An indie platformer that draws influences from bits and pieces from the history of Nintendo (predominantly) and also SEGA (to a lesser extent)? Say it isn’t so, because I’ve never seen one of those before! The hints of Sonic, Yoshi and Donkey Kong in the level design, combined with the Zelda-themed objects of power hunt make for a game that is, in fairness, hard to muster much enthusiasm for at first. Along with roguelikes and Metroidvanias, the traditional platformer is one of those genres I do wish that indies would get over. But it doesn’t take long for that impression to fade, because as Grapple Dog kicks into gear its charm and loving craftmanship make it very difficult to put down.
What is odd, however, is that this game has clearly been built around its secondary challenge. Like so many other modern platformers, once you complete a level, you then unlock the time attack “speedrun” mode. With most platformers, that speedrun mode unlock makes sense as a secondary feature when the main part of the game is about scouring levels for hidden collectibles and treasures, and that’s no longer necessary once all the treasures have been found. But then those games are also built around a stop-start kind of platforming while exploring. Where Grapple Dog is different is that its mechancics have been built around feeling really good at speeding through levels. Whether it’s the running, wall jumping, or tossing the titular grapple around to pendulum your way past deadly spikes and other traps, Grapple Dog is as its best when you’re moving, at full pace, and then feeling inspired to try parkour in real life just to see if this kind of seamless, fluid, endlessly transitioning movement really does feel this good.
The first time you run through a level, however, you’re going to be constantly stopping and restarting. Like most platformers, there’s a whole lot of stuff to collect in Grapple Dog, and a lot of it is needed to progress, be that by unlocking bonus levels, or entire new worlds. The problem is that Pupper The Hero (not his actual name) doesn’t do so well when he’s not speeding. There’s a stickiness about the jumps, in particular, that makes stationary acrobatics a pain, and more than a few times I would barrel into enemies because the responsiveness of Pupper, which feels so great when moving at speed, falls off a cliff when moving slowly. Similarly, finding the nooks and crannies where the good stuff is hidden is often a pain becasue it means you need to slow down, and, ironically, that makes it more difficult to make the kind of precise leaps you’re often asked to. Everything about Grapple Dog makes you want to go fast.
It’s hard to stay mad at the game, though, because it’s so good-natured and clearly built by people that love the genre and have committed all of the greats to muscle memory. Levels are designed with a kind of flowing creativity that makes each section of a level its own thing, and there’s not a moment in them that isn’t popping with colour, energy, and vibrancy. Each new level seems to throw up new ideas, or at least significantly different variations on existing ideas, and so each new level becomes something to look forward to. There’s some good challenge here, too. Grapple Dog looks warm and fuzzy and has a light narrative, but it’s happy to test your platforming skills, too, just as genre fans would like it.
Then there are things that you don’t necessarily expect from an indie platformer. For one, there’s a quality to the characters that really enhances the experience. The narrative is minimalist and efficient, but there’s a genuine sense of humour that helps to make those interactions entertaining and gives the whole game a sense of world and being that elevates it beyond a sequence of levels. There’s even a minigame, inspired by the old Game Boy arcade titles of yesteryear. You’ll only play that once or twice, but, again, its presence within Grapple Dog highlights just how passionate the developer is about this project. They want you to know that this isn’t just another indie project.
I’m not the world’s biggest fan of platformers, but I very much warmed to Grapple Dog. The thought and passion that went into every element of the experience is explicit, and it’s hard not to fall for its wiles and charms. I do think the developers lost sight a little of how they wanted people to play this game, as the speedrunning quality of the movement system does feel at odds with the way the game also asks you to carefully explore levels, but that’s really splitting hairs here. Grapple Dog is a bold, confident, and often inspired take on a genre that is as oversaturated as they come.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb