Platforms: PC (reviewed)
You should probably play Pony Island. Scratch that. You need to play Pony Island. There, that's my review. So go play it.
I'm serious here. I don't want to spoil anything for you.
Okay, fine, if you're going to keep badgering me, I'll try and explain Pony Island to you without giving away anything too awesome so that you're still surprised. But be forewarned: I can't make any promises, and even some small details may come off as a tad spoiler-ish given how novel the whole game is.
The Devil made a game about ponies
I wouldn't blame you if you refused to play a game about ponies. I wouldn't play it, either. Well, maybe I would. Anyway, Pony Island isn't so much a game about ponies as it is a game about a game about ponies, but that's not all it is. It would be easy to write off Daniel Mullins Games' project as a simple game titled Pony Island that contains a game within it, also titled Pony Island (not italicized in this review for differentiation purposes). Once you begin playing, the truth — the dark, eerie, twisted truth — is made clear.
It turns out that Pony Island is an arcade game that was created by Satan himself. It's a vile monstrosity filled with bright colors, cutesy sprites, and cheerful music. Thankfully, it breaks down the moment you start playing it. Soon after that, you go into the game's files and attempt to fix it, only to have an encounter with the embodiment of evil, Lucifer.
After he gives you a good talking to, he informs you that your soul now belongs to him and is trapped inside of Pony Island forever. Your only way out is to hack the game and delete the system's core files. This setup leads to what can easily be called one of the best gameplay experiences of 2016 thus far — which is to say that other games are going to have to step it up throughout the rest of the year.
Hack your way out of the Devil's clutches
Pony Island splits up most of its gameplay in two parts, though it features plenty of cool elements in parts that I refuse to spoil here. One part is Pony Island, the in-game arcade title that plays out like a 2D auto-runner. The other consists of hacking puzzles. These puzzles are tile-based exercises that visually resemble computer code. There are letters, numbers, and symbols jumbled all over the place, and they introduce new tiles with different effects the deeper you get.
The beauty of the puzzles in Pony Island is that they're not as impossible to grasp as they seem, even if you're not exactly all-knowing in the art of programming language. Quick observation of the text onscreen instantly yields understandable instructions. What this comes down to is a series of puzzle screens that look difficult to understand but in reality aren't, yet they still provide formidable challenges for you to overcome.
The auto-running and puzzle gameplay elements go hand-in-hand. In order to retrieve your soul, you must play through enough of Pony Island to access different files. You'll reach spots where the game breaks, and that's your cue to enter the system files and get hacking so that you can delete the core files that are keeping your soul trapped.
The way Pony Island introduces your next task always makes for a joyous experience. During the majority of my playthrough, I eagerly anticipated the next onscreen message from the Devil. These usually consisted of angry rants, and he often referred to me as a cheater for hacking Pony Island to give the in-game playable pony character the ability to fire laser beams or fly over pitfalls.
The puzzles themselves are also a massive joy to solve. Even when you get stuck, it isn't too long before you realize that the solution is right in front of you. Maybe you need to go back a menu or two, or perhaps you simply have to click around the screen to unveil a hidden icon, but it's all there.
If I have one complaint about Pony Island — and this was sort of a major issue for me — it's that the Pony Island parts aren't especially fun to play. The shorter Pony Island stages at the beginning are tolerable enough, but the longer ones can get dull and annoying. There's a particularly long level toward the end that I grew frustrated with and couldn't wait to complete so that I could get back to the good parts.
A (Beautiful) Glitchy Mess
In all its self-aware glory, Pony Island does a good job of simultaneously emulating and poking fun at both retro and indie norms. The Pony Island arcade game levels look like what you'd expect from a modern-day indie experience, and the music is appropriately catchy. The parts where you're hacking away at code look vastly different from the Pony Island parts, but they're strangely appealing to behold. There's a subtle charm to the walls of text, mixture of letters and numbers, and file icons that litter the screen when you're trying to rescue your soul from its digital prison.
You're also treated to some great audio. There are a few solid theme songs, and the sound effects are made up of blips and bleeps that fit the overall vibe. Aside from those sounds, though, there are also louder, grittier noises that reflect any glitches that occur while you're trying to get through all of Satan's code. I couldn't help but feel a bit tech-y while hacking, and the combination of sights and sounds is to thank for that authentic feeling.
It took me under three hours to get through Pony Island, and the bulk of that time was filled with genuine joy, excitement, and laughs. There are a few moments that aren't as spectacular, primarily the auto-running bits, but the overall journey is one that I won't soon forget. I'm not sure that I'd play Pony Island again, because I doubt there will be that same luster in subsequent playthroughs, but even then, I can't stress enough how magical it was playing through the game that first time.