Poncho is a puzzle platform game by Delve Interactive (published by Rising Star Games) that explores what life would be like without the existence of humanity. Players take on the role of Poncho, a robot wearing a poncho (naturally), who wakes up to discover humanity has been extinct for several centuries. With their human masters long gone, robots have formed tribes and communities of their own in an attempt to regain a sense of purpose in life. Despite how past events have unfolded, the small robot Poncho is tasked with the responsibility of finding his maker and discovering the true fate of humankind.
The defining feature of this Wii U eShop title is the ability to shift between the background and foreground of each level; this mechanic is similar to the plane shifting skill in Mutant Mudds. The difference here is that this manoeuvre can be executed at any time via a single button press. This approach to level design has enabled Delve Interactive to create what it describes as an open-world platform game, with the small robot required to regularly leap from one plane to another, exploring every nook and cranny of the surrounding environment. Fortunately, any mistakes made along the way do not result in a loss of lives. Poncho allows players to fall off ledges or get hit by moving blocks an infinite amount of times, and then reset in a safe zone.
The layer shift mechanic takes a while to adapt to, and is performed with the L and R buttons. The level design is inspired by the story, and includes urban locales that were once bustling hubs occupied by humanity that have now been reclaimed by mother nature. The pathways in each level are often unclear at first, as a result of the overgrowth and layering, but this is all part of the adventure the developer intended to create. To progress in each level certain switches must be activated, gates will need to be unlocked with keys and shifting platforms have to be jumped across. Each level builds on these fundamentals, and eventually interlaces these mechanics together to raise the overall complexity. An advanced puzzle may require a switch that needs to be activated in the background, and then Poncho must jump onto a moving platform in the foreground, and then jump off again at a certain point before it stops moving. Many of these puzzles are trial and error - which will inevitably frustrate some players - until it finally clicks after several attempts.
There are many other challenges to overcome in each level, such as special zones which prevent the use of shifting mechanic and teleportation devices that send Poncho to a completely different area. These teleportation sections often contribute to a bigger puzzle's solution. Red, blue and green keys also play a vital role - they enable the player to proceed beyond a certain part of a level, provided they have collected the correct key. Otherwise Poncho must resort to buying keys with local currency, from a robot vendor located in certain areas.
The puzzle elements of Poncho are quite a challenge, but once the concept of the layer shift mechanic is grasped and an understanding of block movement is developed, the rising difficulty of the game becomes more tolerable. It is easy to get lost in levels due to this layering, but thankfully each area is filled with exciting details, including randomly generated ecosystems of creatures, all co-existing and reacting to Poncho's movements. This somewhat eases the pain. The fellow robots that occupy the human ruins and settlements are also very talkative, and have many lines of dialogue that provide interesting insights and comedic relief in between each challenge. Unfortunately though, the excessive use of essentially the same layer switch puzzles wears thin over time, and greatly detracts from the overall experience.
According to Delve Interactive, the graphics in Poncho were inspired by old school SEGA titles. This is present through the 2D pixel artwork and also the moving 3D parallax layers. It's very much reminiscent of titles such as Sonic the Hedgehog on the Mega Drive. The music blends in nicely with the backdrops, with fitting tunes that feel relevant to the many prominent themes featured throughout the game including mother nature, isolation, extinction and self-discovery.
One last point to make is about the controls. Poncho can only be played with the Wii U GamePad, even though no second screen is required; only one screen, either on the GamePad or television, is used. A Pro Controller in a puzzle platforming game such as this would have been appreciated and it's a crying shame so many indie platform titles on the Wii U do not include Pro Controller support. Despite this shortcoming the controls are still highly responsive, making dealing with the tough platform challenges a lot more bearable.
Credit must be given to Delve Interactive for encouraging exploration in a genre that is regularly perceived as one of the most linear gaming experiences on offer. The complication of this depth is the fact the platforming and puzzle elements of Poncho become quite a test over time, and often require an excessive amount of trial and error. This title is not for faint-hearted players as a result; each puzzle and platform element can be cruel despite the infinite retry feature. There is no hand holding and there is no instantaneous sense of accomplishment or joy as you would receive from a more traditional platformer. Check out Poncho if you enjoy puzzle problem solving within a slower-paced platforming game environment, otherwise think carefully before trying it out.