Familiar mechanics meet the utterly bonkers in Ponpu, a raduckle take on the Bomberman formula. The Finger Guns Review.
I’m just going to lay this out and hope you don’t close the browser; The time has come and the duck-god’s troops are flying through space in meteorites in order to reset the universe. A mysterious duck has an alternative plan for one of them however. Capturing it after a nasty crash and teaching it his ways, this mysterious duck turns the duck soldier against the duck-god’s forces and sets it to work in order to stop the end of the universe. This duck soldier – a Ponpu (which translates as ‘pump’ in Japanese – I’m none the wiser either) – uses explosive eggs that it regurgitates and its bubble shield to blow up, smash and otherwise explode a cast of wacky waterfowl foes. This is Ponpu and this is the most eggcentric game I’ve played in 2020. Still with me? Let’s go…
What The Duck Is Going On?
Presented like a teen-focused animated show like The Ren & Stimpy Show mixed with 1930’s cartoon character design and modern day anime, Ponpu is packed with creative broad strokes and little touches that give it a truly unique aesthetic. The way the egg weapon type is fed into your chosen duck character via an umbilical cord which pops off and bleeds a little before play. The waddle of the duck as it moves, squishing up and down, is both adorable and very weird. When a Ponpu dies, their skin burns up from their toes leaving a little duck-shaped skull levitating above the ground before it falls and breaks into pieces. Everything about this game – from story to enemy design, the offwhite with brown main colours and the sparing use of any other hue – is peculiar and this makes Ponpu stand out from the crowd.
I suspect injecting all of this personality and quirkiness is an effort to offset the familiarity players will feel when playing Ponpu – and it works. All of the core mechanics in this game are either borrowed from or inspired by Bomberman but they’re done in a way that avoids making it feeling like a clone. The game is played from an overhead angle and on a 2D plane but the world is almost exclusively presented in an offwhite background with line drawn environments. Parts of the world can be destroyed (often presented by a crack across its surface) and others can not. The eggs that the ducks’ burp up come in 2 flavours – one that simply explodes after a few seconds, damaging anything sat in the neighbouring grid squares and a customisable second egg. This second egg can either drill through destructible objects and wedge in a wall, explode on command, poison another duck or freeze anything they hit. All of this will be familiar to longtime Bomberman players – but there’s one integral difference.
Bouncing On Eggshells
The bubble shield is the most versatile part of the Ponpu arsenal. Vomit up an egg and then activate the shield and it’ll force the egg along the corresponding vertical or horizontal lane at speed. The eggs bounce off solid walls and crash through a few destructible objects before exploding so you’ve got to be careful where you’re shooting them. Firing off eggs willy nilly will undoubtedly damage the player as eggs bounce back in their direction – unless you’re quick. Eggs can be stopped in their tracks by simply pressing the shield button which cushions the eggs impact and stops it in its tracks. With skill and timing through, the shield can also redirect any egg fired at the player’s direction. Activate the shield just before an egg hits you and the egg will pass around the shield and carry on its journey along the vertical/horizontal lane.
This shield adds a lot of spice to the usual Bomberman receipt by raising the pace of play quite significantly. At times during my time with Ponpu, it has felt more like a single stick shooter rather than the strategy maze game that it takes its inspiration from.
Like A Duck To Water?
There is an unexpected strategy to playing Ponpu however and it’s what eventually makes the game’s single player story mode a challenge. When placing an egg, the duck drops it in whatever direction it’s facing and it’s not possible to turn without moving. Say you want to look down, you’ll have to have moved down a square in order to do so. This can make things tricky when you’re navigating tight corridors, avoiding the traps and trying to defeat the NPC minions present in the single player campaign.
Broken into 6 themed worlds, each with 3 levels and a boss battle, the single player campaign has the player navigate worlds laden with traps, secrets, and foes to defeat. The aim of each level is to find a key and use it on the locked door to the next level. In order to do so, you’ll need to explore levels that are broken down into self contained frames. Each frame might have traps or gaps to dash over, themed AI enemies (which are admittedly about as aggressive as a Carebear) to destroy and turrets to avoid. You have limited life in each level and checkpoints are few and far between so dying comes at a great price.
The first 3 of these worlds are simple enough. They gradually add dangers to overcome, have wide open spaces to ensure you’re firing off your eggs in the right direction and have boss battles which are based on some classics but are reasonably simplistic. Once you reach the 4th world – A medieval Stone Keep – everything gets dialed up to 11 and it keeps getting more difficulty from there. Traps become more numerous and they’re placed in tricky places that test the players timing. Firing off eggs becomes more challenging as open spaces become rare and the required strategy I mentioned earlier, making sure you’re facing the right direction by approaching an enemy in the correct way, is essential. Defeated bosses become mini-boss battles in subsequent chapters. Even for someone who spent years playing Bomberman, the latter half of Ponpu took some real concentration and persistence to complete. The story eventually makes it worth the aggravation but there are some levels that can be overtly frustrating that some will find too stiff a challenge.
The boss battles vary in quality in Ponpu. Applying the Bomberman mechanics to fighting massive mallards with differing abilities is a pretty ingenious idea and most of what is here works. Every boss has a “second wave”, triggered when they’ve taken a certain amount of damage. This makes them more deadly and some of them have cheap ways to damage the player. The third boss drags too as on occasion, it encloses itself in impenetrable shield walls and then does nothing for what feels like an eternity.
Ducks Of A Feather Flock Together
Bomberman has always been better played in multiplayer and that’s something that’s shared with Ponpu. Played in either local or online in up to 4 player scrambled skirmishes, Ponpu boasts 3 different modes.
The first is a straight up, every duck for itself deathmatch. Each Ponpu spawns into a corner of the map and you egg each other until the time runs out. The player with the most kills takes the crown. It’s simple, classic and effective. This is the mode that feels most like Bomberman for the purists out there.
The second mode is Coin Steal. This is another free for all match mode but with a twist – when a duck is defeated, they drop coins in their neighbouring squares. Turning another player into a crispy duck isn’t enough to get the win – you have to collect these coins to earn points. Whenever a player dies, all of their coins are dropped taking their total to zero. This means that a match of Coin Steal can turn on a dime (pun intended) in just a few seconds or a well placed eggsplosion. There’s some interesting strategies you can employ here. Do you stay back and wait till the time is nearly up and swoop in to try and grab the win? Do you amass a small fortune in coins early on and hope you can hold on to them? It’s a pretty interesting mode that has made for some entertaining evenings with my family.
The last mode in Ponpu is my favourite – Paint Battle. Imagine Splatoon but played like 2 vs 2 Bomberman match and you’ll arrive at what this mode is. Any eggs shot across the screen or blown up in this mode will not only damage your opponent but also paint the floor in your team’s colour. The aim of the match is to have more of the arena floor painted in your teams tone when the time runs out. This mode is manic, fast paced and a real giggle generator. Of all the modes, this is the most fun.
Which Ponpu Are You Again?
All 3 of these modes suffer from one core issue though. At the start of each match, you get to choose which Ponpu design you wish to use. Each of the 4 available have different outlines but the same colour bodies and feature a splash of colour in their eyes to stand them out from one another. In the chaotic multiplayer matches though, these identifying marks can get completely lost. In the free for all matches it’s easy to lose your own place with explosions going off everywhere complete with complementing screen shake. Coloured health bars hover above each player but get close to one another and when looking away from the screen, it’s hard to identify which is for which player. In the team based Paint Battle, unless you’ve seen them recently drop an egg, it can be difficult to figure out who’s on your team and who’s not. Changing the colour of the whole of the ducks rather than just their eyes could have solved this but as it stands, the multiplayer matches can be difficult to read in the heat of battle. It’s so disappointing that a genuinely enjoyable series of multiplayer modes are partly undone by something so simple. Hopefully this can be fixed in an update.
Ponpu wears its inspirations proudly on its feathered breast like a medal. It’s not afraid of saying “hey, this is like Bomberman” because unlike so many other games these days, Ponpu is inspired by the classics rather than trying to copy them. The core mechanics are familiar but the way they’re used makes for a much more rapid experience. For fans of Bomberman who’ve been waiting for a new game that utilises the same mechanics, this is what you’re after – just with a few caveats.
Ponpu is weird, wacky and regularly wonderful. It’s a slick take on Bomberman that understands what made the original games so great and evolves it for the modern day. It’s a shame that the multiplayer modes are undermined by ineffective identifying marks that make it difficult to see who’s who. Thankfully a decent sized and suitably challenging single player campaign makes up for that.
Ponpu is available now on PS4 (reviewed on a base PS4), Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and PC.
Developer: Purple Tree Studio
Publisher: Zordix Publishing / Green Man Gaming
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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