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.

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.

Overblown Ego
Guest
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.

Tyler Cataldo
Guest
Tyler Cataldo

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

Newbiespud
Guest
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!

Yaro
Guest
Yaro

This looks like a stoner game.

Coolg82
Guest
Coolg82

Are the TFA references real? Thats very current.

prh99
Guest
prh99

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

RotwangRevived
Guest
RotwangRevived

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

CaitSeith
Guest
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
Guest
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?

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!

Mike Wallace
Guest
Mike Wallace

An early contender for Best of 2016, maybe?

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.

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

Robert Williams
Guest
Robert Williams

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

TheTopHat
Guest
TheTopHat

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