Well, the game was a mess and not in a way it wanted to be.
The basic premise is that you’re in hell or purgatory playing an oldschool arcade game about a pony jumping over gates. The game is designed by the devil with the intent to trap you forever. However, it is designed poorly, so it’s possible to hack and unlock various hidden options allowing you to proceed past the boundaries of the narrative cage and eventually beat the game, setting your soul free.
So, first, the good stuff. Gameplay is generally well done. It consist of two distinct parts. The first is action sequences where your goal is to survive a ride to the finish. To do that, you click left mouse to jump over gates and right mouse to shoot enemies before they can reach you. Sometimes enemies appear in a circle around you, sometimes they form a wall before you or a ceiling. The controls, as you can see, are very simple, but timing is essential. You need to divide your attention between two tasks and quickly evaluate the best course of action.
The second part of the gameplay is puzzles where you typically need to navigate game functions to fix some issue or unlock some option. Sometimes it’s just a point-and-click deal where you poke around in search of something that would work, other times you deal with the code where you need to switch commands around so the program would run in a correct order, avoiding junk code and giving you the needed results.
I found the puzzles challenging without being too difficult, so, not bad.
Overall, gameplay is simple and nothing particularly special, but it works well enough.
The plot, on the other hand…
OK, you know those games that start with a cheerful bright facade and slowly reveal some ugly dystopian world underneath? Well, not this game. It starts with an obviously buggy game (you have to fix the Start Game button to begin) arcade in dark unsettling tones. After one action sequence you proceed to have a conversation with the devil, and it’s very quickly revealed you’re trapped in the game and need to break out.
You proceed to plot and scheme with another trapped soul and make progress with the escape plan. Then and only then the game traps you inside a cheerful pony game with butterflies and shit, and, well, what’s even the point at that stage? I know the nature of the game, the devil knows that I know, so why are we even bother with the charade? It’s not even a psychological thing where you’re forced to play along in-universe since the narrative doesn’t do much to emphasize the point, and the sequence gets off the rails soon enough anyway with more bugs.
Speaking of psychological stuff, the game can’t into immersion. It tries to do the Undertale stuff with acknowledging the game as a game and you as the player with that other trapped soul commenting at one point that doing a supposedly bad thing is the only way to advance the plot and at the end begging you to delete the game since it’s trapped inside, but that doesn’t work as well as in Undertale.
Alright, I think by now Undertale has reached a point of supersaturation (huh, that’s a word) when it comes to discussing meta stuff, so let’s talk Oneshot. Oneshot is a cute little RPGMaker game where you play as yourself, the player, and guide a cat person of uncertain gender across a surreal dying world to either return them home or save said dying world. The game uses the medium pretty well: you’re thought of as a god because you may as well be, looking at everything from above and giving commands to your faithful. The game pulls your name from your PC data (which was unfortunate in my case as it was simply named HOME, so that’s how I was called), at certain point you get into the contact with an entity that created the world of Oneshot. Said entity alters some files on your computer to give you clues. Near the end it communicates with you via Windows messages. And so on. In other words, it completely erased the fourth wall, making you and your PC a part of the game without breaking the illusion of the game world being real and in fact probably adding to it since now stuff like menus are not merely game abstractions but your means of communication with the world.
In any case, the key component of this is that Oneshot acknowledged itself as a PC game installed on your computer with you sitting before it and interacting with the game the way you normally interact with games.
Pony Island doesn’t do it. You’re supposedly standing before a demonic arcade machine in hell, at some points you actually step away from it, and we see some glimpses of arcade hall. More, the game actually gives your avatar an identity. From time to time you can ask the devil questions about your past, and he gives rather definite answers. You’re a man, you had a mother but your father is dead, you were killed, etc.
As such, when it asks me to treat itself as real, it falls flat. The game obviously takes place in another reality, the protagonist isn’t me, my PC is not possessed by the devil, so it makes no sense for it to be infested by damned souls. The comment about the only way to progress the plot is especially irritating because there isn’t supposed to be a plot, the whole thing is presented as a competition with the devil where I cleverly break the game to escape, not follow preordained steps. The latter could have worked, mind, especially in a hell game that’s supposed to trap me, but the narrative does nothing to convince me in it.
Finally, the game has a weird tone. I think it tries to be humorous and quirky with the devil endlessly trying and failing to create a game that would hold your attention while you half-fix half-break it, but the characters are too flat to be funny, and other times the game tries to be dramatic and even scary, which just clashes with the main tone, confusing both.
Overall, Pony Island is a mess in which good ideas are buried. It has an interesting premise, the gameplay is good enough to be engaging without being overwhelming, but it utterly botches the narrative part of the equation with weird plot structure, flat characters and irritating meta elements that don’t have enough of a support structure to work. The game has a formidable potential to be good, but the devs didn’t have the skills to pull it off.
So, the moral here is go play Oneshot. It’s free and much better put together.