Pogoing into Perdition
The only thing fun about playing Pongo was thinking about how scathing my review of the game would be, as if I was some sort of insurgent plotting a terrible revenge against a hateful occupying force. Francis Dipersio, HeyPoorPlayer’s founding patriarch, is a truly kind-hearted, warm and understanding person: a quintessential family man. I’m sure that it was only saintly ignorance that led him to assign me this game to review. You see, there are bad games that are bad because they’re offensively stupid or have hilariously over-the-top glitches. They’re bad, but in some sort of remarkable way. Then there are games that are just so utterly lifeless, they just make you feel numb playing them, and time seems to stretch on into eternity. I have been to Pongo’s pastel coloured purgatory.
“Grab your Pongo… and let the adventure begin!” read the tagline (sounding about three letters off from suggesting an infinitely more fun activity). “This sounds like a bit of harmless fun!” I foolishly thought as I booted up the game for the first time. Pongo’s central mechanic is the player’s ever-ready pongo stick, which you can charge up to leap vast distances. There’s also the ability to activate bounce mode, which sends you springing back up into the air with the same force with which you descended. Sounds like a simple but fun concept that could be parlayed into some entertaining Portal style physics puzzles, right?
Nope. Pongo’s platforming element is mostly a series of carefully timed long-jumps, the like of which we’ve seen in countless games for over 30 years. The problem is, it doesn’t even do long-jumping well.
The first signs of trouble arose when I got stuck on vertical objects. Countless times I’d make a leap, only to catch myself on perimeter of a ledge, having to make a Hobson’s choice between continuing to scoot around until hopefully it glitched me up onto the platform, or let myself plummet into the sea below. It’s not just ledges that are problematic either, as you can get stuck on walls as well. Sometimes the shoddy hitboxing even works in your favour, as later in the game when some rotary blades just pass harmlessly through you.
Of course, poor hit detection isn’t even Pongo’s worst glitch. There were a few power-ups that were simply impossible to collect. I walked over them, ran through them, jumped on them, but they simply stayed twirling merrily in the air as if to mock me for expecting to be playing a fully finished game.
Mirror’s Edge frustrated many players with its first person platforming because the perspective makes it more difficult to judge where your character is in relation to the next ledge. Well, those same issues are in Pongo, except there’s no ability to grab onto ledges or handy visual prompts to show optimal jumping spots. Instead, replace these mitigating factors with a jump that needs to be awkwardly charged up and an obsession with levitating platforms which move at lightning speed.
Of course, your Pongo isn’t just used for jumping, it can also be used as a gun. Naturally, Pongo wouldn’t let you do something as entertaining as using it for both purposes at the same time though! As much fun as it would have been to bounce around playfully while gunning down baddies, this ability is scarcely needed as the beasties who populate the levels are woefully inept.
Enemies have no sophistication to speak of. There were many occasions when melee baddies simply rushed up to the edge of the next platform ahead of me, completely exposing themselves to attack while putting me in no danger. I almost felt pity for them when I unleashed my Pongo’s peashooter-like projectiles on them as they stared at me with deadened, unblinking eyes.
Ranged enemies are scarcely more threatening either as the unmoving creatures spit their woefully slow projectiles towards you. A few easily aimed shots with your Pongo will take care of them (if you can’t be bothered to sleepily dodge their attacks). There’s very seldom any reason to engage in combat at all, since you can easily run and jump past the majority of baddies without risk. Defeating them confers you no rewards anyway. Though the combat aspect of the game is mostly redundant, Pongo is still difficult, but in all the wrong ways.
I spent an hour uttering profanities that would offend every major deity in the heavens on level 15 or so. There was this one jump I couldn’t get across, no matter how hard I tried. It was only a purely accidental discovery that “bounce mode” can make the effects of power-ups last continuously if you remain bouncing (as this crucial mechanic is never once related to you in the tutorial, let alone practiced). After this point I actually had a few vanishingly short instances of what might be termed fun as I used the momentum of the pongo stick to bounce through the level at high speed.
Instead of having increasingly diverse challenges though, Pongo ramps up the frustration factor by having faster moving platforms, which are placed near the end of longer levels, with more terrain objects littered around to obstruct your jumps and nullify your bouncing. Pongo does not so much test your skill and wits as it tests your patience with teeth-gnashingly repetitive trial and error.
The game’s trailer promised challenging puzzles, but I’m not sure there’s anything in Pongo that could even be considered a “puzzle”. The biggest quandry I faced while playing was “How many nuns must I have murdered in a past life to deserve this?”.
When I faced the first “boss”: an ugly, red, cuboid monstrosity, I was vaguely baffled by it. Circle-strafing it didn’t seem to do much good as it eventually caught up with me and made a generic punch sound affect that glitchily played about 10 times per second. There were islands in the distance suggesting I could perhaps find power-ups there. I couldn’t reach them, nor could I reach the platform above me.
So I jumped on top of the boss and stood on its head. It did nothing to stop me. I shot downwards repeatedly for about 30 seconds. It died. Well, by “it died”, I mean the character model simply disappeared from the screen without even a visual or sound effect to herald its passing. It was about then I knew that Pongo would be irredeemable. Pongo isn’t just lacking the polish needed to make it shine: Pongo is a non-reflective surface.
Pongo has all the vibrancy and fun of a plain flavoured rice-cake. The character designs resemble those from the classic geometrically nosed creatures of Q-Bert, except completely devoid of any charm. The world the player is tasked with jumping around in is a visual morass that’s 90% bland greens and blues, and the tinny, repetitive soundtrack doesn’t make it any more fun to traverse. Pongo reminds me of the many hackneyed, forgettable 3d platformers released in the n64/Playstation era, when platformers were in the violent death throes of being gaming’s dominant genre. Anyone fondly remember Buck Bumble or Bubsy 3d? No? There’s a good reason for that.
Back then, people were fast realizing that running through big, empty levels – going through the languid motions of collecting power-ups and jumping over cutesy baddies – just wasn’t fun anymore without some degree of innovation. Pongo feels about two decades behind the curve in this respect. However, even these platformers from the last millennium had different (usually elemental) themed worlds to break up the monotony. Pongo is stuck in its poor man’s Green Hill zone for the entire 45 excruciating levels.
So there, now the review is penned and my revenge on Pongo is complete. Yet, it feels utterly hollow. Playing Pongo was like gazing into the inky blackness of oblivion following the heat death of the universe, and after I’d stop playing, Pongo took a piece of my immortal soul bouncing away onto a poorly hitboxed platform with it.
Final Verdict: 1.5 / 5
Available on: PC (Reviewed); Publisher: Black Shell Media LLC; Developer: Drixy Games; Players: 1; Released: May 14, 2015 ;