It often feels like the Switch is overflowing with 2D platformers of every kind. There are the modern and polished likes of Donkey Country: Tropical Freeze, retro revivals such as Sonic Mania, and the tough as nails indies like Celeste. Now, competing for your time and cash is Pablo. A dog. With a grapple. Is he worthy of your attention? Yes.
What Grapple Dog has going for it, helping to separate it from the crowd, is charm and a feeling that the creators really cared about it. It surprised me the more I played.
Take the chunky Game Boy Advance aesthetic, with its thickly outlined sprites. It’s a nice look, but lots of games look nice. What impressed us was how it moves. Animations are fluid and full of character. Enemies squash and stretch and Pablo is full of life as he transitions from one pose to the next. Bushes sway as you move past them. It makes the world feel alive and vibrant.
It helps that Pablo feels pleasing to control. He’s responsive and snappy and his moves feel great to perform. In fact, Grapple Dog often approaches the point where it doesn’t feel like a platformer anymore, but like a rhythm game as you’re tapping in beat to launch yourself from one area to the next. If you’re looking for something to get in the ‘zone’ with, this may be what you’re looking for.
The love that’s been poured into this game comes out in other ways, too. There are beat the clock bonus stages to unlock, and these have clearly been created by someone who has played their own game a lot. They are all incredibly frustrating. Hard, but achievable, and obviously created by someone who wants to wring everything they can out of the mechanics they’ve put together.
And those mechanics are presented in such a nice way. New skills are introduced simply and then iterated on, remixed and joined with other skills as the world progresses. You never feel like the new mechanics are overwhelming, but by the end of the game, you’ll be wall jumping, wall climbing, barrel blasting, crab flipping and balloon grappling in a dizzying array of flowing moves. Someone has clearly been reading their level-designers textbook. Now add this to a soundtrack that is 16-bit era SEGA-level good.
There are some downsides, though. For some reason, the developers have chosen to assign jump to the B button and confirm.
This is heresy. A is jump. A is confirm. I will die on this hill.
The game also chooses to gate some of its bosses behind gems. You see, every level can be completed by just reaching the end. But every level also has quite a few collectables – numerous coins to collect, gems that are hidden off the beaten path, and collectables that unlock bonus stages. Going for the hidden gem is often a fun challenge, but they can be easy to miss.
This means that you might have to replay levels looking for gems if you reach the end of the world with not enough gems to unlock the boss. This stinks, quite frankly. Gems should be a fun extra and forcing you to collect them makes them seem like a chore, rather than a nice optional collectable.
Grapple Dog has loads of content to explore, so gatekeeping extra stuff behind gems and replaying levels feels like an odd choice. If you can deal with a little bit of replaying, though, Grapple Dog is lovely. It has a light touch and warm tone, that’s backed up with gently funny little character interactions and charming animation.
It can be tough, but it’s also approachable. It’s a refreshing, sunny, palate cleanser of a game. One that will make you smile before you throw the controller at the TV.
Medallion Games’ Grapple Dog is out now on Switch and PC.