Secret Ponchos is a top-down, twin stick arena shooter stylized as a Spaghetti Western – characters, locations, music, and all. Developer Switchblade Monkeys has taken their love of those old Italian movies and married it to twitch-reaction arena mechanics, creating a game that took PAX East 2013 by storm. After seeing the trailer, it was on the top of my list of must-play games that weekend, and I was not disappointed by my experience.
Platforms: PS3 (Announced), PC, Xbox 360 (Likely)
Publisher: To Be Announced
Developer: Switchblade Monkeys
Genre: Gunfight At the Overhead Corral
Release Date: Summer 2013
ESRB Rating: Rating Pending
Players can choose from six different characters, though there were only four available in the build available at PAX East. Killer is a grizzled old man whose specialty is precision shooting – he’s got a six-shooter and can fan the hammer, unloading all six on you in a spray of destruction. Kid Red dual wields his pistols and squirrels around the field, moving quickly in and out of an enemy’s reach… and, when he can, sticking dynamite to them and running away. The Deserter is a big hulk of a man with a bayonet, who can spear you and fill you with bullets – or shoulder you and stun you into submission.
But of all the characters, the most visually distinct is Phantom Poncho, whose thin frame weaves in and out of play, his whip trailing like a scarf behind him. With his short bursts of movement, he dives into the range of the other players just long enough to shoot them, then dodges back out. His whip can disarm other characters, leaving them surprised and vulnerable – just distracted enough to give him the kill.
As a sucker for dual wielders, I chose Kid Red and dove right into the action. With President and Creative Director Yousuf Mapara at my back, I was nervous, but after dying a few times, I got the hang of the control scheme and started racking up kills. The gameplay is fluid and intuitive – it felt natural to run around other players, shooting with both guns, then switch to my secondary weapon and chuck dynamite in my wake, exploding bunched-up enemies.
Bullets are infinite, but your clip isn’t, so timing your reloading is crucial. It’s also important to time your dodges as well as your resting periods, because exertion uses up your stamina. Taking cover lets you build your stamina back up and gives you a chance to reload. As you duck down into cover, you fade off of the enemy’s screen in a pixel-y way that I first mistook for a glitch. The fog of war dissipates you from their view, and they have to come around the blocking terrain in order to locate you again. This is an elegant application of cover in a top-down game, both practical and lovely in its design.
As you dance around open graves, dodging bullets and scoring powerups, you notice yet another character in the game: the background itself. Birds are disturbed at your approach, flying up into the air. Even the powerups themselves are almost camouflaged. The skull that gives you double damage looks absolutely at home next to a tombstone, as deadly as it is useful. The characters feel comfortable in this dusty town – you can imagine Poncho leaning against the outside of a saloon, lighting a cigarette; you can almost hear the Deserter’s boots tromping up the stairs, feel the tension as their eyes meet.
While there is yet to be a single-player campaign for this game – and perhaps never will be – it’s obvious that a lot of love and time went into constructing these characters, and that players will easily be able to immerse themselves in the world of the outlaws. As you kill other players, your bounty goes up, and theirs goes down, as is evinced by the leaderboard. You can also see who your nemesis is, as well as who you’ve killed the most.
Something we didn’t get to see was the character creation screen, where you get to choose your character and make customizations based on what game mechanics you want to focus on, whether it’s dealing more damage or moving more quickly. As you gain experience, you’ll gain points that you can use in various attributes, giving you the chance to make your character more unique, making the game even more immersive.
There’s little doubt that Secret Ponchos, named after Switchblade Monkeys’ original development blog, is going to be a huge hit with the gaming community. Fans of everything from Team Fortress to Unreal Tournament to Dead Nation will have no problem learning the familiar mechanics and jumping into the original and gorgeous world they’ve created. The team has confirmed the game will be available on the PlayStation Network this summer. PC and XBLA editions are also in the planning stages and will hopefully be formally announced soon.