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Version reviewed: August 5th update
Reviewed on: AMD FX 4200, 16gb RAM, GTX 660 Ti,
Recommended: You can almost definitely run it.
Developer: Switchblade Monkeys Entertainment
Multiplayer: Four player online
Link: Steam store page
If you've played Geometry Wars or Renegade Ops you know how to play Secret Ponchos: move with the left stick, aim with the right stick, and shoot. It's a twin-stick shooter, but not just another twin-stick shooter: Secret Ponchos wisely tweaks and embellishes genre conventions to create something that feels more like a new type of fighting game. It's different and fun, but only if you play it with a good group.
Whereas twin-stick shooters are usually frantic, with massive bullet sprays designed for plentiful waves of enemies, Secret Ponchos slows things down with a beautifully realized Wild West theme, old timey six shooters, and small, competitive online matches of two teams of two players (a future update will add support for eight-player matches).
Even the most trigger happy characters you can choose from have a limited number of shots before they have to reload, which leaves you vulnerable. That's usually a good time to use one of your limited number of dodges, get behind cover that makes you invisible if you break line-of-sight, or use one of your character's stun attacks.
Twitchy shooting skills are still useful, but as with Street Fighter IV, the mind games are just as important: trying to anticipate your opponent's next move, countering his attacks with a well placed stick of dynamite, taking cover in a saloon.
You can start formulating counter-strategies as soon as you see which outlaw you'll be facing. Killer, a wiry old man, has a big revolver that shoots slow and deadly. Kid Red, with his two pistols, is quick and loose with his bullets. Phantom Poncho, a Mexican bounty hunter with a skull-face mask and a billowing poncho moves around the derailed train map like a ghost, and hits hard and close with a shotgun.
Secret Ponchos draws its inspiration from the overflowing well of Wild West imagery (we don't have nearly enough Westerns in gaming) and pulls it in even wilder directions by contrasting the characters' comically exaggerated features with an underlying darkness. They're like friendly saturday morning cartoons that would shoot you dead for a fistfull of dollars.
At best, their exaggerated features are meaningful to gameplay. Phantom Poncho, for example, stuns his opponents with a bullwhip. When that weapon is selected, the whip drags a long ways behind him, making him easier to chase and allowing you to prepare for his stun attack. Other visual tells are more subtle. If I paid close attention, I could see Killer pull out his knife or the Deserter preparing his impale attack. With Kid Red, however, there's no way to tell if he's about to use a regular or stun shot. It doesn't only make him less interesting to play against, it's also an unfair advantage.
That's probably why I kept picking Kid Red, and I'm becoming attached to him because of Secret Ponchos' interesting character progression. Rather than accumulating experience, the price on your head goes up or down after every match depending on if you won or lost and how much damage you dealt. If you reach a certain wanted amount, say $2500, you'll gain a couple of points to improve the character's base stats. If you do poorly, the price on your head goes down. It makes the milestones hard to reach, and really raises the stakes on every single game.
Secret Ponchos' biggest problem right now is finding a good group to play with. It's much more fun to outsmart your enemies than it is to out-shoot them, and a match full of people who don't know what they're doing turns it into a frantic action game. Secret Ponchos' controls simply aren't precise enough for that, causing the whole thing to fall apart.
It's a shame because Secret Ponchos really shines when two diverse, coordinated teams face off. I really enjoyed playing as Kid Red with Killer (the wiry old man) as my partner, allowing him to line up his shots from behind cover while I agitated and drew in enemies by running circles around them, or flushing them out of hiding with dynamite. With a team of two, one straightforward game mode that leaves little room for error, and only five maps, a bad partner gets boring quickly.
A training mode and the game's placeholder menus indicate that more maps, modes, and power-ups are coming, but they're not in the version you can pay for today.
If you can find the right group of people to play with, Secret Ponchos is pretty neat. It's not as intricate as a competitive game like Street Fighter IV, and won't offer as many surprises, but it has some of the same excitement that comes with a good roster of characters and outwitting your opponent.
Good. Secret Ponchos has some expected bugs, and at times it felt like I spent just as much time looking for good matches as playing them. Switchblade Monkeys Entertainment should be able to use Early Access to address these issues and deliver a small, competent, and unique game.