When I first came across Pony Island, I didn’t really pay much attention to it. Generally speaking, cartoony animal sims just aren’t for me. So it wasn’t until much later that I noticed it, after hearing about it on the Gamers With Jobs podcast and then seeing it in the #HumbleBundle for “Overwhelmingly Positive” rated games.
Once I knew a bit more, I just had to try it. After all, there was much more to the game than first meets the eye.
Once you get past the title screen, though, everything changes. Gone are the bright colors and cheerful tunes, replaced by a black and white screen and an ominous, almost oppressing hum. You’re greeted by a new start screen that doesn’t even work — it’s the game’s first puzzle! As the game progresses, you discover that you are now trapped in a game created by Satan himself in order to claim your soul.
Gameplay occurs in two main parts: the Pony Island game-within-a-game, where you guide your pony through an obstacle course. Jump over gates and avoid enemies until you reach the finish line. Between races, you try and hack your way through the game by completing a series of puzzles, finding weaknesses in the system and gaining power-ups to help you on your way.
Helping you in this task is another lost soul in the system, who can warp you through the file system and get you closer to your goal of deleting the core files and escaping. Along the way, you'll face a few guardian "daemons" (get it?) who will try and keep you from the core files,
From a gameplay standpoint, Pony Island is fairly simplistic. The races are controlled entirely with the mouse — one button will jump, and one will shoot the laser (yes, you have a mouth laser, once you hack it unlocked, at least). Finally, you use mouse look to aim. Run into an enemy or a gate, and you restart the race. Reach the finish line to move on.
Hacking is accomplished by guiding a key to its goal. The key moves from one line of code to the next on its own, but you can guide it by placing things like loops and jumps in the code. Later puzzles will introduce conditions which must be met in order to unlock the goal.
As the game continues, you get deeper into the mysteries, and the true nature of the software is slowly revealed. Races become more difficult by adding enemy types, and puzzles add more and more pitfalls and conditionals, along with different types of movement commands. Eventually both modes are re-skinned a variety of ways, making for a refreshing change of pace.
Without going into spoilers for the game, Pony Island is a delightfully subversive game, turning the cheerful animal sim genre (if that's even a thing) on its head, adding some fun and challenging puzzles, and a dash of mystery for good measure. While the game only takes a couple hours to complete, there are hidden collectibles and secrets to uncover, for all you completionists out there.
If you're in the mood for something a little different, make your way to Pony Island, it's quite a trip!
Platforms: Windows, Mac, SteamOS
Genre: Indie, Puzzle
Release date: Jan 4, 2016
Creator: Daniel Mullins Games