It might be bizarre to say this, but Twitter has provided my life with a ton of beautiful discoveries. There are certainly those accounts you should stay far away from, but I somehow got lucky with mainly friendly people within the TTRPG and gaming communities. Most importantly, I have also been able to find a bunch of creative projects to support and even try out! One of these gems was Grapple Dog, an adorable indie title that had me hyped by its demo and lovely team of developers.
Long ago, the people of Partash lived in hardship until an inventor appeared and built devices to help them all out. Unfortunately, he got kidnapped by a great evil right after hiding away his four cosmic gadgets with unknown powers. Changing to the present day, we see Pablo travelling alongside the professor and the mechanic Toni in order to conduct historical research. However, the moment Pablo falls into some old ruins, the past catches up to them and the trio sets out to save the world.
Despite that Grapple Dog might not focus heavily on its story, there is a healthy amount of dialogues and characters to meet that offers it some personality. The heroes are charming with Pablo only wanting to be kind towards others, the professor acting as the serious grandma, and Toni being a good support and investigator. While rather simple and traditional than anything deep, all of them are solid and easy to cheer for.
Somewhat similarly can be said about the inhabitants of the different regions you will come across. The islands of fire and machines have emo crows and the snow world holds friendly ice bears. Again, this is all nice, just nothing memorable. What actually is hard to forget, are all the dialogues. Every single conversation includes something worth a chuckle, with a highlight being the protagonist asking carefully the main villain to work on his anger issues and him responding by presenting the next boss battle. This kind of humour continues onward with fun jabs on excessive lore and self-aware jokes about the game’s mechanics.
It is always endearing to see any adventure wanting to entertain its audience through the smallest of events, like here with the strange lines indicating that Pablo is never allowed near the toaster or how the gadgets represent four treasures of elemental powers. I also want to commend this project for presenting a twist that it subtly foreshadowed, without making the result of it feel forced. Despite being at times restricted in its world-building and plot, this indie title still offers strong reasons to talk to every NPC and makes this journey a sweet one to partake in.
Story Score: 7/10
Dog with new tricks
Celebrating the mascot craze of the 90s, Grapple Dog is a side-scrolling platformer where each stage has a goal post at the end. While these levels in the form of islands are unlocked progressively, the ones with the world’s boss need gems that can be found in each stage in order to be opened. This adds a bit of exploration into the mix, with five hidden ones and two extra being awarded if you collect enough of the 250 food icons scattered in a level. 110 for just one gem and 220 for two respectively, but since a lot of them are already in your pathway, this is a clever way to give the impatient player some leniency.
There are no forms of extra lives in this game, meaning any death will have you simply respawn at the nearest checkpoint you went through. I am all for this setup, as it keeps the adventure at a steady pace with every failure being clearly your own. This is further helped by the lovely controls that make Pablo comfortable to handle, with his jumps carrying momentum and being easy to get a grasp on. You even have a meter under his health bar to showcase when his speed is high in case you need to perform longer leaps and similar.
He is quite the acrobatic dog, being able to jump, wall jump, and ground pound. Although, his grappling hook is certainly the main gimmick of this platformer and it is a blast to use. Pablo can swing from it by hooking onto blue surfaces, climb up and down its rope, and even use it to pull himself into enemies for a quick hit or towards specific spheres for good measure. This offers a ton of possibilities and the stages are designed well to use this mechanic variedly, such as having you shimming down a wall before swinging into a cannon and firing yourself onwards at the right time.
Even the ground pound is integrated nicely by making you go faster down and being used for bashing foes, destructible items, trampolines, and through green barriers! I also adore the minor addition of letting you slide faster down using the same button, keeping this title’s speed at a consistent pace as long as you can react to the obstacles. Which honestly should not be a problem, as the opponents are lacklustre. It is not until the halfway point they actually become a form of hindrance or used as platforming units. Until then, they are rather meaningless and do not even differ much besides being capable of flying or shooting projectiles.
Not to mention, this journey is quite forgiving. Killing an enemy will give you a biscuit to refill your health and you can even turn on options to not take any damage and have infinite jumps. This I believe crosses the line between making a game accessible to newcomers and someone just giving up on a challenge in general. Even worse; this removes the idea this platformer has of using its momentum for exhilarating acrobatic segments with a grappling hook. Luckily, this is hidden within the menus and despite Grapple Dog being quite easy overall, the stages are still fun and creative with a good difficulty curve to make the final levels test your skills adequately.
Admirably, the levels also introduce new ideas that work alongside the platforming, such as crumbling layouts and conveyor belts to swing off from. None becomes a pace breaker, with even swimming being fast due to a boost button and being full of engaging obstacles to avoid. What also enhances these stages, is going for the gems since they always lead to tough segments or require keen eyes to be discovered. There are some context-sensitive aspects, like climbing on grassy surfaces, but they still add to the gameplay by making sure you use your diverse abilities constantly.
Unfortunately, the bosses are a big issue. While they start out nice with the first one having you run through an obstacle course, the rest contain long patterns of avoiding attacks before you can get a hit on them. This makes these battles drag on and even the final boss can feel like it takes an eternity to beat, which is a shame when they can be imaginative. One fight is even taking place in the sky where you ride on top of a plane and go up against a robot dragon, but its patterns are just tedious and not challenging at all. I also question the setup of giving you health biscuits before you bite the dust, as this feels like a forced way to help you get through these encounters.
Thankfully, this does not change the fact that I had a good time with Grapple Dog. Its key mechanic is always at a focus, the platforming is fast-paced, and the levels are enjoyably designed. Despite it starting out slow, having some context-sensitive moments, and terrible bosses, I cannot deny that it offered a solid playtime through its five main worlds. Although, a better difficulty option should have been implemented.
Gameplay Score: 7.5/10
Set sail, ye seadog!
Made in GameMaker Studio 2, this indie title goes for a great pixel style that is reminiscent of the GBA’s technical capabilities. Utilizing clear sprites on characters and containing a map with your boat and islands being all in an intriguing take on 3D, it is a pleasant project to behold. It is also just a neat detail to see what gimmick each stage will revolve around on the overworld map through visual means.
Although, the levels themselves are nothing spectacular. They are still vibrant, with one being a suburban neighbourhood, another taking place on a beach and so on, but the reuse of set pieces makes the islands within each region become too similar in terms of looks and thus not stand out from one another. You might stumble upon the occasional diversion, but even they get reused and can make the journey underwhelming, despite the use of bright and lush colours. Not to mention, the fire, water, and the mechanic worlds feel more like stepping into familiar territories than anything unique, which is a shame when there are some assets provided in order to make them visually interesting, like Christmas trees.
It needs to be reiterated that there are a lot of delightful details around, such as parallax backgrounds with animations in them, varied weather effects, and tons of small animals flying around. You can even alter these effects should they be disturbing, but I never found them anything but beautiful. I also love how the enemies are all machines and have screws and bolts flying around upon being defeated. In fact, the characters are the highlights for me. The inhabitants are copied throughout, but they fit each environment well to give them some nice atmosphere, like the toads in the water world.
Pablo, his crew, and the bosses are those with the most effort being put into them though, with cute idle animations and appealing looks. The bosses are based on different beasts in creative mechanical forms, and the rest of the cast showcases their personalities through strong expressions, making them easy to relate to. It is also hard to not praise their simple, but iconic designs that contain specific elements to make them memorable, like the blue overalls to the protagonist.
Though what surprised me the most, are the gibberish voices they convey upon talking to each other. Not only will they change to replicate what kind of animal is speaking, but even their tone will alter to indicate their mood, such as Pablo’s whimpering for when he is scared! It is an endearing detail that I wholeheartedly admire. The rest of the audio is generally good for providing clear indications of actions occurring, while giving them only a quick effect to emphasise the game’s speed. Be it swinging around, bashing some opponents or shooting out of a canon, it is all solid and works to enhance what is happening on the screen.
Just as exhilarating, is the fantastic soundtrack. With a heavy focus on clear beats and uplifting electronic rock, it offers a ton of catchy melodies with wonderful rhythms and diverse tones. Using everything from skipping records to guitars, these are quite impressive compositions, with every single one fitting their respective worlds due to clever additions, such as the chimes in the winter islands. There are only a handful of tracks included and this can make the experience have a taste of deja vu, but it is all done with such quality to the point of affecting the tunes while underwater, it is hard to not be engaged. Despite that this could be argued for being a case of quality over quantity, I would say it is definitely on the positive side.
Presentation Score: 7/10
Go get ’em, boy!
Completing this game is no easy task, but an exciting one nonetheless. Finding all the hidden gems in each stage and collecting enough food to unlock two more, offers a ton of exploration and some difficult platforming segments. This really elevates this title into a whole different experience and there are even bonus coins to locate in some of these islands that will unlock new levels in the form of small obstacle courses. Here, you either have to gather enough trinkets, kill every single enemy around or get to the goal, all within a time limit. These will make you plan out every move and have your reflexes tested, but reward you handsomely with three purple gems.
In order to not make this overwhelming, each island showcases what secrets it holds and even has the gems acquired placed in the order you can obtain them, giving you subtle hints on where the last ones might be. Gathering enough of these will unlock more levels in the last sixth world, which are long challenges that are incredibly satisfying to beat. Finally, there is the time trial mode for all the normal stages, ranking you in either gold, silver, or bronze depending on how well you did it. Because of the fast nature of this platformer and focusing on momentum, this part of the journey had me hooked trying to cut milliseconds wherever I could, providing magnificent rushes of adrenaline.
Should this still not be enough, you can even play a fun minigame that represents an old arcade shooter. In this one, you control a cowboy that can shoot with his gun or toss a boomerang that follows your horizontal arc. An interesting implementation is that only the latter can give you points when hitting the foes, but you need to make sure that none of them passes you or you will lose one of your health units, making this quite addicting to get a high score in. The best part of it all though, is that you can pet Pablo after each stage for doing such a good job, which you should!
Extra Score: 10/10
While this title is solid on its own, it is really the extra content that makes this a great package to consider due to how it all tests Pablo’s acrobatic abilities. It is a sweet project with a cute cast of characters, neat worlds to witness, a killer soundtrack, and a great focus on its main mechanic, but Grapple Dog is at its best when it challenges you through exploration and platforming skills. It could use more variety in its presentation and there are some lesser parts to the overall adventure, but I still had a nice time going through it. Go for 100% and I guarantee you will have a blast with it!