse Andersen

I did one further and alt-tabbed. XD
Incidentially the best sequence in the whole game.

Mandrake42
Guest
Mandrake42

I did it too, and by that stage I should have known better.

Dragongelf
Guest
Dragongelf

Good to know I wasn’t the only one who did that. Clever little bastard game.

TheTopHat
Guest
TheTopHat

But there’s one question that hasn’t been answered by this game: Is friendship magical?

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