Pony Island is more than it seems on the surface, packed with unexpected content and surprises. As a result, there will be minor spoilers in this article. If you plan to play the game, proceed with caution!
First impressions aren’t always accurate, and such is the case with Pony Island by Daniel Mullins. After purchasing the game as part of a Humble Bundle on the recommendation of a friend, I found my expectations dashed to the ground as darkness seized the game’s helm, steering Pony Island into realms of horror, madness and self-aware charm, similar to one of my personal favorites, Eversion by Zaratustra Productions.
Pony Island is, at its heart, a meta-take on game design, imagining what a video game designed by the devil might look like. As Lucifer is a little socially awkward, instead of hiring playtesters to provide feedback for his games, he captures human souls and forces them to play, eternally trapped in a state of limbo. All communication with the Devil takes place in text boxes via an in-game computer screen. The game’s text-based horror and humor are masterful, well-timed and well-delivered, drawing the player into the Devil’s twisted and self-conscious mind. As the game progresses, it becomes clear that with some help, the Devil’s game might be deleted, defeating Lucifer and freeing the playtesters from limbo.
The entire game is controlled with a mouse and keyboard, but the gameplay is comes in three different forms. Firstly, there’s the computer’s operating system, in which the player can click around, solving minor puzzles and searching for hints in Lucifer’s computer. Secondly, in order to hack into the computer and search for exploits to destroy it from within, mini logic puzzles must be solved, typically by using repeat functions and arrows to warp a key through a maze of obstacles toward an end goal. The third type of gameplay is Pony Island itself, the game of the devil’s own creation. It’s a simple runner, with a click-to-jump mechanic and a laser-beam power that shoots from a pixel-art pony’s mouth.
Any of these gameplay types could grow repetitive after a long play session, but Daniel Mullins brilliantly paces variation between each of them, ensuring that once a Pony Island level starts to grow tiresome, the story progresses and the player is quickly presented with a computer-navigation or puzzle section. For the entirety of my playthrough, I never once struggled to the point of frustration on any section, as the puzzles were fair, the jumping sections were short with frequent checkpoints, and the computer navigation sections were cleverly designed and full of hilarious trickery. My only frustrations with the game arose from the final boss battle, which was a little underwhelming in challenge after the brain-busting charm of earlier levels.
From the horrifying realization of where your character really is, to the laugh-out-loud moments of comedic dialogue with Lucifer, to the mind-bending puzzles and obscure thought process behind the whole thing, every moment of Pony Island is brilliant. The game’s controls occasionally frustrate during the Pony Island sections, and some religiously-sensitive players might find issue with some of the content, but as per the meta-narrative, that’s the point of the whole experience. The Devil was never meant to make a game, but Pony Island – the game about his terrible game – is masterful, and a must-play. Buy it.