January 7, 2016 1:00 PM | John Bridgman
While it is easy to say that independent game circles are over-saturated with game jams, it is much harder to deny their usefulness. Creative and clever concepts emerge from these, and from these concepts some truly interesting games can be produced. Created originally for Ludum Dare 31, using the theme "Entire Game on One Screen", Pony Island by Daniel Mullins Games is most definitely a game about a game about cute ponies.
No, that wasn't a typo. This game is one about playing an arcade game called Pony Island, which resembles on its surface a retro runner about a cute pony. Using the mouse you'll jump over gates and eventually reach the goal in each stage. Sounds simple enough, and if that were it, it wouldn't be particularly noteworthy. Fortunately, there's much more going on here.
There's another plot going on, which will be revealed to you quickly as you play. You'll encounter glitches and eventually leave the game within the game entirely, and discover the pseudo-horror elements to the narrative. This is where you get introduced to other characters, getting pulled into a conflict for your very soul, locked into playing Pony Island, facing more devilish challenges. Soon you will get another main gameplay element, where you have to solve pathfinding puzzles to get new abilities or unlock now paths to progress. These puzzles start off simple enough that you may not even realize you're working on puzzles, and eventually get reasonably challenging.
It's very difficult to go into detail about the game without giving away too many of the surprises. Even when you start to get the hang of what's going on, it's still capable of doing things you don't expect. In fact, one of my few complaints about the game is that the base elements - the running and jumping pony portions of the game - can last too long without giving you something new; the game is genuinely that good at pulling off the unexpected. This is a game that will change things around on you before you even realize it, and does so in ways that really are best experienced firsthand.
Visually there's a lot going on for something that at first glance appears extremely simplistic. Filter effects are applied to the game art to make it appear intentionally disorienting and unsettling, and it adds significantly to the atmosphere. It has a very solid and consistent aesthetic that meshes well with the game within a game plot, though sometimes it can get a little bit hard on the eyes. Mind you, even the aesthetic is something that the game is willing to mess around with in its effort to trip you up.
The audio design in the game is very good also. There's a lot of really good music in the soundtrack, and thanks to the very nature of the game, there's a lot of variety to what you'll be listening to as you play. The way the game changes as you progress gives a lot of opportunities to explore different musical arrangements and styles, and I think they did an excellent job with that.
Pony Island is a good, suspenseful game that has no qualms about playing around with your expectations. Even when the horror elements get a bit silly or heavy-handed, it's still very capable of throwing you for a loop. The pacing can get a little off, especially if you're having trouble with some of the pony running segments, but it's worth getting through them to progress. I highly recommend giving it a try if you're even the slightest curious about it. For me it's one of the first must-play games of the year.