Over the past few years, there has been a resurgence of games that have tried to play with the medium, break the fourth wall, and blur the line between an isolated game narrative and the actual game. Games like Undertale and The Stanley Parable are just two of the more well known examples, and Pony Island is certainly deserving of a spot on that steadily growing list.
Pony Island Review
Platforms: PC(Reviewed), Mac, Linux
Developer/Publisher: Daniel Mullins Games
Without spending more than a single screen dwelling on the cutesy adventure the mere title may evoke, Pony Island reveals itself to be a game devised by the devil himself, one built from shoddy code on archaic hardware, and can only be beaten by exploiting the faults in its design and hack your way to victory. From that relatively simple starting point, Pony Island evolves as you play, showing a remarkable level of ingenuity and cleverness as the game evolves both mechanically and narratively into a very tightly constructed and well devised narrative. Downtime is provided to keep its twists fresh, certain moments glimmer in my mind as truly spectacular, and it’s characters managed to hold a surprising level of appeal given how often they are seen.
The story naturally goes deeper, as Pony Island also deals with the struggles that come the process of creating games, catering to an audience, and responding to player feedback. It actually almost makes the devil something of a relatable character, but there is also this underlying gag that I could not help to see once the game began to reference free to play elements by replacing money with the player’s soul. Because free to play games are something the devil would learn from or something along those lines… Moments like these are thankfully few and far between, and only exist on blemishes for what is an engaging story at the end of the day. It is about the experience more than anything else, and there is more than enough about this game that ‘got’ me for me to wholeheartedly recommend it based on those instances alone.
Not that Pony Island lacks in regards to its gameplay, or it does not service the plot. It is primarily divided between three forms of play, all of which start simple and easy enough, but gradually grow in complexity as mechanics are steadily added at a rate that is very manageable, not frustrating, and not particularly difficult. The runner segments, hacking, and general desktop tomfoolery all have their own unique quirks, and can actually be quite enjoyable on their own, even if the themes place them in a more cynical light.
Of course, this is due in no small part to the presentation of Pony Island, which is presented on a virtual screen made to resemble an old disserviced arcade machine that displays a mostly monochrome game that could easily be dismissed as retro. This low tech appearance actually does wonders to help reinforce the theme of breaking and hacking an old computer running on simply constructed software that itself changes as you go on. The soundtrack apes the more retrofitted visuals in spirit, producing a series of concussive and rumbling themes that really do put a nice bow on the production at large.
I feel there is little more I wish to say about Pony Island other than imploring people to go play it. It is a short little experience that surprises, delights, and entices while maintaining a rather high string of standards. It is the latest installment in an ever growing of deconstructive titles that are doing their darndest to advance the medium into a better future, and is well worth experiencing such.