You know those games which look like they could be pretty decent, under the radar affairs. Those games that then shock you by just how good they actually are? Yeah, that’s Grapple Dog.
We had a feeling Grapple Dog would be a fun playthrough. That’s not because of the cute, slightly retro, slightly old-school visuals. It’s not because of the chance to lead a dog to places it’s never been before; to save the world. It’s not even because of the fairly lengthy story that plays out as you enjoy some seriously good puzzle platforming and bottom-bouncing, nor due to the smattering of humour that unfolds.
In fact, we’re not really sure why we thought Grapple Dog would be good. Perhaps it was just the quirky name and the opportunity to hang out with a dog who just so happens to have a grapple hook as their main way of getting around? We mean, how can you not be interested in something called Grapple Dog?
Our initial thoughts have turned out to be right too – Grapple Dog absolutely nails what it is intending to do. And sitting here now, some double figure hours in and still wanting to do nothing but continue sending this dog on an adventure into the unknown, on a journey to save the world, there’s very little not to like.
Grapple Dog tells a story about Pablo, a dog, who, with his mates, has headed out onto an adventure into the unknown. See, they are treasure hunters and they are looking for the artifacts which keep their homeland safe – the Cosmic Gadgets first created by the Great Inventor. It’s these which have been scattered across the land, but it’s only those which can keep their world from falling to all evil. The problem is, and we’re cutting a long story short for fear of spoilers and the fact that we much prefer the gameplay over the set-up, Pablo just so happens to awake that evil…
From there plays the adventures of Grapple Dog and whilst chatting with Pablo’s friends is occasionally called for, for the most part the action centres on the navigation of stages. It’s here where this adventure really comes alive.
What this all boils down to is a scrolling platformer that has you manoeuvring Grapple Dog left, right, up and down through a series of worlds, stages and levels. It’s the worlds which play host to each stage, and with a neat little overview map navigated by Pablo in his little ship, it’s easy to move from one world and multiple levels, to the next. A fast travel option is available too should you tire of the sailing, but this level select screen has been so well put together we hardly found ourselves skipping it.
Falling into a level tasks you with actioning one main goal – to safely traverse to the other end of the level and ring the giant bell which signifies its conclusion. From there you’ll discover a quick rundown of how you went, and left to move on to the next.
Success in Grapple Dog is dictated by a few things. There’s that end goal of course, but scattered throughout each stage are some 250 collectibles. Grabbing these is not essential, but they do in turn help build out a collection of purple gems; it’s these which unlock end of world boss stages and further levels.
Bonus gems are also thrown in so you can spend time hunting those down if you so wish – a little favourite of ours being numbered gems which build to one giant reward. Throw in other Bonus secrets which open up further bonus levels and there’s near as damn it everything you could want of a platformer included in Grapple Dog.
But of course, a game called Grapple Dog needs to really nail that grappling mechanic and thankfully it works really well. Pablo is a delicate being but he is a dab hand at level traversing, easy to control and constantly on the go, looking for that next plaything. He swings around levels with ease, jumps from platform to platform for fun and is most at home when swinging, when climbing structures and more.
The grapple is used well too, but it isn’t ever so overpowering that you have to use it at all times. There’s a decent mix of gameplay mechanics included here.
For the most part levels are well designed with plenty of different routes available to the player. There are also just enough hidden areas and secrets to ensure you’ll want to go on the explore. When you consider the sheer number of collectibles, that’s something you’ll want to do too.
The stages are of decent size, yet on a personal level we feel that some of those found around the midway point fail to work as well as others – being constantly chased by a mechanical snake is more annoying than anything else. But credit must go to the development team at Medallion Games for the well considered stages.
It’s a shame then that the end of world bosses feel a bit of a letdown, especially when put alongside the main action. Let’s just say that getting to a boss is a trickier prospect than actually taking them down.
Grapple Dog also excels in the level of replayability that is on offer and even when you’re done with a stage, the appeal of going back through again, either to collect all the collectibles or via the unlockable speed runs, hardly ever feels a chore. In fact, we think the length of stage is pretty much perfect for dipping back into on a regular basis.
There’s also some real love in how Grapple Dog has been put together visually and aurally. Graphics-wise and this is a highly colourful affair, one that runs at a decent pace and is capable of pushing a ton of excitement towards your eyes. We’re big fans of the slightly retro, slightly old-school, heavily-lined character design too; it really does work well. As do the cut scene conversations that occasionally play out. Perhaps there’s a bit too much chatting in the early stages but we had fun listening to the humour coming from the mouths of Pablo and his mates.
For a platformer, Grapple Dog sounds good too. There are some neat sound effects running through the whole damn thing, and the backing track which accompanies it is one that will easily worm its way inside your head.
But hey, nowt is perfect right? That’s usually the case with many a game and there are a couple of minor points that knock this dog from his usually sturdy hook.
For one, there are times when mid-air control of Pablo is just a little off. Don’t get us wrong, it’s not anywhere near a game killer, but throughout our time with Grapple Dog we’ve had the occasional moment where we’ve wanted to be able to jump, bounce and grapple with just a teeny tiny bit more ease. That’s never more true than when confronted with some foes, as you try with all your might to line up a killer bounce or grapple, only to be thwarted by Pablo’s movement, or lack of as it turns out to be. You’ll usually find Pablo losing some, or all, of his limited health points as things go wrong. Thank god for the well placed checkpointing system.
There are also slight annoyances in certain level sections which feel a bit more scripted than the rest. These mostly consist of Pablo jumping into a cannon or being blown into the air by fans, before pinging through a level and the odd non-retractable checkpoint, gazing back as Bonus gems and the like pass him by. We guess that’s where the replayability has been baked in, giving a reason for you to tread levels again, but the want to go back time and time again is already so high in Grapple Dog that we’d prefer to be in total control of the reasons behind those additional level playthroughs.
Honestly though, those are the only real downsides to swinging through Grapple Dog. For the most part, aside from a couple of stages that fail to reach the heights of the others, the rest of Grapple Dog manages to deliver fun in spades.
There are certain games which surprise you, even if you’re already heading their way with a positive mental attitude. Grapple Dog is one of those games. A tight, content rich puzzle platformer that is full of character, humour and some brilliantly designed levels with hidden secrets. It helps that it looks good, and mostly controls magnificently.
If you’ve got even the slightest interest in a proper platforming experience, you should be swinging for Grapple Dog, hook and line.
Grapple Dog is on the Xbox Store