The Switchblade Monkeys booth was one of the more popular stops at the all encompassing PAX East Indie Megabooth thanks to its highly addictive Secret Ponchos twin-stick shooter for the PS4 (there’s a Steam Early Access version too.) I got some hands-on time with the game’s free-for-all mode (there’s also a PvP, and a Team Deathmatch modes) with a little coaching from Jared Fry, who is the lead digital artist on the game, and responsible for porting the concept art into a 3D game world.
Jared set me up to play on a big screen HDTV, so I didn’t get to experience Secret Ponchos’ split-screen setting, but the game will support local co-op once it launches. The demo allowed us to pick from nearly all of the included characters, but Jared suggested I try out The Killer first, who is a duster wearing cowboy with a hellacious revolver and deadly accuracy with a blade. Each of the fighters has two weapons, as well as alternate fire modes for the weapons that can be toggled with the right shoulder button. The Killer’s revolver offers high damage and range, while his knife is perfect for melee situations. In addition to the two weapons, each fighter also has a quick evade move that requires time to recharge, and they can also take cover to hide from the seven other killers looking to score a quick kill.
In my first free-for-all match it took a bit of time to get used to the controls, but they still felt very familiar to other twin-stick shooters. The biggest mental block I had was with reloading my pistol on a regular basis. Most of the fighters don’t have automatic weapons since the game is set in a Wild West setting, so it’s very easy to burn through a revolver’s six measly rounds thanks to Secret Ponchos’ fast and frenetic fire fights. There’s no auto-reload either, so if you keep hearing metal clanking on metal, it’s time to reload, and I found that out the hard way with multiple deaths due to shooting blanks.
Once I got that mechanic down though, The Killer’s powerful revolver really started to shine, which helped to earn me a few kills and deep satisfaction. I found his knife to be very useful as well, but due to the constant chaos of seven other fighters all gunning each other down, the knife is best used in one vs. one situations, or to clean up the hard work of your foes by stealing a few cheap kills.
The pace of a Secret Ponchos match is intense and chaotic thanks to the tight map size and various obstacles to hide in, as well as the varying character abilities and weapons. A typical match plays out like a Wild West shootout on speed. Eight players are thrown into a match with no other goal but killing each other as quickly and efficiently as possible using only the weapons at their disposal.
Thanks to the different characters and their abilities, multiple strategies have to be employed though, so it’s not just a cluster of bullets and random button mashing. Some of the characters offer a higher damage rating, while others may have a higher fire rate, or even quicker running speeds. The Killer moves at a slower methodical pace, but his weapon has a far range, so he can be used to pick off other players that are fighting each other in groups without getting up close and personal. I also played as Kid Red, who is much more nimble than The Killer, and also has a quicker rate of fire, but his dual pistols aren’t nearly as powerful as The Killer’s single revolver, so I had to rely on his quickness to be competitive rather than his power.
Secret Ponchos’ gameplay is definitely its selling point, but I also became a big fan of its art design. I couldn’t help but be reminded of The Incredibles, or other Pixar produced films when looking over the character models, who each echo the art style used in those properties. Don’t get me wrong though, the fighters of Secret Ponchos are dark and gritty, and feel like they’d fit well in a violent graphic novel, so this game isn’t Disney-ized whatsoever. The two maps I got to play also showcased some impressive textures and lighting, as well as varied environments to make them stand out from each other. The maps did offer a bit of strategy thanks to the various bits of cover strewn throughout them, as well as health pickups, which can make or break an intense gun fight.
After getting some hands-on time with Secret Ponchos at PAX East I’m even more excited to check out the final build once it releases sometime this year. Currently, a fixed release date hasn’t been revealed for the PS4 version, but the Steam Early Access version should hit PCs sometime this summer. The small team at Switchblade Monkeys has taken the momentum they received by being included in Sony’s 2013 E3 press event, and used it to make a great playing game that will surely keep competitive gamers and friends rooted in its Wild West setting for hours on end. If you’ve been following this game’s progression since last June I can say without hesitation that it’s on track to be a must-play indie title on the PS4 or PC.
Secret Ponchos is set to hit the PS4 and PC later this year.
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