Secret Ponchos

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Gun down enemy outlaws in frantic Wild West duels.

PC Release: October 13, 2015

By Ian Coppock

High noon. A remote western town. The sheriff’s run off with the rancher’s wife, leaving the locals cowering in fear. A solitary tumbleweed gently bounces across the heart of town; a town where two outlaws stand face-to-face, eye-to-eye, ready to draw and shoot at the slightest provocation. Only one person will be leaving town alive… but who? The jury’s out on that one, but Secret Ponchos gives players the chance to see if they could survive that encounter.

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Secret Ponchos is an isometric multiplayer shooter made by Switchblade Monkeys, a developer whose name would be perfect for the band. To hear the dev tell it, Secret Ponchos seeks to be the Spaghetti Western of video games, putting players in a highly stylized Wild West universe rife with bright colors and even brighter splashes of violence. Players choose from one of 10 deadly desperados and decide who’s king (or queen) of the Wild West in the most Wild West way possible: a hail of bullets.

Duels in Secret Ponchos can be played by two teams of up to three players. Whichever person or team can reach three victories first wins (and gets dibs on the post-duel guac). Each character carries two unique weapons into battle that define his or her style. The gunslinger Kid Red takes to the field with two revolvers and dynamite, while the originally named Killer keeps things simple with a revolver and a hunting knife. Other characters wield everything from bullfighting swords to Gatling guns.

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Apparently the Scotsman from Samurai Jack makes a cameo.

After picking a character, it’s time to face down the opponent in a good ol’ fashioned high-paced hoedown. Characters have infinite ammo on their guns but oftentimes have to contend with much more finite magazines, so be prepared to reload frequently. When ammo does run dry, players can avoid the enemy by rolling out of the way or taking cover behind a conveniently placed water trough. Secret Ponchos is a pretty forgiving game, giving players plenty of health and superhuman resistance to bullets.

Given that the first team to reach three victories wins the game, most matches in Secret Ponchos are short but intense. Players have to manage their health, keep their weapon reloaded, and keep out of range. Each weapon in Secret Ponchos has a different range, so players who prefer sharpshooting from a distance or getting up-close and personal should plan accordingly. At no point during any of this is the name “Secret Ponchos” actually explained. If the game’s gunslingers try to keep what they’re packing a secret, they don’t do a very good job.

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Disparos!

Although the matches in Secret Ponchos are pretty fun, the first-to-three mode is the only multiplayer mode the game comes packaged with. The game omits including other modes that would’ve been great for the Wild West setting, like performing a heist or bounty hunting other players. Secret Ponchos does come with an offline arcade mode for players who are more interested in  battling bots than humans, but the setup in that mode is the same as in multiplayer.

Why would anyone choose bots over multiplayer? Because, unfortunately, Secret Ponchos‘ community is deader than a deep-fried gopher. It enjoyed a glorious few months of activity when it first hit Steam in 2015, but despite the dev’s best efforts, Secret Ponchos‘ player base couldn’t be resuscitated. It’s a real shame; the game is quite good, and Switchblade Monkeys added a ton of free stuff to it over the course of 2016: more maps, more skins, more characters, and more Wild West.

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This here’s a stickup!

The other reason that Secret Ponchos‘ dead community is a shame is that the game is gorgeous. It more than delivers on its Steam store page’s promise of a pretty, stylized rendition of the Old West. The characters look like something off of the cover of a Gorillaz album, with cartoonish, exaggerated features and gaudy costumes. On top of that, the characters are well-animated. No smudgy textures, no poor anti-aliasing that can make game objects look serrated… none of that is going down in this Wild West.

Secret Ponchos‘ environments benefit from a similar blend of bright colors and stylized visuals. The map selection in the game isn’t huge, but it does succeed in delivering about a dozen diverse environments. Players can duke it out in an old gold mine, along a railroad, or outside the old saloon, to name a few examples. In addition to boasting varied level design, all of these locations are replete with in-game objects and pretty details to help make the world come alive. Secret Ponchos‘ options menu isn’t great, but its performance on PC is.

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“Stylized Murder.” Another name for the band.

Secret Ponchos also does well for itself in the sound design department. Guns kick off with enough force to shake the crows off a cow skull. Characters’ boots crunch through dirt and creak on wood with believable grittiness. Secret Ponchos‘ music isn’t too shabby either, though its low guitars and faster-paced combat music wouldn’t stand out from a lineup of songs from other Wild West media.

All of Secret Ponchos‘ art largely succeeds in imitating the Spaghetti Westerns that inspired it. Films like Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars didn’t have gaunt poncho-wearing ghosts running around, but they also didn’t shy away from using bright colors in their footage and on promotional artwork. The Spaghetti Western motif of a desolate town being fought over by two gangs is certainly brought to bear in Secret Ponchos. There is an irony in Secret Ponchos borrowing from a genre that itself recklessly took elements and sometimes entire narrative frameworks from other movies. Maybe that clandestine thievery is why the game’s called Secret Ponchos.

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Fighting for guacamole > fighting for the South.

Secret Ponchos is a good game, but there’s not much point in buying a multiplayer game whose community has ceased to exist. At this point it’s probably too late for Switchblade Monkeys to resurrect an army of gunslingers for its game, but the studio might have a few options. Lowering the price of the title or doing some kind of soft re-launch might do the trick. Going free-to-play is also an option, but that risks alienating veteran players who bought the game at its full $14.99 price. A hypothetical Secret Ponchos 2 might help bring this game’s gameplay back to the scene… but not Secret Ponchos itself.

The other part of the issue is that Secret Ponchos‘ community started chipping away in early 2016. It’s now July of 2017. Any of the options listed above would probably only have a small impact at best. The rapid decline of Secret Ponchos‘ community is a bit strange considering how fun its gameplay is, but it’s not uncommon for multiplayer titles on PC to go the way of the dodo astonishingly quickly. Apparently we PC gamers have short attention spans.

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Last stand, boys!

Secret Ponchos may very well have taken its last ride into the sunset, but it’s a fun little game for friends to pick up and play together. Like traveling through the Wild West, buying Secret Ponchos is done safest in groups. At the very least, Secret Ponchos is a noteworthy mention for its stylish adaptation of isometric gunplay in the Wild West setting. It’s looking doubtful at this point that the game’s community will ever make a roaring return, but that doesn’t mean that this Wild West legend has to vanish from history.

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You can buy Secret Ponchos here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

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