SecretPonchos_OutlawsContinuing our look at selected crowdfunded/Early Access games currently doing the rounds. Don’t call it a review, more a word of advice on what your money gets you at this stage of the game’s life and what potential you might be buying into.

Secret Ponchos has been known about since last year’s E3, when it was announced by Sony as coming to the Playstation 4 early in 2014 as one of the first games included on PS Plus for the new console. However, as the new year began the game failed to materialize on Sony’s platform and seemed to drop off the map entirely, with the PC version cropping up with little fanfare on Steam Early Access a couple of months ago.

A Western themed top-down competitive online shooter, the game in its current form offers a starkly traditional range of modes. There’s 8-player Free-For All, Team Deathmath and Domination modes available in 2-on-2 and 4-and-4 varieties, and pretty much nothing else. No story, no co-op versus AI or even any kind of tutorial save for a Practice Mode that lets you play around with your arsenal but explains nothing. The game’s primary hook is a bounty system whereby players who perform well accrue an ever-growing price on their heads, which in turn makes them higher-value targets to other players.

poncho2The problem, at least for now? Getting a game in the first place. Both Rain Dog and myself have had this game for weeks, and have continually struggled to find matches. Even the smaller 4-player matches were a chore to fill, with players dropping in and out of the lobby with infuriating regularity. Hopefully this is simply other players being impatient (If you do this, here’s a friendly tip: Don’t) rather than an issue with the matchmaking, but either way it makes for a fairly frustrating time.

The other factor is that this is a low-key release of a game that was hyped for PS4, and simply doesn’t have the player base yet to sustain an active community. To developers Switchblade Monkeys’ credit they do warn potential buyers on their Steam store page that there may be issues with finding matches until they build the community, and have even suggested times of day when people can play with them.

poncho3The thing is, that’s all fine and dandy if you’re in a PST zone but people in other time zones – or not in the US at all – have to make do with what they can, and right now there’s not a hell of a lot to make with. This ‘throw it out there and then build interest’ tactic is highly problematic when the community you have now can hardly get in the game, and with no single-player or decent offline content to play through in the meantime the dev’s wish that people hold out until they find an audience for the thing seems like an awfully tall order.

This is a shame, because there’s much that is appealing about Secret Ponchos. It’s graphically strong with a likeable artstyle resembling a blend of anime and Jaime Hewlett (Tank Girl, Gorillaz) and its arcadey gameplay is fast and frantic that seems tailor-made for beers and smack-talk. The controls adopt something comfortably close to the classic twin-stick shooter template, only with the right stick only handling aiming and requiring you to press separate button for your primary and secondary attacks. The guns feel nice and hefty, and thrown weapons such as dynamite – often where these kinds of control schemes fall down – handle extremely well. All in all, it’s a very nice-feeling game that looks pretty, moves well and keeps up a nicely hectic pace.

poncho1However, this is scuppered by a lack of depth with its rather thin selection of modes. They’ve promised new modes to come, and one hopes that they can pull something out of the bag that gives the game some scope, rather than it feeling like the MP content of a much more fully-realized game. It would be especially nice if Switchblade Monkeys could include some modes that take advantage of the Wild West theme, rather than the fairly generic selection available at the moment. The game seems ideal for some kind of ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’-styled game mode, for example, or even quickdraw duelling. As it stands, the game game modes available are solid and fun, but ultimately generic and a little shallow, and it’d be nice to see some of the character on display in the game’s art direction soak through to its structure.

Secret Ponchos’¬†official site still lists it¬†as coming to PS4, and it feels that a month of PS Plus exposure would do a lot to generate interest in the PC version, provided they address the matchmaking and content issues. It’s a likeable game that has a lot of potential, but has enough functionality and longevity issues that we’re reluctant to recommend it at this stage. While Early Access projects do rely on sales to develop to their full potential, it’s also important that consumers throw their money down on something they can actually get value from in its current form, and not just be paying for potential alone. If you’re intending on buying Secret Ponchos at this stage, understand that finding matches is probably going to be a challenge and that the game has a way to go in terms of content. We’d advise everyone else to wait for more updates at least.