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

Leave a Reply

122 Comments on "Pony Island Review – Diablo Ex Machina"

avatar
Ruaridh Blake
Guest
Wow, what is with all the hate for this game? I heard about it from this review, bought it on Jim’s recommendation and have loved every second of it so far (although I admit I’ve not finished it yet. :P) I mean, this game is 5 USD, and it’s a great way to spend a little bit of time. It’s fine if you don’t like it, but seeing comments saying that it’s ‘critic bait’ are, in my opinion, taking it a bit far. It’s a small game that has a cool idea and enough originality to keep you interested. For… Read more »
lovestospooge
Guest

I like how he could have made a cheerful mobile game with the pony blowing away butterflies, but had to make it edgy to be noticed. I got the point… didn’t I??? yes, yes I did…. think ill give myself a celebratory pat on the rear.

Bosch
Guest

Edgy comedy about Satan as a miserable, incompetent game programmer.
Extreme Sunday drive through the park.
Heavy metal shopping for fresh vegetables.
Hardcore rubbing a puppy’s belly.
So-intensely-extreme-your-reproductive-organs-will-launch-out-your-throat-to-the-sound-of-a-power-chord deciding on what tablecloth to bring to the picnic.

Ann O. Nymus
Guest
With all do respect Jim, but if you want your scores to mean something, I think you need to get some perspective and chill the hype before deciding on one. Is this game good? Sure, it’s alright. But at the same time I can’t help but notice how Undertale did the same thing both sooner AND better, while at the same time not feeling the need to constantly yell “look look, I am so meta” at me. Undertale also had more content and more humor (which, as it prooved, does nothing to undermine the creepyness if done properly). All in… Read more »
Inos
Guest
I just want to BAAAAAAA really loudly whenever someone complains that they were left “disappointed” because, ostensibly, they bought a game based on a single review and came to realize the review didn’t match their subsequent experience. All review scores are a numeric quantification of an opinion. Why do people expect a reviewer’s personal opinion (including the numeric score) to match their own? *EVEN IF* it has on previous occasions? As an example, a friend and I can love “Lion King” and disagree as to the relative scoring of “Aladdin” compared to it. “All in all, do you really think… Read more »
m0ng00se3
Guest

When Jim rates a game highly I tend to take notice because I like a lot of things Jim likes.

High ratings from him just seem to mean “actually worth a look” with his pick-a-number-any-number system rather than “a better way to spend time than a different game,” though

Steve
Guest
What makes you presume Jim “wants [his] scores to mean something”?? I’d say he’s made it more than clear on many occasions that his scoring system isn’t a quantitatively-justifiable series of algorithms to determine a number which accurately and objectively reflects the game in question. It isn’t, and has never been, his intention that you can stick all of his reviews in a table and compare and contrast them to create some sort of game quality control chart. Jim is a human being, just like you! And like you (and all other human beings) he has feelings, and can experience… Read more »
Ann O. Nymus
Guest
I didn’t say he wants to, hence the “if”. I do think there are good reasons to want to, namely that it makes them more useful to his readers. And just because it’s probably impossible and definitely frickin’ hard to make scores 100% accurate and objective doesn’t mean one shouldn’t try to get them as close as possible. And yes, while having a look at the (hopefully) constructive criticisms of your work never hurt anyone, of course Jim doesn’t *have* to defend his reviews to anyone. Never said he did; I offered my opinion and he can take it or… Read more »
prh99
Guest

It’s a review, and the score is a very loose quantification of Jim’s opinion of a game which makes objectivity impossible. As for accuracy, that’s down to quantifying his experience. There is no objective measure here, everything is subjective and filter through the lens that is Jim’s mind.

Also Undertale should have nothing to do with it, the games aren’t comparable on think but a very basic level.

Kylr Avery
Guest

“Same thing.”

If you think both this game and Undertale are “doing the same thing”, then you are missing something important in your understanding one of those games.

Brad Fang
Guest

I got stuck early and moved on. I guess I should keep going, huh?

Richard Claus
Guest

no. it’s a waste of time. go play something worthwhile instead. i regret finishing it.

xbb1024
Guest

When I read ‘Metal Gear Solid, The Stanley Parable’, I got excited for a second thinking that somehow Kojima had made a combination of both games

Nathan Stapleton
Guest
So… The Metal Gear Parable? I hope that be Kojima’s next game. Everything in the press info and stuff would be about literal metal gears rather than bipedal nuclear tanks. Then the twist is Konami actually are THE Patriots and the Metal Gear series is actually a warning about them planning the take over the world with Pachinko machines based on beloved properties and we just didn’t realize it. Then we all play them again and, knowing their true intent, realize that IS what they were about (rather blatantly too) but we were too dumb to realize it until it… Read more »
Dave Dogge
Guest

Is this a game for Bronies or Cloppers ?

Ian Smith
Guest

Absolutely nothing to do with MLP.

thatdamnrat
Guest

I don’t actually think it has anything to do with MLP, at least based on Jim’s Squirty Play.

Crenando
Guest

Did I miss something? This game is incredibly simple and downright boring, what’s with all this hype?

RagAndBoneMan
Guest

I don’t think it is just boring, I think it is trying to hard to be clever. Should have been a browser game.

Jpkurihara
Guest

It’s a very clever game in how it toys with the forth wall.

Just Some Guy
Guest

There’s various games like Goat Simulator that people, particularly gaming critics, have come to refer to as PewDiePie bait games, due to the seemingly apparent appeal they would have to gaming streamers. Well, stuff like this which try, so, hard, to be different, and “clever” I think should be called gaming critic bait games.

Gwathdring
Guest
Because no one’s trying to jump on the Look I’m Cool bandwagon when they say they like some of the most well selling, most profitable games of all time like various CoD games? This logic is all bent out of shape. Look, I know the whole hipster-shtick exists but that’s not most people. If you want to look cool and hip and like you fit in … you don’t brag about the new cool indie game you played you brag about how good you are at the biggest, most popular AAA release. When you talk about marginal sub-cutlures and their… Read more »
Just Some Guy
Guest

Actually, bragging about loving that new indie game critics can’t shut up about, while bashing the living heck out of the AAA gaming industry is **exactly** what you do these days to come off as hip, and cool. Seriously, look around, there is a **LOT** of that going on.

Gwathdring
Guest
This is the eternal danger of anecdotes. Something you perceive to be more common than you would expect it to be can easily assert itself as your perception of the new normal. But you need to assess that perception critically–what games are actually the most talked about? What games are actually the most popular? In film, we have a term for these sorts of hot films that get disproportionately loud buzz relative to the size of their audience–“cult films.” There are video games that attract the same sort of following; that without actually being “cooler” or more popular than the… Read more »
Daryl Ward
Guest

Just Some Guy: I got the exact same feeling when playing this: Gaming Critic Bait.

I also agree with how it is a clever game: lots of novel ideas.

But, for a game that bases it’s central narrative around stealing souls, it has no real ‘soul’ of it’s own. It felt pretty damn cold playing it.

So i think it’s a great achievement, but not exactly standing ovation, near flawless work that Jim sees it as.

Benj
Guest
“Critic bait” doesn’t work quite so well as Pewdiepie bait because it’s a constantly shifting category. What’s new and inventive is changing all the time and like with “Oscar bait” films there’s still a clear expectation of quality there. Nothing bombs so hard as someone who acts like they’re much cleverer than they are. It’s appealing to a taste whereas Pewdiepie bait games aren’t really designed to be enjoyable to play, only enjoyable for streamers to react to. It’s not your taste apparently and that’s fine, you don’t have to go down the “I bet lots of fans are only… Read more »
Just Some Guy
Guest
These critic bait games games go out of their way to try to be different, “clever,” and different, yes I said different twice on purpose. Regardless of what sort of games are the current “in thing,” if you look at a game, and get the idea it’s trying very hard to not be that “in thing,” then the description will always fit. Then it’s very clear that there’s a lot of mob/sheep mentality going on, saying I suspect that’s part of what’s going on when when some obscure something blows up in popularity as some of these sort of games… Read more »
Benj
Guest
Mob mentality on the internet exists for a bunch of stuff, I don’t dispute that, nor do I see any reason to consider it when evaluating the quality of a game. Criticisms of something based on the behaviour of the fans is almost always irrelevant (except multiplayer where you are actually interacting with fans when you’re playing) Perhaps you don’t like games that go against the grain and try and do something new or out of the ordinary, that’s fine everyone’s different. My distaste was the use of term “bait” to dismiss/ undermine something that doesn’t appeal to your own… Read more »
HisDivineOrder
Member
I think this is the kind of game someone who plays games every single day for hours on end, even when they don’t like said games and don’t want to be playing said games, for years upon years… this is the kind of game that does something different. And as a result, critics like if it does it well and often if it does it in some way that’s surprising. Games with hype are often not going to live up to it, especially to the game-world-weary game critic. This is the same reason long games that give gamers good value… Read more »
Gwathdring
Guest
I don’t think that’s entirely fair, because it leaves out just how familiar a lot of these games are. I don’t write reviews for money. I don’t buy every major release. Mostly, I play games a year or more after release and get them on discount. I still follow the latest games in press and I still try to play as many games as I can afford the money and time for. But, personally, I like novelty. I like interesting systems. I think you’re radically understating how much those things appeal to “regular” gamers outside the professional elite. I think… Read more »
Just Some Guy
Guest

Yes, yes, I, and I imagine most people get that, as especially after something like Mad Max which went over well with players, but bombed for many critics, we’ve been seeing, and hearing about that for a while now. It’s just tiring to see another game that comes into the room with a marching band proclaiming how exceedingly “different” it is, and is then showered with praise by many critics.

Milestone_RP
Guest
The best part about this game is how Satan appears to actually be actively, behind the scenes,working his little black heart out to try to actually improve his game. Then you get to the “full release version” bit of the game. And you mutter to yourself “good on you, Satan. Ya did it.” Then you realize that Satan did a better job polishing his game than about 90% of everything released via Greenlight this year, and 110% of everything coming out of Digital Homicide. Hey, it even crashed less often than your average Ubisoft or Activision PC port this year!… Read more »
Chimera
Guest
Totally agree. The Magic Circle is/was more of a game that dealt with the metanarrative/critique of games as games, or the industry that produces them. In may ways, The Magic Circle and Pony Island are two games trying to make similar statements through entirely different means. Much like the Beginner’s Guide, but in a more cynical, devs-be-crazy light, The Magic Circle and Pony Island are games that use its meta angle to talk about the game’s industry rather than the player. That’s where Undertale’s meta differs. Its a narrative that affects you personally, and the morals of your choices when… Read more »
thatdamnrat
Guest

Ubisoft and Activision more evil than Satan confirmed.

Johnggernaut
Guest

So the game appears to be one thing while delivering another? I thought only AAA titles did that ;P

Za_Docta
Guest

I think it should have microtransactions to appeal to mobile gamers.

xCROOKEDx
Guest

Put your face to the screen for PREMIUM EDITION PONY ISLAND!

Mandrake42
Guest

Don’t listen to him, that costs your soul!

Janio
Guest

Where are my reviews about Sumoha for adult game commentary. And why is there a The after the www ? Me what my Sumoha, Sake and Sushi. Me thinking Konami taking a pony mickey with jim?

thatdamnrat
Guest

Okay, what did that mean in English?

Janio
Guest

Surf to http://www.jimquisition.com and let chrome auto translate the page and you will see.
Also click on the weblink on the page. Sumoha is romantic which is satire in this case.

thatdamnrat
Guest

Chrome, eww.

Janio
Guest

yup

KetchupBBQ
Guest

Really really brilliant game. Played through it in one sitting after a friend did the same and they watched. Then we watched another friend play through it all.
The only weakness I would say is the regular ending without all the tickets. Running bit went on just waaaaay too long.

Mandrake42
Guest

There is a different ending if you get all the tickets?

KetchupBBQ
Guest

Yep! A much more satisfying one imo

Mandrake42
Guest

Cool. I have most of them and I notice now Ive finished I can jump to any act, so Ill have to go back and nab the last one and see the other ending. Thanks for the heads up!

Clark Kent
Guest
The comparison with Undertale is quite obvious indeed. An other oneI would draw is with The Magic Circle in the way you are not only playing the game, but also toying with it, constantly breaking the rule and making your own in the hope to escape it. I found my main criticism during the ending, though. Although not bad, it tries the same thing as Undertale at the end of a pacifist run, except it didn’t create the huge emotional attachment for the world and its characters that UT had and thus fell flat. That made me realize that although… Read more »
SaburoDaimando
Guest

King Sombra. Is that you? #MyLittlePony

Janio
Guest

Is it Sombra or is Sumaho :p and is it thejimquisition or jimquisition dot com ?

negaman1020
Guest

This is THEjimquisition.com because, as I understand it, jimquisition.com without the ‘the’ is a porn site or something. Jim mentioned it in one of his videos, but I don’t know whether it’s a joke or not. gonna be frank, don’t want to find out.

Jesse Helmfall
Guest

This must be how Jack Thompson sees video games.

Mark Davenport
Guest

Looks awesome.

thatdamnrat
Guest

Something makes me think you might be biased….

Mark Davenport
Guest

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

thatdamnrat
Guest

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

Mandrake42
Guest

It’s ok thatdamnrat, I got the joke.

Sapphire Crook
Member

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

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

wvstolzing
Guest

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

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

SavingPrincess
Guest

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

The Guy
Guest

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.

Benson
Guest

Is it really that common of a saying?

Jabroni
Guest

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

Only morons use that as an “argument” anyway.

Ruud de Bont
Guest

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

Max Whiteley
Guest

Said every great artist who ever lived.

Overblown Ego
Guest

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

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

Ian Smith
Guest

So salty.

Tyler Cataldo
Guest

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

Newbiespud
Guest

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

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

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

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

A little pedantry:

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

Benson
Guest

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

wvstolzing
Guest

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
Guest

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

Lewdology PhD
Member

This looks like a stoner game.

wpDiscuz