Game reviews: original Pony Island and derivative Gemini: Heroes Reborn

Pony Island stands out as an innovative indie triumph, while Gemini: Heroes Reborn is repetitive with dumbed-down graphics

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 February, 2016, 12:02am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 February, 2016, 12:01am

Pony Island

Daniel Mullins Games

The mainstream gaming world has settled into a comfortable place: massive budgets, sprawling settings and justifiably high prices. For indie developers trying desperately to distract absorbed audiences, the trick isn’t so much to compete, but to be creative within their limitations.

Pony Island is a crap game. Really, it’s awful. In this retro Macintosh-era side-scrolling adventure , you do nothing more than jump a pixelated pony over an endless series of fences. But Pony Island, the game outside the game, is brilliant. Taking the simplistic concept of standard gaming to a decidedly post-modern level, you’re a player trapped within the game’s old-school clutches, your soul forced by demonic forces to forever play out the pony’s Sisyphean journey until you can find a way to escape.

Once you slowly begin to clue yourself into its predicament, Pony Island reveals itself as a puzzle adventure based around well-worn video game standards. Sifting through muddled menus, ‘hacking’ convoluted programming code, communicating via instant messenger with fellow confused players, even working through walkthroughs of events you’ve seemingly completed. It all sounds a little pretentious on paper, we know, but the game is packed with the kind of creative thinking major developers are so lacking these days.

That’s because for much of its limited running time, Pony does an incredible job of messing with your mind. It plays up the veteran player’s constantly contradicting levels of pride and humility, building you up to the point where you’re smugly patting yourself on the back for inspired creativity, only to have you come crashing down when you realise that was the plan all along.

Clocking in at just a couple hours long, its minor length matters little as the game is chock-full of clever ideas, some congruent to its concept, others absolutely chaotic, and all of them too good to spoil on this page.

“Meta” is a bit of an overused catch-all in modern entertainment, but that’s sadly – or maybe, gladly – the only fitting definition for Pony Island, its fourth-wall-breaking antics the ideal send-up of that classic-modern gaming divide. Available as a tiny download and priced at a mere HK$40, it’s the kind of game that makes us constantly jaded reviewers proud.

Gemini: Heroes Reborn

Phosphor Games

Here you have everything’s that’s wrong about the mainstream world. Gemini: Heroes Reborn – a video game based on a cancelled TV mini-series, based on a cancelled show. Not exactly a great start, and it only gets worse.

The superhero show was routinely derided for its derivative nature, its characters blatantly ripped from the pages of Marvel and DC, and that thoroughly unoriginal vein continues to flow here. Gemini is an unabashed amalgamation of popular favourites from the past couple of decades: Portal, Mirror’s Edge, Bio-Shock, even Half-Life.

If you’ve played most of those games, you’ll know where this is going: a first-person shooter featuring a fresh-faced teenager who can leap through time and fight off villains with telekinetic powers. Sounds almost decent, right? Sure, but then make it incredibly repetitive, fill it with clumsy ambitions and somehow dumb down the Unreal Engine so that it looks look like absolute crap, and you have Gemini.

But wait, you ask, if it’s so terrible, why give it two and a half stars? That’s the thing: Gemini is pretty bad, but it’s absolutely filled with really great ideas. More than anything, it’s the potential that completely lets it down. In obsessive gaming circles, it’s long been known that developer Phosphor has wanted to make its magnum opus: a massive open-world adventure that allows players to roam free with a completely customised superhero. The closest they’ve got, and seemingly will ever get, is this sad gun-for-hire attempt.

You can’t blame Phosphor though. As co-founder Chip Sineni admitted to VentureBeat: “These days, it does seem like you either have really huge triple-A type games with hundreds of people and costs upwards of US$40 million or a small indie project that becomes popular.” Like many half-baked releases flooding the market, Gemini is a mainstream game stuck sadly in that limbo between the two.