The Good, The Bad, and the Frustrating.
“There should be more Western games,” I said to my friend whilst waiting in the lobby to play a round of Secret Ponchos. “Yeah,” he agreed, “I’m really surprised that there aren’t any Western MMOs.” “Aren’t there?” “I don’t think so,” he replied. “WildStar kinda counts, but it’s in space.” “Hang on, let me Google this.”
And so we sat and individually Googled Western-themed MMOs, with us having plenty of time to do so because of the lengthy amount of time it takes in order to join a game with a friend in Secret Ponchos. Searching for two opponents whilst he sat in my lobby, both of us left to do nothing other than scour through old IGN forum posts in which inordinately angry commenters shouted at each other about the quality of Call of Juarez, we managed to jump into one solitary game within the space of 45 minutes before giving up and playing a few one-on-ones and a couple of rounds with bots. This is one of many online-specific problems Secret Ponchos has, which is unfortunate considering that its focus is upon its competitive online multiplayer component, and because the game mechanics tucked away beneath these issues is actually a lot of fun.
Secret Ponchos occupies a unique midway point between a top-down shooter and an arena-based fighting game, with you placed on a team of up to three players before being tasked with killing off your enemies (because that’s how competitive online multiplayer games usually work). It’s deceptively simple upon first glance, offering a barebones selection of game modes and maps, coupled with two choices of weapon per character that you can switch between at will. It’s referred to as the “Most Wanted Edition” because of it boasting more content than its previous PS4 incarnation, but considering how few features are available here, its console version must have been minimalist to the point of being almost nonexistent.
However, despite the lack of variety in options available to the player, there is a far greater degree of depth in terms of its actual gameplay, with there being combos to pull off, secondary and tertiary abilities for your two weapons and strategies to learn regarding how to best confront each of the game’s ten characters. Developer Switchblade Monkeys previously stated that Secret Ponchos was heavily inspired by the fighting game genre, and it’s easy to see its influence. The game’s combatants—each boasting an appearance in keeping with the Wild West theme, ranging from sheriff through to wolf-skin-wearing Native American—have their own skills and weaknesses, and require a great deal of practice in order to master them.
Much like your Street Fighters or your Mortal Kombats, some characters are easier to master than others, though those who take a greater length of time to acclimatize to can inevitably become enviable powerhouses once placed in the hands of the right player. While you’ll face many Kid Reds online given that character’s plethora of ammo and his ability to swiftly deal out reasonable amount of damage, when pitted against a player who is well-versed in, say, the more strategic Matador, they can swiftly become dismantled. The importance of working out the advantages and disadvantages of each character is then emphasized by its team-based gameplay, and when two gangs are successfully strategizing in order to take down each other, it can lead to some truly intense shootouts.
But such instances can only take place when the game’s online multiplayer allows for it, which is woefully infrequent given its small player base. With not many people playing Secret Ponchos, ranked matches inevitably see low-rank players facing off against incredibly high-ranking players, leading to an abundance of frustratingly unbalanced encounters. Starting out in Secret Ponchos is therefore more than a little daunting, as time and time again you’ll be swatted down by players with a far greater handle on its mechanics than yourself, which isn’t exactly a problem on the developer’s behalf, but still stands to make the game less enjoyable than it should be given its addictive and rewarding gameplay.
Another problem brought about by Secret Ponchos’ small community is its connection issues. I frequently found myself locked in matches with teammates and opponents with poor latency, due to the game being forced to connect players from different regions. This ensured that during a heated match I would often find myself confronted by an enemy who was stuck walking in place, with me being able to dish out damage to them while they were prohibited from escaping my gunfire. This also leads to curious animation problems, with characters sometimes failing to visually react to certain attacks. For instance, the Madtrapper character has the ability to lay down bear traps on the ground, but when my Matador walked into the steely grasp of one, she just stood there, completely motionless, while it closed its metal jaws on her leg. Now, the Matador looks sassy with her heavy eyeliner and darling cape, but not sassy enough to disregard her limb being almost amputated.
Unfortunately, with there being no single-player campaign of note save for a rudimentary arcade mode, these problems all lead to Secret Ponchos being far less enjoyable than it should be. Though it’s a barren offering in terms of content, the surprising complexity of its core gameplay would propel it to greater heights, if not for the fact that it’s difficult to uncover these extra layers when you’re repeatedly and unfairly faced off against opponents of a far greater skill level than yourself, then forced to contend with debilitating connectivity issues.
This makes Secret Ponchos an odd prospect, in that the game itself is of reasonably high-quality save for a few gripes, but that it’s difficult to recommend given that it’s a competitive game which suffers from a dearth of people actually playing it. If you’re willing to take a chance on its number of active users potentially increasing in the future, then Secret Ponchos has much to offer thanks to its solid gameplay, with it being both accessible for newcomers and offering enough to satisfy those who wish to delve deeper into it. If you have a group of friends who are also willing to take the risk with you, you could certainly glean a lot of enjoyment out of the game, but it’s unlikely that you’ll still be playing it a couple of months down the line.