Developer: Chequered Ink | Publisher: Atari | Genre: RPG | Platforms: PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows | Reviewed On: PlayStation 4
Gaming wouldn’t be the same without Atari’s Pong. As one of the first video-games ever made, it helped create our beloved industry. Now, 48 years later, Pong has returned in the form of Pong Quest, a hybrid of classic pong and RPG conventions. The game hopes to bring the veritable classic back into relevancy, and in many ways, it succeeds. Pong Quest is an effective reminder of Pong’s charms, despite some horrid design decisions ruining much of the fun.
Most of your time spent with Pong Quest will be playing an ingeniously modified version of Pong. Like the original, gameplay is all about using a paddle to bounce a ball into the enemy’s goal. Pong Quest copies this base formula and then builds on it. First, instead of just scoring goals against your foe, the goal is to wipe out said foe’s HP. HP lowers whenever the paddle is struck or a goal is made (which counts as a critical hit). The game ends when a paddle’s HP reaches zero, although the final blow must be a goal.
The change is simple but powerful thanks to the game’s brilliant assortment of ball types. Unlike the original Pong, Pong Quest matches involve a litany of different ball types. Throughout the game, when exploring dungeons or in battle, it is possible to find various pong balls and store them in the inventory. The player begins only being able to carry 3 balls but eventually can hold up to 10. These balls can be activated freely during a match by hitting the ball. The assortment of balls is truly impressive and help to provide Pong Quest with engaging, surprisingly tactical gameplay.
The types of balls in play change the flow of a match dramatically and finding potent combinations is both fun and rewarding. For instance, the mimic ball can miniaturize the enemy paddle – making shots more difficult – but said opponent can then use a ball to create pillars, shrink the arena, and limit the balls the trajectory thereby making the ball easier to hit. There are numerous strategies like this that can be implemented with each ball type having some weakness of its own. There are even status ailments, like putting an enemy to sleep or lighting them on fire, which only further adds to strategic, RPG-like feel to the combat.
Speaking of RPG elements, the game has satisfying progression. Winning matches in the campaign allows the player to level up increasing the player’s health and inventory. These improvements to stats coincide with new balls to collect and nefarious new enemies. The A.I. is impressive in Pong Quest and victory requires adaptation and intelligent use of ball combinations: the matches are genuinely compelling.
Unfortunately, Pong Quest forgets the fun and forces players to contend with monotonous dungeon design. That’s right, this is pong with dungeons, and it’s as stupid as it sounds. When not fighting, players must explore randomly generated mazes until they reach the final floor, each dungeon has four floors, where they battle a boss. There are five dungeons in total, and you see everything a dungeon has to offer within the first couple levels of the first dungeon. Aside from the new enemy types, each dungeon is exactly the same, even the NPCs the player encounters offer the same side quests any without variation.
The repetitious nature of the dungeons wouldn’t be so infuriating if it didn’t force you into combat all the time. Yes, matches are great and there’s a solid variety of enemy types, but it’s not enough to counteract the grind. Going through a single dungeon forces the player to encounter the same enemies over and over again. Then if the player dies, the level resets – meaning all progress for the floor, aside from any balls you’ve collected, is lost. The randomization only worsens matters since the location of key items move, forcing the player to potentially run through the same gauntlet multiple times even if they’ve already made it to the boss. Basically, the game forces the player to grind and turns its simple but charming gameplay into a slog.
Even the story rehashes tired gaming tropes without a hint of self-awareness. Player’s navigate the dungeons in search of four keys which will open a final dungeon. It’s the same formula as many a platformer game but without any of the charm found in genre classics like Banjo-Kazooie and Super Mario Galaxy 2.
Ultimately, Pong Quest feels like the product of a studio that didn’t have faith in its series’ legacy. The base gameplay is an ingenious reinvention and enough on its own as it has the depth to support single-player and multi-player, which the game provides both online and off. If Pong Quest‘s campaign was just a series of matches – tournament-style – against various enemy types, it would be 1-2 hours and a blast. Instead, the game tortures players with a 7-8 hour campaign that turns a rejuvenated classic into a chore in the name of artificial game lengthening. Buy the game on sale and enjoy the occasional match and multiplayer shenanigans but do not expect a worthwhile campaign.