It's the end of the world again, everyone – and no, we're not talking about a radioactive American wasteland. Poncho takes place in a world where the humans have been eliminated, leaving their now purposeless robot companions to fend for themselves. Enter the titular Poncho, presumably named after his fashion sense, to save the 2.5D landscape, bring back the humans, and find his creator.
The main tool at his disposal is his ability to jump between the three parallax layers that make up the environments; think LittleBigPlanet's layer hopping made more rigid and you're about there. Navigating the differing depths is as simple as pressing R1 to come forward and L1 to go back, so long as nothing is there to block your path. The platforming naturally involves a lot of switching layers on the fly, and as you explore the open-ended world, the game begins to introduce more complex obstacles and more things to do.
There are no enemy heads to jump on in this retro-styled platformer, so the focus of Poncho is more about exploration, puzzles, and finding secrets. After a trippy introduction, the game places you at its centre and sets you loose to navigate the varied locations. While exploration is encouraged, there are walled-off areas that block your progress until you find a corresponding key, and many of these are strewn throughout the environments in little nooks and crannies. Also scattered about are red diamonds, which are used to purchase more keys from the occasional robo-salesman.
Although the game is open ended, it is divided into several different zones, which you can switch between at portals found in the world or via the pause menu. You will be doing this a lot; if progress is blocked in one zone, you'll need to switch to another and find a key you missed, or look for another path.
Taking all of this into account, Poncho is a game that seems at odds with itself. It invites you to freely explore, yet it blocks off areas with colour-coded gates. It has many locations to see, but its gameplay demands a lot of back-tracking. While the hopping between layers of depth is a neat idea, it's one that doesn't evolve much beyond the first few areas. The platforming itself can be a lot of fun when it works, requiring timing and precision to succeed. However, just as much as it gets things right, it falls down and becomes downright frustrating to play.
Progress can slow to a crawl if you come up against a puzzle or platforming section that you simply can't best, and it makes things harder by having very few, if any, checkpoints or half-way safety zones. There's a particular vertical section that, for love nor money, we simply couldn't pass for hours, having to start from scratch each time we fell, sucking any fun we were having out of the experience.
It's a real shame because the game could have been a far more interesting one than it is, with a decent core mechanic, lovely music and visuals, and an intriguing setting. As it is, it's an experience that gives with one hand and takes away with another; it lets you have fun for a while, then seems to punish you by blocking the path forward with a frustratingly long, tedious obstacle course, where failure means starting all over again.
As fun as often as it is frustrating, Poncho is a hard game to recommend, even to 16-bit platformer super fans. You may be able to get some enjoyment out of it, and it certainly has an oddball charm, but ultimately, it fails to impress where it counts. The parallax layer hopping is neat and at times can be fun. Unfortunately, the game falters too often and descends into maddening tedium. Retro platformers may be stylish these days, but sadly, Poncho hasn't quite pulled it off.