If you aren’t aware, the indie game development scene is thriving on twitter. As a matter of fact, that’s how I first learned about Grapple Dog, through GIFs of it during development. Which is good, because otherwise this would have been a very non sequitur intro to this review. So seeing a finished game that I’d previously seen snippets of the development of was a rather exciting experience!
It’s also been a long time since I’ve booted up a game and instantly known I was going to have a good time. But when I booted up Grapple Dog, I was instantly sucked in by the bright visuals and peppy music. And thankfully, the gameplay did not disappoint.
This is a game that I would heavily recommend you play with a controller if you can.
Swing, Jump, Grapple, Repeat
Grapple Dog, perhaps surprisingly, is a 2D platformer built around a grappling hook. Shocking, I know. The protagonist, an anthropomorphic dog named Pedro, has access to a grappling hook. You can throw this hook in three directions: straight up, and at a 45-degree angle to the left and right. Depending on what you hit, you either swing from it to use momentum to fling yourself around the stage at high speeds, or you get pulled towards it in the case of balloons and cannons.
If you can use your grappling hook on it, it’s colored blue just so that you can be extra sure. Most of the time, you’ll be hitting large blue blocks, which you swing from. The swinging is the central mechanic of the game, especially in conjuncture with the rest of Pablo’s small but meaningful move set. Pablo can retract or lengthen the cord connecting him to the hook in order to change how far you can swing, which changes your momentum. Much of the game’s challenge comes from correctly identifying how long you need you make your grapple while on the fly.
But swinging around isn’t all that you can do. Grapple Dog has several different obstacles or objects that Pablo can use to navigate the level. From balloons that pull you to them and give you a boosted jump to cannons like the classic Donkey Kong Country games. Not to mention Pablo can wall jump or use grass growing on the side of wall to climb. You have a lot of tools to get around, and it’s incredibly satisfying to chain these moves together to keep Pablo moving. The developers seem to know this too, considering each stage has an optional time trial.
Speaking of each stage, the level design of this game fascinates me. The closest comparison I can think of is 3D Collect-A-Thon Platformer like Super Mario 64 or A Hat In Time, or the thousands of games like that. The comparison isn’t perfect. Grapple Dog’s levels are much more linear and generally based around platforming challenges, but each stage has so many secrets, from hidden paths to fake walls, that they feel like large open spaces you’re exploring.
But the big thing that reminds me of the Collect-A-Thon genre is that it kind of is one. See, every stage has seven purple gems in it: five hidden throughout the stage and two for collecting enough berries as you go. You use these gems to unlock the boss at the end of each world. Collecting all 300 in the game isn’t necessary, but colleting a lot means that if you’re really struggling a lot on a later level you don’t need to collect all the gems. Also, if you do well enough at a level, you can pet Pedro during the level results screen, so this is already a contender for Indie Game of the Year.
Additionally, some stages have a special coin that unlocks a bonus stage on the world map, giving you a challenge to complete in a short period of time. Either reaching the end of a stage, collecting all of the shards scattered throughout an arena, or defeating every enemy. Clearing a bonus stage nets you a flat three gems, even if you barely managed it with half a second on the clock.
What’s interesting about the collecting mechanics is that it isn’t enough to pick up a collectable. You also have to take it to a new checkpoint. Whenever you reach a checkpoint, it ‘banks’ so to speak all the items you have on you when you reach it. If you die before you reach a checkpoint, all the berries and gems you collected since your last checkpoint are lost to the winds, so you have to go get them back. Oddly enough, the bonus stage coin is not reset if you die.
Grapple Dog has a somewhat brutal difficulty curve. The bonus stages are exceptionally difficult by World 3, and the main levels of World 5 are fiendishly hard in their own right when they want to be. Also, only being able to send your grapple in three directions can be very limiting depending on where you are in midair, ad how much you’re panicking because you had not intended to be where you currently are, or you’re falling and there’s no floor, or a fireball is coming. You get the idea.
Fortunately, Grapple Dog features a handful of accessibility options for people who might not be confident that they can do the harder platforming the game demands. Namely, unlimited health and endless midair jumps. While there aren’t very many places in this game that I really struggled, I am happy to see these options to help people enjoy this game who need them.
I’d also like to give special mention the final boss for having an incredible gimmick and attack telegraphing that I’ve never see before executed extremely well.
Also, the snow level doesn’t have ice physics!
Grapple Dog has an art style I really have only ever seen in indie games. Specifically, it uses pixel art with a thick outer border. Additionally, all of the sprites are designed in such a way that they can be easily animated in detail despite their small sizes. The water stands for looking absolutely incredible, flowing and waving properly despite, again, being pixel art. And I was blown away by the bush sprites in the background of the game’s opening, which blew in the wind.
There are other small details you can find while playing through the game, too. Like how you can knock coconuts out of trees or spin umbrellas in the beach level. This is purely a visual thing, but it adds so much to the experience.
Every world in Grapple Dog has a strong, distinct visual identity. Basically, every world has two different themes that it combines perfectly. The first world is rolling hills and villages, the second world is a beach resort, etc. Each world has its own color palette that makes them even more distinct from the others. Seeing each world for the first time is always a treat as I get to see what the new theme is.
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The world map screen constantly amazes me. On paper, it’s fairly simple. You’re in a boat and you can sail freely around to a series of islands representing each stage. Beating a boss extends your sailable region another world to the right. What really left me startstruck is that your boat is either a 3D model that has somehow been made to look like pixel art, or they drew a boat sprite in 360 degrees. I’m reasonably sure it’s the first one, and I have absolutely no idea how they did it.
Every world has its own theme music as well. The songs remind me of Jet Set Radio of all things, which for some of you might be all you need as a recommendation. But the music in this game is absolutely my jam, and I love how each world has its own music appropriate for its identity.
The sound design is also excellent. Each action has an associated sound that gives you sensory feedback as you’re flinging yourself wildly around the screen. And I love the sound effects. That feedback from when an enemy robot explodes, or when Pedro heals from eating a dog bone treat, or even just grappling to something gives such wonderful feedback to what’s happening.
Man’s Best Friend And His Friends
The plot of Grapple Dog is only a few steps above an excuse plot. While helping his friends on an archaeological/historical expedition, Pedro accidentally activates a machine that traps him underground, where he unwittingly allows the robot Nul to escape. Nul immediately sets out to acquire the four maguffins scattered throughout the world so that he can open a portal home. This has the slight problem that doing so will destroy the world, something Nul is aware of, but simply doesn’t care.
There are plot twists in this game, but not many and very few of them directly affect the protagonists themselves. Instead, the game’s writing is heavily focused on the characters. After a few stages, you gain the ability to head below deck of your ship on the world map and speak with your friends, who provide light commentary on the adventure or their personal motives and goals. Each of the protagonists has their own personality and relationship with the other two in a way that feels natural. Also, Pedro is a himbo, something I never thought I’d get to say in a game review.
There are also the locals. Each world has one or two species of anthropomorphic animal living there. Except the crabs. They aren’t anthropomorphic beyond being able to talk, which raises interesting questions. Each of these species has their own personality trait they share. The polar bears are load and friendly while the crows are nihilists, for example.
Grapple Dog has a total of five named characters, one of whom is long dead by the start of the game. And yet it still has a charming and memorable cast for you to interact with.
There are also the background details of the different levels. Just about every game has some level of background storytelling by the nature of world design. For example, the houses in the background of the first world tell you a lot about the people who are native to these islands, even if it isn’t plot relevant. Same for the castle in the snow world. The world is full of light but rich detail.
Grapple Dog brings me a childlike sense of joy, though I never would’ve been able to beat it as a kid. It is a game that knows exactly what it is and revels in it. It executes every aspect of it’s gameplay near-flawlessly, and with a gorgeous art style and a soundtrack that slaps, I have no doubt it’s going to be a well-remembered gem for years to come.
I’d also like to reiterate that you can pet the dog.