This game wants your soul
Soft ukulele notes accompany the menu screen. Two green hills bounce up from the ground and the sun shines brightly as a pink pony majestically jumps through the valley. The words “Pony Island” dance in the purple sky inviting you to play, it’s all super cute. Below lies the options menu, you click “new game” and from there on in things get creepy.
Pony Island is a psychological point-and-click suspense game with puzzle and platform elements. Beneath the charming surface lies a sinister story of digital demons, pixel possession, corrupted files and broken code. Satan has created an arcade machine in which he has trapped hundreds of hopeless souls. There is a whole lot of meta, so you know the drill, if you want to find out what this game is really all about go play before reading this review.
Developed by Daniel Mullins Games, Pony Island takes the idea of the possessed machine and re-imagines it. Trapped in the limbo land of an old broken arcade machine the player must escape by destroying the machine’s code, defeating the devil’s evil demons and free the souls that have been damned to an eternal pixelated hell.
The game play is a selection of point-and-click navigation, puzzles and platform levels so there is a lot of variety. The puzzles are based around switching symbols to complete sequences, which are great at first but then get repetitive. The platform levels have you jumping hurdles and firing your pony laser at flying enemies obliterating everything in your path, its pretty fun. Some of the stages may take a couple of times to complete and this does put a halt to the pacing. However, both the puzzles and destruction of enemies really feel like you are trying to cleanse the machine, hacking as a kind of exorcism.
There is something immensely creepy about the visuals in Pony Island. The screen is sometimes unnervingly off balance, lines of code rushing down the screen, screen glitches and blinking icons; it does feel like a computer that’s possessed. The demented desktop holds corrupted files, old versions of Pony Island and a messenger app that allow you to talk with unknown souls. The soundtrack composed by Jonah Senzel is a brilliant mix of 8-bit beats and death metal is immense and is worth buying with the game as a bundle.
But what really makes Pony Island unnerving is its focus on the internal and external. The presentation of the game is a screen within a screen, a hint of another reality. On one occasion the game will zoom out of the 2D Pony Island screen to reveal the full arcade machine and a pair of 3D arms, your character’s arms, a glimpse of an external world. This outer reality from the demonic arcade machine poses more questions about your character and the number of realities at play. As you mess with the code it messes with your head as Pony Island leads up to an unpredictable and overwhelming ending.
Pony Island was released January 4th and is a great start to 2016. Its smart, fun and subverts the player’s expectations. It’s on steam for £4/$5 (and the OST for some extra pennies/cents) – it’s a steal.