Pony Island Review

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!

Bright. Cheery.

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 Screenshot 1

Pony Island Screenshot 2

Pony Island Screenshot 3

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.

Pony Island Screenshot 4

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.

5 Stars

 

Ori and the Blind Forest Review

Ori and the Blind Forest by Moon Studios has been out for well over a year and has already seen the release of a Definitive Edition for multiple platforms, but I’ve only now just had the pleasure of playing it. Truthfully, the word pleasure is an understatement, as Ori and the Blind Forest is one of the most mind-bogglingly excellent games I’ve ever played, and is an absolute must-play for anyone with an Xbox One or a decent PC.

Ori and the Blind Forest Screenshot 1

Ori and the Blind Forest Screenshot 2

Ori and the Blind Forest Screenshot 3

The story of Ori and the Blind Forest is simple, but heartfelt. Ori, a glowing white spirit-creature, lives happily in a healthy forest, but disaster strikes when a hostile bird attacks the heart of the forest’s Spirit Tree. As in most Metroidvania games, the player must traverse the landscape, gaining new powers that enable them to travel further and grow more powerful, in order to restore balance to the world. Though the storyline might sound a little typical on the surface, the game’s audio and visual design elevate the experience to another level entirely, and I’d be surprised if even the most hardened cynic didn’t find a tear in their eye during the opening cinematic.

Ori’s gameplay, as with its visuals and audio, is transcendent. As the player gains powers and grows stronger through a simple upgrade tree, Ori’s controls become second-nature. Triple-jumps and complicated combos are no trouble for an upgraded player, and combined with the game’s incredible foley and visual effects, all combos and attacks are extremely satisfying to perform. All the while, gorgeous backdrops and lighting bring the world to life, tied together by a detailed and easily-navigatable 2D map: an essential tool in any Metroidvania, where a great deal of time is spent navigating the complex world maze. Ori moves quickly, so long distances are easy to travel, though there are always plenty of items to pick up along the way.

While the game’s chase-scene challenges prove to be quite difficult, Ori can save the game in any safe area, provided that his Soul Link meter is fully charged. It’s a wonderful addition to the game, and results in the player only needing to backtrack or replay an area if they failed to set a proper checkpoint for themselves. The game’s progression is well-paced and addicting, and while the game can be finished with 100% completion in only a few hours, the entire experience is so memorable and beautiful that the short completion time is completely tolerable.

Ori and the Blind Forest Gif

Ori and the Blind Forest is fantastic, from beginning to end. The controls are spot-on, the sound design is gorgeous and rich, the visuals are striking, charming and varied, and the overall experience is tied together beautifully with a heartfelt story and addicting game progression. If you’re running a decent PC and are a fan of Metroidvanias, 2D platformers or classic action adventure games, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Buy this game.

6 Stars

 

Developer Spotlight: AwkwardNaut

Today’s Developer Spotlight is on AwkwardNaut, a 2-person team based out of Belgium, currently working on the space roguelike Far Ago.

AwkwardNaut

Thanks for chatting with me, guys! Can you talk for a minute about who you are, and what Far Ago is all about?

Thibaud Gayraud: I’m a Unity game developer, and I started AwkwardNaut one year ago. On the way I encountered Marcus Drake. He was interested in my work and I fell in love with his musical talent. We are now working together on this big project.

Marcus Drake: I’m an eccentric composer from Chicago. I’ve been running a DIY Chicago label called Grandpa Bay and performing in bands for many years, but I recently started to refocus more on composing for games and film. When I stumbled upon AwkwardNaut, I was so impressed that I reached out to Thibaud. We made a pact signed in blood and the rest is history!

Far Ago is an FTL-like kind of game. The game has a huge tactical aspect due to the different type of modules you can equip your ship with, and the destruction system that can strip apart important pieces of your build. With Far Ago, it’s all about choices. Some situations can be handled peacefully while some will require a less subtle approach. Another important part of the game is that every new level is a step back in time, meaning that you can cause ludicrous paradoxes. These paradoxes will be important, but in what way? This we will keep a secret.

As Far Ago is a roguelike, what are your primary considerations when it comes to developing your algorithms for procedurally generated content? How do you keep the content feeling fresh and purposeful when you don’t have complete control over every last pixel?

TG: This is the most challenging part, as keeping every bit of the scenario in line with every quest can quickly become a real mess. Add paradoxical events to that, and now you have your very own 42x42x42 Rubik’s cube! To achieve this, you have to carefully choose the conditions that will drive the creation of every level. Keep everything in easily reusable little boxes. If this is done correctly, you just have to make sure that those boxes are fun to play with and that they can mix together to create interesting challenges for players to overcome.

How long have the two of you been in game development? And when did you decide that you wanted to work in the industry in this capacity?

TG: It was always a dream of mine. I started creating some small Flash games inspired by what I found on websites like Newgrounds when I was 13. I later went into art school and graduated in infographic design with a specialization in video games.

MD: I’ve been a musician for a while, always very inspired by video game soundtracks and have always wanted to create them myself! It took me a while to build a decent portfolio, but through being very active in the Chicago music scene, it all eventually started to come together. Recently, I decided to pursue composing as a career. And I’m very honored to be working with someone as innovative and talented as Thibaud!

Far Ago looks really sharp! Could the two of you talk for a bit about your biggest visual and musical influences for the game?

TG: I’m a fan of the Youtube channel Kurzegesagt – In a Nutshell. I’m a big fan of the minimalist aspects in their videos. The visual universe of Edmund McMillen (The Binding of Isaac, Super Meat Boy) is also a big inspiration.

MD: I’m not the biggest aficionado of dubstep, but recently I have been very intrigued by the production and the futuristic/apocalyptic tone brought on by artists who dabble in that genre. So, while there will be a lot of different elements going on, some things I want to emulate are the emotions and production techniques of what one might call dubstep, but I will be using a wide variety of mostly live, nonsynthetic instruments to make it unique. Two soundtracks I am taking inspiration from are the Earthbound OST by Keiichi Suzuki and Machinarium OST by Tomáš Dvořák.

You’ve previously released a sports minigame called Tippin’ Ball. Can you talk about the most important lessons you learned from your previous release, and how you’re looking to improve for Far Ago?

TG: Tippin’ Ball was a way for me to start making some noise around the AwkwardNaut persona I created. It’s no more than a fun project I did for people to enjoy. The biggest mistake I’ve made was to think that I would be able to do everything by myself; making a game is one thing, but the marketing around it is as important as the game itself! Now that we’ve teamed up with Marcus, we have all the skills we need to create and promote Far Ago.

MD: Tippin’ Ball was the first OST I made for Awkwardnaut and it was one of the most enjoyable writing / recording processes. While the music was a hoot to make, we also learned a lot about how to market our games better. It was a great project that led to productive discussions between Thibaud and I about indie development in general, audience interactions and the importance of transparency.

As an avid iOS gamer, when a great-looking game shows up on Steam, I cross my fingers, hoping that it will eventually be ported to mobile. Any plans to port Far Ago to iOS?

TG: Far Ago is not the kind of project that would work on mobile devices, but I’m very interested in connections between an app and a game; if the game goes well, we may be able to add some mobile connectivity for someone with a smartphone to mess with the player or to rearrange modules on the fly.

Favorite snack while developing?

TG: Pecan nuts.

MD: Steak tartare.

Most-used software during development work?

TG: Unity3D.

MD: Reaper.

Favorite game of all time?

TG: Enter the Gungeon.

MD: Ikaruga tied with Katamari Damacy.

Favorite game console of all time?

TG: N64.

MD: PS2.

Favorite smell?

TG: My Potatoe.

MD: Defeat.

If you were trapped in the game world of Far Ago, what would be your preferred method of escape?

TG: Even if it’s a dystopian world, I wouldn’t want to leave it. I want to go to space so bad!

MD: Bending the code (like my homie, Keanu).

Before we finish this interview, are there any shout-outs you’d like to make? Other favorites in your own development community? Anyone I should follow on Twitter?

TG: @ElorynPartition They are working on a very gorgeous game. Lots of poetry and very unique gameplay.
@JailBreak3014 I met him on Facebook a few weeks ago. He is currently working on a game named Foot; if you like to spit whatever you’re drinking out of your nose, you should check out his work.

MD: @moblets This is a beautiful game about farming, creatures and adventure. It’s something like Harvest Moon meets Pokemon, but very unique. I’m overly excited for it!
@InnerSpaceGame A mesmerizing flight based game being developed by @PolyKnightGames. With a really great OST by Chris Miller.

If you’d like to help AwkwardNaut launch their game on Steam, visit Far Ago on Steam Greenlight and voice your support!