Multiplayer-only games are finding themselves in a tricky situation these days now that gamers are expecting a bit more from them. Once upon a time, it was enough to offer an experience specially tailored for a group of friends, but now that multiplayer has become commonplace to the point of being tacked on to most games unnecessarily, multiplayer-only titles are needing to step up their game more than ever. Although Secret Ponchos has blazed onto the scene with hardly any introduction, it does present an interesting, if imperfect, alternative to standard online FPS deathmatches.
The fact that it’s been released as the free game of the month for PS Plus players works to sweeten the deal, helping to alleviate most shortcomings with the promise that updates are constantly being developed and released. Games released in an unfinished form usually get a bad reputation simply for having the gall to charge money for a product that’s still to come, but Secret Ponchos is more than functional on its own for now, despite the occasional bugs and dearth of content.
Forgoing plot for straightforward and intense deathmatches, Secret Ponchos has you immediately choose and name one of the five characters available before throwing you into battle. Although there’s no tutorial or story mode to allow you some time to figure out the core mechanics, there is an extremely helpful Rookie mode, which exists solely to allow new players to try out their characters and rise through the ranks in a low-risk environment. It’s an excellent idea that makes it easy to try out each of the five outlaws without looking like a complete idiot.
Where Secret Ponchos shines is in its creativity, which especially shows in the character designs. Each outlaw has their own specialty and weapons, leaving it up to you to learn their mechanics and choose which style works best for you. While Kid Red is an easy opener, with his quick-firing pistols and room-clearing sticks of dynamite, veterans of twin-stick shooters may be more welcoming to a character like the Phantom Poncho, whose sawed-off shotgun and whip create a devastating combination in both close-quarters and distant combat.
More difficult outlaws come in the form of the Matador, whose ranged weapons are slow to fire and reload, but whose melee capabilities can be devastating if she gets close enough to an enemy. Similarly, the Killer uses a revolver with a low firing rate and an extremely lethargic (yet extremely deadly) dagger that requires much more precision than other outlaws. Finally, the Deserter is a tank through and through, bowling over opponents and blowing them away with single shots.
You’re allowed to create many different outlaws, all of which upgrade separately, and the upgrade system that expands their abilities is actually pretty creative. Players are rewarded a bounty after each match, and after a certain price is reached for your head, you’ll earn a few upgrade points to sink into one of a few categories. Of course, if you perform poorly, your bounty will lessen, leaving you at a disadvantage. While alternative costumes are available, they can only be purchased through PSN at this point, meaning you don’t really have much else to work towards other than a higher bounty.
The combat is similar to your typical twin-stick shooter, albeit with a few twists. Characters can disappear for a few seconds if they take cover behind some scenery, and each is saddled with a small amount of stamina used to roll away from danger that is slow to refill but absolutely necessary for a clean getaway or a successful surprise attack. Outlaws are also outfitted with two distinct weapons, both of which have multiple uses that really allow for tons of improvisation and addictive battles.
The art style employed by Secret Ponchos is absolutely bursting with personality and color, making each outlaw a unique creation despite the fact that they never speak. The maps that are available, while small, are beautifully detailed, capturing the essence of old westerns perfectly, from decrepit saloons to rundown graveyards. Even if you don’t enjoy anything the gameplay has to offer, you can still appreciate the loving homages to westerns found throughout the game.
Of course, since Secret Ponchos is still technically a work in progress, it comes with its fair share of issues, especially regarding the balance of the characters. Simply put, some outlaws are overpowered, especially Kid Red. He can fire the most shots in a row, most of which have the chance to stun the target, leaving enemies a pulpy mess in just seconds. Compared to the slower, more powerful characters, Kid Red completely obliterates the competition.
There’s also a noticeable lack of content, with only a handful of battle modes available as of now. You’ve got your traditional free-for-all, team deathmatch and domination modes, but with only four maps to choose from, things get stale pretty quick. The ability to play locally with split-screen is a great addition, but it does little to add to the replay value.
Ugly bugs reared their heads from time to time as well, sometimes leaving players to freeze up mid-game and opening them up for a few free kills and other times booting me out of a game for no reason. While this is already annoying for forcing me to restart the game, Secret Ponchos takes it upon itself to punish those who leave a game in progress, meaning after I logged back on, I was greeted by a message saying I had been docked a significant amount of bounty because the game booted me from the game. It’s a major annoyance the first time around, and I can only imagine it gets more infuriating the more it happens.
As enjoyably intense as Secret Poncho can be, with outlaws diving left and right, firing six-shooters and sticks of dynamite at each other in the middle of a dusty graveyard, it’s still a work in progress that suffers from its unfinished nature. As a free release, it’s an absolute blast that should definitely make its way into your library for at least a few round, and the upgrades that are being promised could elevate it to a whole new level. Until then, however, it’s a fun title that feels incomplete and short on content.
This review was based on the PlayStation 4 version of the game.
Even though it's light on variety and replay value, Secret Ponchos still works as an excellent foundation for a potentially addictive and uniquely artistic online twin-stick shooter.