So Close, But So Far
Pong Quest is a love letter to Atari games gone past. A love letter filled with unnecessary tangents, illegible writing and smudged ink. A Pong sequel by name alone is an interesting premise. It could expand beyond genre boundaries as the games industry has grown exponentially since its release in 1972. The developers at Atari and Chequered Inc clearly agree and have ambitiously created a Pong-shaped dungeon crawler. Unfortunately the addition of dungeon crawling does nothing but hurt the overall experience. And it significantly weakens the otherwise solid evolved pong mechanics.
Pong Quest offers a number of distinct modes. There is of course, classic Pong which runs as smooth as ever. There’s an on-demand version of Pong Quest‘s new Pong gameplay (with multiplayer for both of these). And there is the titular story mode, ‘Pong Quest’. I’m happy to say that in a vacuum, the first two are great, and the addition of multiplayer further solidifies their value and potential for enjoyment with friends.
At their core, both modes hinge their success on their ability to enact tension on players through rising speed throughout a game. While both achieve this slightly differently, it’s the foundation of Pong and the one saving grace of Pong Quest. Classic Pong is just that: Classic Pong. It’s a sure fire indicator of whether or not this game as a whole is for you. And it is as enjoyable as it has ever been here. Similarly, the other multiplayer mode succeeds in this way. It is a great showcase for the work put into the fresh design of the core gameplay of Pong Quest unclouded by the problems in the main mode.
That new gameplay revolves around giving players a huge number of different consumable ‘balls’. These affect the ball or players in many different ways. From turning the ball into a straight firing bullet or spawning giant whirlpools to throw the ball off course to confuse opponents. Balls are also used to interact with the new HP system, which effectively replaces the old scoring in the original. With each hit or miss of the ball, players lose either a small or large amount of HP. If a player misses the ball while on low HP, then they lose. This introduces quite a lot of welcome strategy, with players switching balls on the fly to take advantage of any given situation.
However this vision is greatly stunted through the method of ball selection. This is done by scrolling through a list of currently equipped balls. Ball selection is fine when the player doesn’t have many different balls at the beginning of the game, but once players start getting more and more it becomes completely impossible to effectively switch between effective balls. So it becomes far easier to use the top two of your list instead of the intended experience. With so many unused buttons it is a shame a better system was not used.
It’s disappointing how steadfastly Pong Quest obsesses with its identity as something beyond Pong in its main mode. When in reality this is the only thing that falls short. The main new feature of this mode is the ability for players to explore a procedurally generated dungeon filled with enemies and dotted with several other encounters and activities. This sounds promising, but absolutely nothing is successfully done to make it interesting. And its many problems greatly detract from the overall experience, turning it into a frustrating slog.
The main objective is for players to progress through each four floors in one of five doors which represent levels. To do this, the player just needs to stumble into a room that happens to have the exit, and can instantly leave. Enemies are way too common in almost every room, and is the main instigator for the games failings. Once the player gets further in the game and levels up themselves by defeating enemies, the enemies become more powerful as well. This means little more than higher HP counts per enemy, and results in each enemy encounter taking minutes at a time. With insane numbers of enemies in each room, the player is accidentally incentivised to avoid these encounters instead of seeking them out. And it results in playing the game becoming a punishment.
It also doesn’t help that the encounter trigger radius around enemies is significantly larger than it should be. Once players cross the point that avoiding enemies is smarter, they become an incredibly annoying obstacle. And it makes the game endlessly frustrating to play. The problem is only made worse when balls that replenish enemy health are used, and artificially inflate the difficulty and deflate the fun. Again.
By the end of the game each dungeon is filled with an insane amount of rooms, meaning way too many enemies and far too much time spent searching for essentially nothing. It is worth mentioning that there are a few mini-games spread throughout each level. While these were always a hugely welcome detour, they never reward you with much worthwhile and were too spread out to save the rest. These reference some of Atari’s old franchises, and are also used in each door’s boss fight, which represented a high point of the single player experience.
It came as no surprise to me that Pong Quest’s presentation is its biggest draw – evident from its trailers and marketing. The music is retro and maddening in just the right way, and I found myself laughing at many of its jokes. The game offers pretty extensive player customisation, letting them dress their paddle with clothes or accessories. This successfully adds to the silly tone of the game, but isn’t enough to resurrect the whole game.
Pong Quest feels like it started as a joke by the developers at Atari and Chequered Inc to make the least Pong-like Pong game possible. In almost every way possible this dungeon-crawler Pong RPG feels (for better and for worse) like just that: a joke. Despite a lot of entertainment early in its runtime, Pong Quest’s featured story mode eventually settles into a frustrating broken game of attempted stealth and becomes aggravatingly tedious. While the other modes are successful and enjoyable on their own merit, the whole package is far too poorly designed to be wholly enjoyed. If you are interested in Pong Quest for the titular ‘quest’ alone, don’t bother. You will get half an hour of enjoyment; at most.
Note: We received a review code from Atari Inc.