I just fist-bumped the guy next to me and I’m not sure why. I mean, I know why; we just won the match, and by a heavy margin. I guess some sort of celebration was in order. But it struck me later on that it was really because Secret Ponchos offers up such immediate rewards for picking up on its core principles. It’s pretty much impossible at that point to resist the physical act of acknowledging your teammate’s valiant and successful efforts.
Also, the red team was yelling a lot, so we were all getting kind of rowdy anyways. But that’s beside the point. Shown off at Sony’s E3 press conference of this year, Secret Ponchos is a fix-perspective online shooter set in a spaghetti western world. It’s got a seriously nice and unique art style, but its presentation most notably resembles a multiplayer online battle arena game, or MOBA, like Defense of the Ancients or League of Legends. It plays, however, like a dual joystick shooter where you move about with the left stick and aim with the right stick, shooting at your discretion with the right trigger.
Most interestingly, though, is the fact that the game trades most heavily in the fundamentals of fighting games. Talking with Yousuf Mapara, president of developer Switchblade Monkeys, he says that the combat design was originally inspired by fighting games like Street Fighter (the character classes, however, were more from MOBAs and team shooters like Team Fortress 2) due to the reaction-based play. I say, however, that fighting games to me are all about spacing and timing.
Mapara almost immediately lights up and says, “Yes! That’s exactly what it is!” It seems that talking about the reactionary moments of fighting games is much easier to translate for people that aren’t as deep into the pugilistic sort. But as a former high-level Muay Thai competitor, Mapara knows what he’s talking about. “It’s about knowing when to back off and when to get in there, take advantage of your reach or speed when the time comes.”
This notion stuck out to me almost immediately as I dropped into my first match. I was playing as The Deserter, a larger, slower mustachioed character. My primary fire was shooting out one of two barrels in my shotgun. It’s a short range, but it spreads nicely and makes for dinking small chunks of damage off of speedier characters easier. His other attack is a sniper-esque shot that has a long range and sizable damage while his other weapon is a medkit for self-healing. Both of his reloads are, unsurprisingly, also lethargic, making the intensely small map somewhat intimidating.
The Deserter is obviously and painfully sluggish. His dodge roll doesn’t seem to dodge so much as lumber about, but it’s nice because he can stun people if he makes contact, making unloading a double dose of shotgun pain especially fun. But this also made my play very tactical, much more so than I was expecting. An opponent was playing as Kid Red, a blisteringly fast character who spews bullets from his dual revolvers. I wasn’t dying much at first, but that was because I was running a lot and had a lot of health. It took a while for me to remember to always reload, but once I got the hang of that, it was game on.
Getting within range of anyone wasn’t going to happen of my own ambulations, so I hung around in the middle a lot. I could take most of the hits, but most importantly it shortened my average travel distance to any particular enemy. The slow but powerful sniper shot could harass players from afar and corral them around the borders until they came in close. Then I could stun them and blast them.
It was a simple strategy offensively, but I also had to utilize those same skills to get away from the players that could just wreck me given the chance. Chasing away pests with the shotgun and keeping them at bay with the sniper was key to not getting bullied into a bad situation. What really helps with that is that with any given attack, you are shown both the range and spread via an attack cone/line once you aim with the right stick. It makes you visualize your effectiveness and facilitates you in deciding to advance or retreat.
As that hazy idea of how to effectively play this game came into focus, I realized it reminded me of Divekick, that two-button fighting game all about diving and kicking. It strips a fighting game down to its absolute bare essentials where all you have is your ability to judge your spacing and timing. And as a slower, more deliberate character, I had to judge both of those accurately or be punished for it.
In the second match, I chose to play as The Killer after I was warned that Phantom Poncho was a difficult character to play. The Killer is the all-around guy with moderate stats through and through. He’s got a revolver that he can either shoot off one at a time or fire all six shots in a fury. This is where I remember the other lesson of fighting games: play to your strengths.
Though much more mobile, landing hits consistently with a single revolver shot was a lot more frustrating than blasting with a shotgun with haphazard aim and still putting out damage. It was so frustrating, in fact, that I soon only exclusively used the six-shot frenzied dump in an attempt to emulate the shotgun. The problem is that reloading took so long (one bullet at a time) that I often found myself running away and firing off potshots with my single-round attack.
We still won the match, but it was a lot tougher. I was playing one character as if it was another, an amateur and foolish move in fighting games (and really any game with character classes). Eventually I settled into a nice rhythm of rolling around my partner and stabbing dudes with my knife once I’d unloaded my revolver, but I was still finding The Killer’s utility by the end of it.
It was a hard-earned victory, and a fist bump seemed most appropriate. A physical analog to the fighting roots of Secret Ponchos, perhaps, as I turn to Mapara to talk more about spacing and timing, about the foundations of good fighting strategy. My time with the game was short, but this seems to be a mishmash of the tried-and-true blended into a quick and approachable title that’s been steeped in the fundamentals of a deeper, more thoughtful base.
Look for Secret Ponchos sometime in Q1 of 2014 for the PlayStation 4.