Pony Island is a fairly short (~3 hours) horror puzzle game where you fight for the souls of the damned in Satan’s arcade via what I’m sure everyone agrees is the pinnacle of artistic mediums, two-dimensional pony games. Disenfranchised after his work in the Bible, Satan has been busy as an indie game developer, and is currently working on the twenty-somethingth iteration of his magnum opus, Pony Island (yes, there is a game called Pony Island within a game called Pony Island). The Prince of Darkness is naturally though unintentionally terrible at coding and game design, an inconvenient circumstance which continues to thwart his Big Dream of making a game people actually like.
Now it’s up to you to beta-test this hellish, horse-themed endless runner, traversing fences, flying across bottomless pits, and shooting lasers at wizard goblins. Save the imprisoned souls of the arcade as you hack your way through Pony Island’s terrible source code and the artefacts of its entire development history, including the early text-adventure version, the 3D version, the adventure game version, and the version with a mascot.
Unlike Seitan, Pony Island creator Daniel Mullins is not terrible at coding and game design. In fact, he is pretty good at coding and game design, although his spritework leaves a bit to be desired, insert butterfly here. The whole thing, which is probably 90% two-dimensional and includes only a handful of 3D elements, is nonetheless programmed in Unity. Pony Island gameplay, including the endless runner, the hacking puzzles, and the computer interface sections, is all-around solid and well planned.
In fact, I would in no uncertain terms play the first of these modes as a fully fleshed out, non-ironic experience, which is almost definitely an accident, as Pony Island itself is supposed to be terrible. For example, only one level in “Adventure Mode” offers the experience points — Exp Beach, at just 1 point per round — required to reach your first hundred-point level up, which grants you the wings necessary to finish the game. Satan expects you to tackle this challenge without any cheats. Despite his incompetence, however, flying over pits and firing lasers is a fun activity that all humans naturally enjoy, and you will too!
Truly though my favorite segments are the puzzle intermissons, in which you guide an arrow through various “programming” commands by replacing certain blocks in the sequence. What I love about these puzzles is that they are situated on a nearly perfect learning curve; the instructions are intuitive and new rules are implemented gently so as to make things neither too easy nor too difficult.
And for those who like interacting with pretend computer interfaces for unknown reasons, as I do, there’s good news! Whenever you manage to crash Pony Island horribly, which happens fairly often as Satín likes to alter the code while you are playing, you’ll be able to mess with the arcade machine data* and user accounts in order to hack teh Gibson and ultimately destroy the machine. Here you communicate through a chat interface with one Hopeless Soul, who urges you to destroy the three “core files” in order to liberate the thousands of trapped spirits from the game, which means you can spam him with all sorts of messages the AI is not built to understand, and rifle through the files on Satin’s desktop, like the incedribly juicy “triangle.png.”
* Messing with the actual game’s registry keys produces an altogether different result.
Though the elements are all in place for a typical game-is-secretly-haunted story, Pony Island has no intentions of hiding its altogether sinister origins. It’s also not — perhaps to the interest of you who read this blog yet do not like horror games(???) — entirely scary. Or at all scary. There are no surprises, jump scares, or leftover processes that cause Zalgo Pinkie Pies to appear at alarming intervals after you close the game. The soundtrack is enjoyable but evokes no anxiety or suspense. Pony Island really is just a fun puzzle game at three in the morning that plays like a museum tour of the developers’ expertise. Satan makes for a good comedic villain and an even better troll. He’s funny and I like having him around. Feel free to quote that out of context; I even made a button for you.
Obviously this sort of game has to be self-referential — the third boss tempts you to lose a staring contest of sorts by imitating Facebook chat sounds and the Steam overlay — but the relationship between Pony Island and the player’s reality is not clear. You are playing as a man playing a game, but you yourself are also a part of the game, and while most of the lost souls are imprisoned inside the arcade machine, Hopeless Soul is “trapped” inside the Pony Island executable, and is able to communicate both through the arcade messaging interface and directly with the player. Sweet mother of Undertale!
My verdict is that this game is a worthwhile $5 buy. I liked it more than, say, Year Walk, which was maybe a little less content but for a slightly higher price. The hidden ticket collectibles, Steam achievements, and surprising number of secrets reward repeat playthroughs of certain sections. (For those who have already played the game, there’s an awesome 15-page community easter egg hunt on Steam to look through.) There are also several translations out, making this Yet Another Game Steam Auto-set to Play in Spanish, kind of like most action/stealth games I play. If you ever want a Spanish vocabulary lesson on discreetly killing people, hit me up. I have a lot of experience being yelled at for trying to kill Spanish people.