Look at this good boy. Look at the color; the pristine boldness of its make-up and the promise of well-tuned platforming goodness. Since playing the demo of this game back late last year, I was ecstatic to finally get my paws on Grapple Dog, the latest game by indie developer Joseph Gribbin. After going through the whole thing and collecting every shiny rock I could, my thoughts have become resolute. Let’s get ruff!
As was linked just above, I got a small nibble of Grapple Dog during the last Steam Next Fest, so my expectations were pretty set going into this. The spritework was gorgeous, the soundtrack was catchy, and the grapple mechanic was effective, if not a little wonky. Alas, that was the demo build, so any little grievances I had were sure (I hoped) to be lifted upon final release.
One thing I will note is that in the demo, there was a short selection of levels, each becoming gradually more difficult. By the time I made it to the stage before the boss encounter, I was struggling to get past a certain section, causing some frustration to plague what was otherwise a pretty solid time. While more of a criticism of the demo than the actual game, I felt I needed more time to get adjusted to the controls and mechanics before taking on a stage with a difficulty curve that substantial.
To fast forward just a tad, that level ended up being much less of a hassle when I got to it during the actual game. Indeed, practice makes perfect.
Immediately upon booting up Grapple Dog and going through the glorified tutorial section / opening cutscenes, one can immediately tell the kind of game they’re getting into. Gracefully swept in an era of explorative adventure, the colors are not just for show. So much of the game is embedded in an aura of passion for the platformer-adventure genre as a whole. Worlds containing six stages each, a set number of collectible goodies, and time trial challenges, it’s almost rigidly methodical.
After my first session playing this (about a third of the way through the game), I skimmed some reviews from others that seemed to key in on a single term: “repetition.” Most insinuated that there was a lack of experimentation with the structure of the title, or that there wasn’t enough put into the grapple mechanic. While I admit there was a little exhaustion with the level structure by game’s end, this is something I, taken generally, disagree with.
Simplicity Is Pretty Cool, Dude
Per the words of my father, Donkey Kong Country was the first video game I ever played. While I’m not super fond of the original title anymore, its two sequels remain very near and dear to my heart. DKC 2 and 3 both adhere to a style of gameplay that I always have (and likely always will) be very comfortable with.
The original, I feel, is a little too simple. You jump and roll and collect some things for extra lives and try to re-acquire your banana hoard. Enjoyable for what it is, though not anywhere near the peak the series would eventually get to. This would come in the two sequels, which would feature a number of formula-changing inclusions, such as bonus barrels, collectible trinkets towards an accumulative overall, secret areas, hub worlds, etc. Where am I going with this?
Simplicity is key, particularly with platformers. What are you expected to do with them? Run, jump, maybe a little action, sure. What the sequel Country titles managed to do well was expand on what already worked without going overboard (debatable with the third title). This is why, in my mind, they succeed so well and hold up even today. It is also why I think Grapple Dog is such an incredible ode to these types of games.
Can you make the argument that this game is repetitive? Absolutely. Every world is practically the same in that it features six stages, each with a boss at the end (little fluctuation in the last two worlds), with seven purple gems to collect (five by searching the stage; two by collecting 110 and 220 of these collectible in-stage fruit, respectively) and maybe a bonus stage to unlock. When it comes to objectives outside of “Complete the levels and save the world,” it is almost deterrently consistent.
Should you like these things (like me), it’s a dream come true. A consistent spring of fun things to do with few surprises. It’s straightforward and transparent, and should you wish to take up the challenge, good luck! Donkey Kong Country was pretty similar in this regard (though maybe more vague about its purpose).
Simple? Sure, but it’s exhilarating, nonetheless. Gribbin could’ve just made Pablo (your character) run and jump. Instead, he provided a grapple mechanic, just to give the adventure a little more excitement. He added bonus levels for added challenge and time trials for the speedsters. It’s a step above simple, the kind that many praise classic titles of the past for doing. Grapple Dog isn’t breaking ground within the genre, though it does everything it can to embody the same passion as others have.
Room to Groove
Just to ensure people are still onboard, this is a review of Grapple Dog, not Donkey Kong Country. Understood? Great, so now I’m gonna talk about Donkey Kong Country a little more (last time, I promise).
An issue I have with the Returns iteration of games from the franchise is that they’re too big. What’s fun about the original trilogy is that they’re compact and small; the levels are designed to be almost claustrophobic, so there always seems to be things happening onscreen to account for. In Returns and its sequel, there’s a lot of just rummaging around and anticipating sequences of events. It’s not as… snappy, I suppose. I like it when things are more quick and to the point.
This game accomplishes this feat almost effortlessly. Some of this is attributed to the finesse via flying across stages with the grappling hook, though I feel the level design is already coursing with activity. Small enough to take one only a few minutes to complete if they’re not going for 100% completion, there’s assurance that Pablo will be jumping and swinging to his heart’s content.
Essentially, there is very little “boredom” to stages. The next course of action is always in sight, whether jumping across death pits or hopping into a cannon to blast through walls. Further experimentation with grappling can make things slightly more chaotic, but one is encouraged to take their time with things in patches.
Yet where the level design generally shines, there’s one area I think is somewhat weaker off:
To be fair, this is not all boss fights. I like the first and last two boss fights quite a bit. The other ones, I feel, are a bit of an acquired taste. Two boss fights, specifically, are not quite to my taste.
The first is the boss to World 3, which is some sort of gizmo that flies back and forth between a room spitting out fire and pounding the ground on occasion. This boss kind of goes against what I was complimenting Grapple Dog for just above: it requires a lot of downtime. You’re waiting for it to do something which will then allow you to attack its weak point. A majority of the fight had me running back and forth, muttering to myself, “C’mooooooon! Do it already!”
Second is the dragon boss. Such takes what I complained of with the prior boss and cranks it up even further. This boss, again, requires you to wait for its weak spot to become open; here, though, you have to wait through two separate phases before getting a chance. While the previous boss had the decency to be on the easier side, the dragon’s many phases are pretty easy to slip up on. Dying with just one hit left was a motivation-killer. It ended up taking me four attempts—it’s harder than the final boss. (And longer by circumstance.)
Boss fights are certainly meant to be a challenge; that I’m not trying to argue. It’s just the lengths at which Gribbin seems to wish to make them more… robust(?) by having them all structured in (occasionally overly long) phases. Again, almost like… okay, I promised.
Here’s a fun thing that not all platforming adventures take on: a developing story and characters! Indeed, Pablo actually has a point to being involved in this mess, and has some company along the way. Joined by way of scientific expedition, Pablo, friend Toni, and their research professor embark to discover the mysteries of the world. Sure, this is perfect to have as a placeholder plot, but there are little bits of intrigue injected into the thick of things.
Fallout, this is not. However, it is possible to interact with and gain insight on the situation through NPCs within levels and while on the team’s boat. Toni, for example, seems to know a lot more than she lets on, and may or may not be helping Pablo from the sidelines. Maybe. Lots of subtext kind of hidden in the background. New conversations can be viewed within the boat upon the arrival of each new world.
Grapple Dog‘s writing is fairly fun, albeit limited. Much of it boils down to cheekily worded hints to the game early on, then a lot of kookiness later. An emo bird, screaming polar bears; nice little set dressing for each individual region. Nul, the main antagonist, ends up being the most interesting character, mostly by way of subverting the player’s knowledge of the situation they were provided. Nonetheless, it doesn’t go beyond surface-level sprinkles of things underneath.
Speaking of sprinkles, the game is absolutely gorgeous. One of my favorite-looking indie games in several years, rivaling the likes of Iconoclasts. How gorgeously colorful everything is, from character designs to worlds inhabited. One could nitpick and say, “Oh, a snow, beach, and lava world? How original,” but I don’t care. Vibrant, bold, and bursting with life.
Similar holds true with the animation, which is bouncy and clear-cut. Targets will circle things that can be grappled onto, or are otherwise colored in blue. This alone becomes significant in how the player interprets the game. You see blue? Grapple. Target surrounding an airborne robot? Grapple. Lots of little visual quirks to get the message across without being too obnoxious. Flows great without any noticeable slowdown and just a couple split-second frame freezes.
One thing Gribbin seems very keen on showcasing on Twitter (go follow him; he’s very interesting) is the game’s purchasable soundtrack. While I found myself bobbing my head to various tracks, I think this is another area where repetition tends to sour it.
Most notably, each world only has one track, at least from what I could gather. Through (most of) six stages in each world, you will be listening to the same track again and again, outside of the brief overworld music. I suppose if you really liked these music tracks, then it’s not much of an issue. I was merely all right with them, so it got to the point where I was mostly tuning them out while playing. It’s fine; upbeat and kind of Jet Set Radio-esque (just look at the cover for the soundtrack).
…Oh, have I elaborated on anything about the gameplay? I guess it’s all kind of inferred, huh? Well… platformer adventure, you run and jump and grapple onto things. You collect gems and reach the end of a stage and sometimes jump on things. Uh… yeah, a little self-explanatory, I think. Game fun. Controls good. Smile wide.
Is this the greatest indie platformer of all time? Debatable, though it’s certainly one of the best indie platformers I’ve ever played, especially from a gameplay standpoint. While some issues with boss fights and a slightly overambitious soundtrack, in addition to a rather uniform approach to structure, can detract some from giving this a shot, Grapple Dog is a commendable and colorful addition to the storied platformer-adventure genre. I would certainly recommend it without question.
And hey, if anything I said throughout sounded intimidating, there are accessibility options like infinite jumps and health to help ease the frustration. These are all optional, of course, but the fact that one has a choice is also pretty rad.
Final Score: 8/10
For more reviews on this topic, be sure to check out the associated archive.
Thank you for your time. Have a great timezone.