I still have a hard time thinking of Secret Ponchos as a fighting game, even though it was invited to appear at the largest fighting game tournament in the world, EVO. But that’s exactly how creative director Yousuf Mapara pitched it when he stopped by to walk me through everything arriving with the final release on September 29. Secret Ponchos has been receiving incremental updates in Early Access since June, but expect new maps, new characters, a new mode, and more with the final release.
But my biggest takeaway from playing a few matches with the developers wasn’t the new content checklist, it was that Secret Ponchos is completely unlike the game I thought it was. Heroes of the Storm simplified MOBAs, stripping away the item shops and some oblique mechanics, but kept the three-lane format. Secret Ponchos does away with everything but the character conflict, and is better for it.
The last I heard or saw of Secret Ponchos was when I played its PlayStation 4 debut, which I didn't have a great time with. There was no tutorial built into the game (now there is), so the character nuance and team strategy was obscured by its familiar presentation as a top-down Spaghetti Western arcade shooter.
Yes, it was a bit strange to see Secret Ponchos transition from its PS4 release to Early Access on Steam, but Mapara made it clear they intended to use what they learned from a shaky console release in order to make the PC version something much more substantial. Based on my time with the early release preview, it feels like they're on track.
Everything clicked when I played as one of the new characters, The Wolf. Her primary weapon is a bow, so she fires slow, but if you score two successive hits, the second will be a critical. If you shoot directly after performing a dodge roll and hit your opponent, it’s also a crit. And her alternate ability is akin to the Hunter from Left 4 Dead; she can crouch and pounce on an opponent from a distance, and then slash with her knife. Using her, I fell into a comfortable playstyle. I avoided direct one-on-one encounters, but played on the edge of our skirmishes, rolling into to score a crit here and there, then disappearing as soon as possible—going into cover with any character makes you invisible. When an enemy strayed too far from their team, I’d use cover to stalk them before pouncing to ideally take them out.
I also played as The Mad Trapper, who lays traps that can be hidden if you invest an extra few, vulnerable seconds to bury them. I liked his gun a lot, which has a satisfying charge ability, putting me in position to lure enemy players into the open for easier takedowns. The longer I held down the fire button, the further I could shoot, almost like casting a fishing line.
There will be nine outlaws in the final release with room for more, all with noticeably different playstyles. Yousuf told me their design strategy started with art and character or concept before mechanical feasibility. What resulted is a strange mix of personality and gameplay, just don’t confuse Secret Ponchos’ character action and isometric perspective with any MOBA. Certainly, there are shades of influence there, but with no extrinsic objectives, creeps, item shops, and so on, the maps and goals exist entirely to force character on character conflict. Rounds are short and tense. My palms were sweaty after ten minutes, and it didn’t take long for Yousuf to take stock of all the curse words I know. It’s this intense you-versus-me, no-frills focus that Yousuf argues is exactly why he’s making a fighting game.
And I think I get it now.
There's a full press breakdown of the new stuff coming in Secret Ponchos' final release here, but below is a condensed list of what’s new.
- New matchmaking system
- AI bots
- A new progression system
- A tutorial
- Five new characters, three of which are PC exclusive
- Four new maps, two which haven’t been in Early Access
- Protect the Posse Leader, a new game mode