When I first completed Pony Island, a Steam game by developer Daniel Mullins, I was given an instruction. There’s absolutely no reason to follow this instruction, and in the back of my mind I knew that. But, I still did what the game asked. I’m starting the review here for two reasons. First, it shows just how powerful this game is at its best. Second, it’s one of the few interesting things about the game that I’m willing to tell you up front.
If you want to truly experience Pony Island, to the point that you too may follow the ending’s instructions, stop reading this review and give it a try. It only costs $5 on Steam, and it lasts about two or three hours. I’d rather spoil the review by telling you in the opening paragraphs that you should definitely buy the game than spoil the game itself; that’s the kind of title we’re dealing with here. But if you really aren’t sure, well, I’ll tell you what I can. You’ve been warned, though; Pony Island works best when you don’t know what’s coming.
Pony Island is really two games; there’s Pony Island the game in your Steam library, and there’s “Pony Island” the game within the game. “Pony Island” is an arcade game that’s about as simple and dull as a game can be: you play as a pony who runs forward automatically, pressing one button to jump over gates and another to blow away butterflies. You play a lot of “Pony Island” within Pony Island, but that’s only half of it.
See, you’ll find pretty quickly that “Pony Island” is actually a game made and controlled by the devil himself. Yes, literally the devil, and you’re trapped playing it. The only way out? You have to hack the inner game and find a way to delete its core files, with the help of a mysterious entity. That’s where the other half of the gameplay comes in: hacking puzzles, which involve moving around operators to lead a key to a lock. These puzzles start pretty simple, with the first just requiring you to replace loop functions with down arrows. The complexity increases steadily over the course of the game, though, and that goes for “Pony Island” as well. Some of the later puzzles were so confusing that I had to use trial and error to solve them, but none of it felt unfair.
Most of Pony Island has you playing one of these two game modes, but there’s more to it as well. As you progress, you’ll gain access to new parts of the devil’s computer, and you’ll need to click around to explore and solve puzzles. The way this “computer” is laid out is as clever as it is nonsensical. There are games within games, alternate versions of “Pony Island,” bosses to defeat, and tons of secrets to find. Pony Island is chock full of secrets, in fact. As you can imagine, this game about the devil’s arcade game is deeper than it first appears. There are 24 tickets to be found, for example, and some of the ways you get them are incredibly obscure. You absolutely need to come back after finishing the game to get them all, and even after you do, there are even more secrets to find.
All the while, Pony Island will screw with your head. I obviously can’t tell you exactly how, but suffice to say that nothing is quite what it seems. At first glance, it appears that Pony Island is all about satirizing modern gaming trends, and there’s plenty of that involved, but the rabbit hole goes deeper. None of the major characters are quite who they seem to be at first, and the developers have come up with some seriously devious ways to mess with your expectations. These can be subtle, like a vague shape in a few scenes that’s easy to ignore if you aren’t looking for it, or they can be right in your face. One of the boss battles in particular plays this up very well; it’s easily the best part of Pony Island for me, and it makes Psycho Mantis look like child’s play.
Here’s the thing, though: there are a lot of games on Steam that are designed to critique modern gaming, mess with your head, and hide a deep dark backstory. And usually, I’ll be the first person to tell you that they’re overhyped. I’ve never been the kind of person who thinks games like Limbo should be given a pass for dull gameplay. But that’s what makes Pony Island so impressive; in addition to being deep and dark and interesting, it’s also fun to play.
The two main game modes increase steadily in complexity and difficulty, so the challenge is exactly as it should be. They’re simple games that you would get boring if you played them for too long, but the other parts of the package split them up enough to keep players from getting bored (for the most part, anyway). Some of the more complex hacking games can be a bit frustrating, but only at the very end. The other thing that sets Pony Island apart is that once you find all of the secrets, everything pretty much makes sense. The developer didn’t try to make it so deep that it’s impossible to figure everything out, and the game certainly doesn’t take itself too seriously. That doesn’t mean there aren’t layers upon layers of meaning to discover; it just means that once you discover them, they actually fit together.
I really think Daniel Mullins managed to do the impossible with Pony Island: make a game that satirizes the gaming industry, has a deep and dark hidden story, and is still actually a lot of fun to play. He also gave it the right price; $5 is perfect for two or three addictive hours. And make no mistake, you will not want to put Pony Island down until you’re done, and you will not believe how powerful the game is. I’d love to call out all of the best examples of the gameplay and design, but I would never want to do our readers such a disservice. That’s also why there are so few pictures with this review. Everyone should experience Pony Island at least once, and the less you know going in, the better. As for whether you experience it a second time, well, it depends on whether you follow instructions.
I have nothing vile to say
Design - 10/10
Gameplay - 9/10
Challenge - 9/10
+ Excellent design and concept
+ Fun gameplay
+ Progressive difficulty
– Some frustrating puzzles