Fighting games rarely do so much with so little. Don't let the isometric view and the twin stick controls deceive you: Secret Ponchos has fast-paced adversarial multiplayer combat with imaginatively conceived characters who have distinct strengths and weakness. Furthermore, its Wild West-themed combat reveals more tactical depth the more you play.
Choosing a character in a well-made fighting game is like deciding what to eat at a restaurant you frequent. There's safety in going with what you're used to, but pleasant surprises await if you dare to try something new. Both feelings initially resonate in Secret Ponchos, though sticking to one fighter becomes an easy choice the moment you discover that each outlaw has a progression system. Superb skill yields substantial rewards, and Secret Ponchos sticks with traditional upgrades toward increased health, stamina, range, and other familiar stats.
The diversity of this small cast of five outlaws follows the adage that "what one stat giveth, the other taketh away." The Kid Red (a blunt nod to Billy the Kid) is a dual-wielder whose high-firing rate is tempered with low health. The opposite applies to the presumptive Civil War veteran known as The Deserter. Each hoodlum performs according to seven stats, and it's refreshing to play something where each attribute feels immediately tangible in combat.
My go-to outlaw is The Matador, the obligatory left-field character in a group of Western-themed outlaws. She's not unlike the French fencer Charlotte, who equally stuck out in the predominantly Japanese-themed Samurai Shodown. This bullfighter is limited in ranged attacks, but her melee hits are especially lethal. It wasn't conscious, but this choice does reflect my tendency to rely on melee kills in first-person shooters. I simply like the immediacy and gratification of an up-close, high-damage attack. And just like with a good fighting game, there's a lot to glean from learning moves beyond the standard attack. In The Matador's case, a lunging stab is both deadly and far-reaching, though it leaves you wide open if you miss. Using her cape to throw up blinding dust is a perfect overture before unleashing a series of uninterrupted sword attacks.
If you suspect that this roster is intentionally modest, that's because it is. If you look at the Outlaw submenu, you'll notice question marks in place of two concealed desperados, saved as paid downloadable content for a future date. When the initial cast includes someone as unusual as a matador, it wouldn't be unreasonable to get a Davy Crockett-inspired frontiersman or a Rough Rider like Teddy Roosevelt down the line. My money is on a Robert Rodriguez-influenced mariachi performer with an arsenal in his guitar case, but what I really want is a broken bottle-wielding barkeep who is sick and tired of his saloon getting trashed.
I simply want more fighters because I want to see how Switchblade Monkey's artists interpret more Western archetypes, given how marvelous the current cast looks. Pointy and angular lines work for this fivesome and are eye-catching as both 2D art (e.g.. during the match introduction) and as 3D models during the match and main menu. If you told me that this game had been spun off from a cult graphic novel, I would have believed you, though the lack of an expository single-player mode is mildly disappointing.
For all the hours that one can spend upgrading the ghostly Phantom Poncho or the quick-drawing Killer, the limited selection of four maps and deathmatch modes does the game no favors in holding your attention. That said, the eight-player Free For All isn't your standard deathmatch, since the victor is determined on the best kill/death ratio, not overall kills. When you're using a fighter who cannot heal (e.g., everyone but The Deserter), hiding becomes a viable option, especially if there's a kill count lead you want to protect. Before you know it, you've become that one character in The Hunger Games (or, if you wish, Battle Royale) who manages to survive much of the story by staying out of trouble. Hiding is also tactically beneficial in one-on-one matches if you have a health lead. If the match counter reaches zero, the healthier opponent is declared the winner. If you're the more injured opponent, running around anxiously to hunt down the potential victor can leave you careless and outside your comfort zone.
The indifference of death and the unfairness of the Wild West bears out fittingly in Free For All. Managing your kill/death ratio is all the more challenging when you have seven hunters out for your head. At its cruelest, this mode lets you steal kills. When one outlaw manages to reduce another opponent's health to a sliver, you can swoop in to finish off that weakened foe, at the risk of drawing the ire of the player who did all the work. As a minor consolation for these stolen kills, Secret Ponchos does factor the total damage you've dealt in a given match.
Secret Ponchos' elegance is in its cover system. Taking temporary refuge behind a horse trough or a train car to take a breath and collect yourself is a sensible tactic for any gunslinger. Hiding behind objects to avoid gunfire is not unusual in top-down shooters. How Secret Ponchos stands out is two-fold. Depending on your outlaw of choice, getting into a proper cover pose will speed up your healing, reloading, or stamina recovery process. This heightens the tension not only for you but also for your pursuers, who know full well that the tide of battle can be rebalanced if you manage to avoid gunfire long enough. Actual concealment is the other benefit of cover. Functioning like a short-term version of fog-of-war tactics seen in real-time strategy games, pressing against an object renders you invisible unless you're within another character's field of vision. It's easy to appreciate this level of depth. Cover can turn a shootout into a cat-and-mouse hunt, especially if a team with a point lead chooses to hide while the clock runs down. On the flip side, bold hombres who do not believe in stealth can just stand in the middle of a given map's open area with the benefit of a 360-degree view and wait for would-be challengers. If you want to be Peter Fonda and yell, "Come on out!" at the top of your lungs, Secret Ponchos gives you such moments.
The first time I was gunned down by an opponent who had taken full advantage of the cover system was the moment I appreciated the thoughtfulness that has been poured into Secret Ponchos. You can always count on adversarial multiplayer enthusiasts to pick out the best-performing characters within days of a game's release. So when an eight-player ranked match features at least one of each of the five outlaws, you know to expect a beautifully balanced competition. Since it encourages replay through one fighter over a long period, it's not the small roster that limits Secret Ponchos' appeal but rather its passable selection of maps and modes. Yet Secret Ponchos is well worth falling for, if only because playing as The Killer and using cover for a speedy reload is the closest a game has ever come to depicting the first Metal Gear Solid boss fight from Revolver Ocelot's perspective.