Among the many demos currently available this week with Steam’s Next Fest, a few stand out to me, personally. One of which is the topic of today’s post: Grapple Dog, a game I’ve had my eye on for some years now. As a longtime fan of platformers and 2D sidescrollers, everything about this title screams, “This is your thing, buddy. Jump on it.”
Thus, upon the announcement that Grapple Dog was to be featured in the Next Fest with a playable demo, it became an immediate priority. All the development screenshots and videos that developer Joseph Gribbin showcases on Twitter will finally be open to control. Many different indie platformers have come and gone, ranging between Where’s Samantha? and SHEEPO quality. But I had a good feeling that this game would be something especially grand. If the demo is any indication, my expectations were not unfounded.
Grapple Dog is available to play as a free demo between October 1-7 during Steam’s Next Fest. A full release date has not been provided.
Story – Flimsy Flashbacks(?)
While I can’t say I’m experienced with playing demos, Grapple Dog‘s does something a little different. A basic tutorial is shown upon starting it up, but is presumably placed in the middle of an intro sequence. Pablo, the dog, falls into some darkened chasm and meets with an unassuming robot named Nul. As the game takes you through the controls and features, you eventually come across the grappling hook, one of the main features of the game. (Could you tell by the game’s name?) Quite soon after, the screen flashes to white, and then you’re on a boat, able to move around and choose between three stages outright. I initially thought the game was broken, only to realize it was probably intentional. (Right?)
In this specific state, there’s not too much to hold onto from a “Story” position. Pablo and Nul are introduced, and I believe there was one other person you could speak with, but nothing substantial. From what I could gather, Nul coerces you into helping it retain some semblance of power, to which they then use to try and conquer the world. So then your goal becomes to stop it. Pretty straightforward for a platformer, and not much is really established over the course of the demo. It’s mostly gameplay and getting a sneak peek at the worlds on display.
Gameplay – Barkin’ Up the Right Spaces
Going into this, I knew it would be fast-paced. Bouncy, swing-y, physics-influenced trajectories abound throughout one’s time here. It’s no Webbed, though it can be pretty frantic for one not totally accustomed to the genre. The design of the game nevertheless ensures that one can go about it at their own pace, which is nice!
Speaking of going at one’s pace, Grapple Dog contains some accessibility measures that make the game (much) easier, available via the options menu. One can toggle whether they want infinite health or infinite jumps, if I recall correctly. Some may see this as dumbing down the game; I like to see it as optional cheat codes, allowing one to coast through the game and feel like the greatest thing ever. I love when games provide the capability to supremely beef up the player or make things more absurd. Remember moon gravity in the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games? That was awesome.
Getting into the game itself, it’s a fairly basic platforming title, coated with an extra sensation via the grappling mechanic. One is expected to go from one end of the stage to another, dealing with obstacles such as robo-baddies, spike traps, and tall structures. Along the way, one is enticed to collect little fruits that are accumulated at the end, along with purple gems that act as a collectible currency (I assume) for secrets levels and/or progression. Pablo can hop, ground-pound, wall-jump, and grapple his way around stages where applicable, making him more agile than the average dog.
Even if the general objectives of the game aren’t entirely original, what makes Grapple Dog immediately recommendable is its high-flying sense of freedom. True, you cannot just mindlessly grapple onto whatever you want, but there are sequences of stages that embody all that the game can provide as a means of entertainment. Swinging to and fro and getting up to higher ground; shuffling up and down to avoid buzz saws while suspended above lava; barreling up tight spaces while nabbing any fruit you can muster. A modern rendition of a 2D platformer with hindsight necessary to understand what makes a thrilling adventure.
An inescapable energy comes through with each stage, encouraging the player to experiment and explore. Well-communicated visuals and layout keep players engaged with the environment, without needing to over-explain what to do. (Assuming you’ve played a platformer before.) Accessibility measures aside, its default difficulty is a good balance between approachable and controller-smashing. A natural progression of difficulty is achieved, at least through these three specific stages, that’s well suited for general player logic. A remarkable attention to detail to things not generally noticed by many players, but simply expected.
Put simply, Grapple Dog is remarkably fun. While it took me nearly an hour to complete all three stages and boss fight—picking up every collectible I could and doing a time trial with the first stage—I never grew bored. I was ready for more.
As these things go, though, it wasn’t a completely perfect experience. Also similarly to Webbed, the auto-targeting for the grappling hook shot can be somewhat finicky, leading to a lot of what seems like unfair deaths. This was especially noteworthy in open areas with a variety of different things to lock-on to, as well as faster-paced situations that required quick reflexes. Swinging, in general, has a bit of a roughness to it, which can occasionally thwart the quick pace of stages. Certain moving grapple points made this issue less apparent, though for those attached to the ceiling in one spot, I may have hit the sides—killing my momentum—a few too many times for comfort.
And while this is a very minor note, as the performance was generally very good throughout, there were times where the game would inexplicably freeze for about a second, scaring me into thinking the demo had crashed. This occurred a few times during the first twenty or so minutes of my playtime.
Graphics & Audio – I Dig This Dog
From what I’m aware, Grapple Dog is mostly being worked on by one person. He may have brought in some other people to assist with things, but the developer name on Steam is simply “Joseph Gribbin,” so I’m inclined to believe that he’s doing pretty much everything. I just wanted to note how impressive that is.
Anyway, the game is a bouncy, colorful display of magnificence that is perfectly concocted for the overall vibe of the adventure. Vivid yellows and blues and oranges and reds; most of which signify some sort of untold mechanic. Some platforms are orange with an arrow on it—they will bounce you. Others are red and have many arrows—they will bounce you higher. Anything blue is basically a grapple point. All these different color denotations allow for easy understanding of what is and isn’t accessible at a given moment, on top of being really pretty. The three stages on display are within their own unique setting that makes me immensely curious to see just how far the setting type will wander.
Many of the effects are very similar. Small details in animation are noticeable and charming, like Pablo wincing as he hits his head on ceilings, or the big cloud of dust that gathers as the remains of a robo-baddie fly off in every direction. Lots of action comic-like whooshes and strokes come upon the screen with various actions, like swinging or ground-pounds. All of this accumulates into a stimulating array of visual shenanigans that only better enhance the immersive aspect.
Auditorily, I’m not quite as keen on. Grapple Dog, within this demo build, only has a few notable tracks to listen to as one progresses through a stage. While funky and energetic, it does get a tad repetitive after a while. If I could describe it through comparisons, it reminded me of a slightly toned-down Splatoon. Merely a few hours removed from playing the game, I can’t immediately recall how any specific tune goes, so that doesn’t speak much to my fondness for it. Others may find it worth grooving out to, but it’s not really for me.
The game’s sound effects are a little easier to compliment. While again not as expressive as the visual element, hearing Pablo rumble around stages is pretty endearing. I quite like the bombast of crashing into boxes to reveal platforms or fruits, as well as the little jingle that plays when collecting items. There are a number of well-intended noises that fit well with the general flavor of each stage, whether it be boosting around underwater, the bubbling of lava, or the audible “whooshes” of swinging. As stated before, the little details are prevalent, and it’s wholly appreciated.
Grapple Dog was previewed via a demo available on Steam.