Secret Ponchos is a Spaghetti Western-themed multiplayer game that, at the point of its arrival on the PlayStation 4, is also available to play through the Early Access programme on Steam. This is a little worrying, as for all intents and purposes, the PC version isn’t considered ‘finished’, but yet the console edition is part of the most recent crop of titles for PlayStation Plus subscribers. So is developer Switchblade Monkeys' first offering a completed product, or does it need a little more time in the saloon?
The first thing that’ll jump out at you about this game is the bright comic book style graphics used to render not only its characters but also the environments. Each of the outlaws that you can play as have very distinct looks and animations, making them easily identifiable in the midst of any of your multiplayer showdowns, and you can’t help but respect the effort put in on the art design front once you see how great it looks on the screen.
Selecting an outlaw to use has you picking from one of the five available – Kid Red, The Deserter, The Matador, The Killer, and The Phantom Poncho – with each playing very differently from one another. Whether you choose Kid Red, a fast moving outlaw with a high rate of fire but low damage, or The Deserter, a lumbering soldier whose rifle hits in a wide arc, they all have their own strengths and weaknesses.
With each sporting a secondary weapon and a few different attacks, you can chain these together into devastating combos, maximising their impact. Hitting an opponent with a stun attack and unloading your weapon before they can react is fun, but you’ll also need to understand the abilities of the other outlaws so that you can avoid their combos when you come up against them.
All of the characters feel like they’ve been plucked straight from a MOBA – such as League of Legends – with each sporting a relatively modest move set that you'll need to master in order to be truly effective. It’s strange, then, that there’s absolutely no tutorial to explain the intricacies of the game, and you'll have to hunt really hard to find the move list for each gunfighter, which can only actually be seen by holding left on the d-pad when playing a match.
With the action taking place from an isometric point of view, you’ll take on players in a variety of game modes that all revolve around killing each other, either in a free-for-all or as part of a team, in 1v1, 2v2, or 4v4 matches. Using the left stick to move and the right to aim, the controls are easy to learn, but hitting the right combination of buttons to pull off actions in the order that you want can be tricky – especially in the heat of battle.
There are a couple of other mechanics, with both pick-ups – which provide temporary stat boosts – and the ability to take cover behind scenery adding further to your arsenal. Cover is the most useful of these, as not only does it speed up your weapon reload, but it can also help you to take your enemies by surprise. This is because once you’re behind cover, any opponents without a direct line of sight will be unable to see you at all.
Depending on how well you do, your performance in the match will increase or decrease the bounty on your outlaw's head. Successfully taking on higher ranked opposition means that the price on your head will increase more quickly, and when you hit certain milestones, your character will grow in notoriety, gifting you points that can be spent on improving their attributes. You need to be careful, though, as your bounty will also decrease if you find yourself getting beaten too often, so you need to be at the top of your game when taking part in ranked matches if you aim to keep moving up the wanted list.
Something many titles of this size fail to get right is the online connectivity, but in this case, the netcode works really well, with the only instances of lag being as a result of players with unstable or high latency connections. Even with this rock solid connectivity, though, it’s a let-down that the only really enjoyable matches are the team games. This is due to the free-for-all playlists frequently degenerating into a brawl, where you’ll work hard trying to take someone out, only for another player to swoop in at the last minute to kill you and your target when you’re both in a weakened state.
After you’ve spent a couple of hours playing this game, you’ll likely have found an outlaw that suits your play style, and gone a long way to mastering their particular skill set. The problem is that at this point you’ll have seen everything that the game has to offer, and played plenty matches on the paltry number of stages. You can't help but feel that it would really benefit from a slightly more complex structure, as rounds are brutally short affairs.
Secret Ponchos feels like a glimpse of what could go on to be a great game. Its comic book art style looks good, and the actual game plays well – but the slim roster of characters and stages mean that you’ll quickly burn through what’s on offer. With only alternative costumes available to buy at launch, the hope is that more content will be added further down the line. For now, though, unless you’re already a PlayStation Plus subscriber, you’re better off hanging up your six shooters.