“They lined up double quick/But just one pogo stick,”
–System of a Down
You’re a dirty liar if you say that platformers back in the reign of 2D weren’t hard. You’re an even bigger liar if you tell me that the switch from 2D to 3D made things any easier. Depth perception and multi-axis velocity were easily dismissed in a world where I could only see myself through a side scroller, but the simple things I took for granted became a new Everest when first person perspective jumped into the mix. More recent 3D platformers, namely Mirror’s Edge and Dying Light, have reiterated this fact, but it may be possible that first-person platforming just needs a better game to warm players up with. Pongo is not that game.
So I just keep jumping?
There’s no discernible storyline or plot in Pongo. I don’t know why I’m on a series of floating islands; I don’t know why every living nightmare from a kindergarten drawing contest is trying to kill me; I don’t even know if I’m human (I could be a hairless orangutan with sweatbands). The extent of my knowledge regarding the current status quo is that I have a pongo stick (Pogo must be trademarked) that also doubles as a gun for reasons, and I must jump my way from one end of the map to the other for…more reasons.
Feeling a bit jumpy, are we?
That’s fine. I don’t need a storyline for a game to still be fun, so long as there’s plenty of play to fill the awkward silences. Enter Pongo‘s singular mission: Jump from one side of the map to the other without falling in the water or getting shot. There are simply no other objectives, and while my pongo stick does also function as some sort of high-powered laser pointer, there’s really no reason at all to shoot anything. Running through the level and jumping over the candypaint baddies is far faster and easier than taking the time to shoot back.
Let’s say you’re a completionist, a real platinum go-getter (minus the dismal lack of achievements the game offers). You can always take the time to shoot all the monsters from your starting position, since most of them will be visible and vulnerable from a high vantage point (say, from a high bounce off a pongo stick…) early on in each level. From there it’s just a leisurely stroll through the quiet cartoon meadows as you meander to the finish line. Enemies don’t respawn, most die in a couple of hits, and sniping is as easy as closing your eyes and pulling a Scarface for several seconds.
Just give ’em a little bounce
So we skip the shooting and focus on the platforming, which acts as both the game’s namesake and saving grace. There actually is a decent amount of challenge when it comes to charging and timing jumps, and you’ll find yourself constantly leaning forward on the edge of your seat to barely make the connecting ledge. But while the difficulty certainly adds some stakes to the game, I can’t help but wonder if it was intentional. Sure, they could have measured jump distances and possible arc projections based on speed, height, and what the player had for breakfast that day, but the challenge in landing the truly gut-wrenching leaps may stem from the fact that first-person is still the most disconcerting way to portray a platformer.
The not-so-shaky bits
While the game may suffer from a bad case of the sameness when it comes to objectives, the fairly varied layout of each map promises a certain level of novelty that becomes absolutely necessary the longer you play. Most levels only have one right path, and each one is strewn with the same copypaste enemies time and time-again, leaving little replay value once you’ve traversed all 45 maps. The powerups – inclduing speed, gun, and jump buffs – freshen up the gameplay a bit and stick around only long enough to clear harder parts of each level. Finally, the visual aesthetic is entirely fitting. “Detail” is a word unknown to Pongo, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. The bright colors and rounded set pieces all come together really nicely for a game that refuses to take itself seriously, and it almost drowns out the nauseatingly repetitive soundtrack (almost).
The oh-so-shaky bits
For a game that isn’t in Early Access, Pongo certainly has some obvious pitfalls that the QA team must have been too hopped up on Fruity Pebbles to notice. Barely clearing a gap and landing on the very edge of the platform leaves players unable to jump while not actually falling, for which the only solution is suicide and restart. Certain monsters, when killed, can still cause damage as players trudge over their corpses, though this doesn’t seem to be the designer’s choice. There’s a mix-up in the numbering of the levels, where I jumped (ha!) from level 18 to 32 for a second before starting onto 19 as if nothing happened. Finally, the AI is window-lickingly stupid and I can kill everything no matter how far the distance, provided I have a clear-ish line of site. Such drastic oversights lead me to believe the shooting aspect of the game was shoehorned in at the last second because someone realized that pogo sticks went out of style 30 years ago.
You can check out a few of the early levels in my gameplay video above!