The frantic action of the twin-stick shooter genre makes it a perfect fit for co-op, but rarely do developers tackle competitive multiplayer. Head-to-head gunslinging is the sole focus of Secret Ponchos, but while the short matches favor skill over twitchy reflexes, myriad drawbacks will run you out of town faster than a belligerent sheriff.
Secret Ponchos throws you into the game without any kind of tutorial, so you can expect to get slaughtered while learning the basic controls and abilities of your chosen character. Because characters level up individually and can't be swapped during matches, it takes a fair amount of time to find out which character best meshes with your playstyle, and once you do there's little incentive to switch things up since it means starting from scratch again. Despite Phantom Poncho's overpowered bullwhip attack (which has made him a favorite among the game's tiny player base), I ultimately settled on Kid Red and his dual pistols and dynamite attacks, then started on the long and slow process of increasing my bounty (i.e., level).
Unfortunately, Secret Ponchos' shortcomings surface almost immediately. It contains no story or single-player content, and the competitive modes are limited to death match, free-for-all, and the tug-of-war domination mode (the first team to five kills wins, but each death sets you back a point). Rookie matches start you off easy by negating skill points (earned by leveling up) and XP penalties. However, death match and domination are both limited to one-versus-one or two-versus-two matches in Rookie play, which are far too small to be interesting; after the first player dies, matches invariably devolve into bum-rushing the lone remaining gunman. I gravitated towards eight-player free-for-all matches in Rookie play, but even then the chaotic action was hard to get into.
Even with the benefit of being one of Sony's free PlayStation Plus games in December, virtually no one is playing Secret Ponchos. Joining a match is like going to the doctor's office; you wait forever just to be placed into an empty lobby, then wait even longer as the game desperately tries to find enough other players to fill the rosters. Waiting times frequently dwarf the length of actual matches, making Secret Ponchos feel more like a baseball game than a twin-stick shooter.
When you do finally get a full lobby, the other players often have terrible connection speeds, resulting in lag that sends them warping across the battlefield. Secret Poncho's gameplay is fairly unforgiving; lengthy reloads, limited stamina, and cooldowns on abilities require you to be accurate and efficient with your attacks – which is virtually impossible when lag is introduced into the mix.
Like all competitive titles, the real focus of Secret Ponchos is ranked play, which offers up four-versus-four death match and domination modes. The larger team sizes provide a more tactical experience, but they come with a harsh tradeoff. Not only is it harder to find a game, but the crippling end-of-match penalties mean you're often losing experience instead of gaining it. Losing automatically costs you 100 XP – a substantial amount, considering you'll often only earn 200-300 XP in a good match. Having a K/D ratio in the negative also costs you big, and is usually enough to offset any potential bonus you might receive for dealing out damage.
The worst factor in how much XP you receive (or lose), is the match odds, which you have absolutely no control over. The game assigns a "favorite" ratio based on your rank and whoever the matchmaking pairs you up against; if you're deemed the underdog, you receive a nice boost to your total XP after the round ends. However, if you're the projected winner (which starts happening at rank two, since most of the people playing are newbies who have yet to grow tired of the game) the odds cut into your earned XP – even if you get walloped by the opposing team and penalties already have your experience in the red. The XP system is made even more volatile by the fact that matches are extremely short and greatly dependent on the quality of your teammates. Getting stomped because one of your allies gets disconnected or completely blows it is bad enough – losing a significant chunk of your XP adds insult to injury.
These punitive end-of-match penalties brought my progression – and enjoyment – to a prompt halt. I finished one match with six kills and one death, only to watch my sizable XP gain get cut in half by the ranking gods. In another match, I barely broke even despite a 2:1 K/D ratio. Sometimes even being the highest-scoring member of my team still left me with less XP than I started the match with.
The variety of bugs I ran into provided the final straw. Matches periodically hang up during loading, the mute button frequently fails to mute players, and in one particularly memorable two-versus-two domination match, the opposing team inexplicably had a third member.
Despite debuting as part of PlayStation Plus' Instant Game Collection, the barren lobbies and long matchmaking times tell you everything you need to know about the state of Secret Ponchos. No one wants to play a laggy, imbalanced, and punitive multiplayer-only game, even if it's free. Unless Switchblade Monkeys' planned content updates can iron out the kinks and add more compelling modes to boost the mediocre gameplay, you're better off leaving Secret Ponchos to the tumbleweeds.
Secret Ponchos' short matches favor skill over reflexes, but myriad drawbacks will run you out of town.