Grappling: good. Dogs: good. Combine them and you get Grapple Dog, a fun platformer with plenty of ideas and a whole lot of charm.
Grappling hooks. Is there anything better than a good grappling hook? You throw it at a ceiling then fling yourself across a gap, feeling the rush as you launch yourself from the apex of the swing. Maybe you even chain a few together, navigating a maze of grapple points without ever touching the ground. Next thing you know, you’re one good costume party away from being Spider-Man. I’ll admit, though, that dogs come pretty close, though—much cuter than the average grappling hook, too.
Anyway, Grapple Dog is, as you might have figured out, the best of both worlds—why choose a dog or a grappling hook when you can just have both? That seems to be the thinking at Medallion Games, and honestly, it’s a sound strategy. I’m here for it.
In essence, it’s a neat action-platformer about a dog, Pablo, who finds an ancient artifact (a grappling hook, naturally) and sets out on a journey to save the world from a villainous robot called Nul. In classic platformer fashion, it’s a quest across a bunch of different themed zones, each one with a handful of levels that constantly introduce new gimmicks to build on what you’ve seen so far—what starts with some fairly straightforward jumping and grappling puzzles soon gives way to swinging your way across a maze of moving platforms, using floating balls of water to launch yourself around (it’s not all about grappling hooks), or using swarms of flying enemies to repeatedly fling yourself higher and higher.
When all the pieces come together—which is most of the time—it’s a wild, exciting adventure. Grapple Dog combines the thrill inherent in hook-based traversal with clever level design to create something fluid and intrinsically rewarding. Swinging is fun on its own, but it’s the way it combines with a growing assortment of different stage gimmicks to create unique puzzles that really shines. Most levels have multiple paths forward and plenty of hidden secrets if you’re gunning for that 100% completion, while an optional time trial mode and a few secret levels really put momentum front and centre. It’s simple, satisfying fun.
That said, the harder levels do let the cracks show a bit. As the levels get trickier, they demand a level of precision that Pablo’s physics can’t quite match: the speed and direction with which you come out of a swing can be unpredictable, making it tricky to nail the pinpoint jumps and carefully-aimed grapples that the game demands at times. Pablo has just a little too much drag when you try to stop or change direction, and is just a little too unwieldy when course-correcting mid-jump, hampering the otherwise sharp level design. Grapple Dog isn’t exactly Celeste or Super Meat Boy, but it demands a degree of control that’s not always there, and when a missed jump can be a big setback, that hindrance becomes frustrating.
But if it becomes too frustrating, you can always just, y’know, give yourself unlimited mid-air jumps or invincibility. Grapple Dog packs a decent array of accessibility options, covering visual effects, audio, and a couple of options for toning down the difficulty. I don’t want to get into that whole “discourse”—these options are options, for those who want to use them—but they’re nice options to have, that let you still engage in what the game does best, but on friendlier terms.
What really ties everything together, and takes the edge off those occasional frustrations, is the ridiculously cute art style and heartwarming story to match. Grapple Dog employs a unique brand of pixel art, far removed from the retro throwbacks and deliberate lo-fi aesthetics that dominate the style. Instead, you’ve got characters that look more reminiscent of a children’s cartoon, characterised more by rounded silhouettes and heavy linework, the blockiness of the pixels being more of a stylistic finish than the defining quality. Coupled with the bold colours and simple, endearing character designs, the effect is delightful.
The story going with it is similarly simple and endearing: Pablo finds his grappling hook, learns of an evil robot’s plan to bring ruin to the world by collecting four ancient relics, and sets about to stop him, with plenty of playful banter and comical interludes along the way. It’s classic videogame stuff, for the most part, but takes some unexpected twists in a heartwarming direction. And even at its most routine, the sheer personality of Pablo and his oddball crew is enough to make the time spent with them worthwhile.
It’s that charm and playfulness that keeps Grapple Dog going, through its ups and downs. Slightly unwieldy controls mean the fluidity you’d expect isn’t always there, particularly on the trickier levels that demand more precision, but it’s hard to get too frustrated at something so gosh-darn cute. And when the grapple hook mechanic and nifty level design do come together just right, which is more often than not, the exhilarating result makes the odd annoyance worthwhile. A grappling hook and a dog just go together—I don’t make the rules.
Developer: Medallion Games
Publisher: Super Rare Originals
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed), PC
Release date: 10 February 2022
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.