Phogs! puts players in the unique form of Red and Blue, two pawless puppies joined at the stomach. In single-player, the left stick moves Blue and the right stick Red; in multiplayer, each player is responsible for one end of the dog. With this unusual arrangement, players progress through a quirky, colorful world solving puzzles by manipulating the world with only two moves: grabbing items with the dogs’ mouths, or elongating their body like Stretch Armstrong. (Or barking, mostly just for fun.)
The premise is outlandish and simple, but effective. Sometimes you might only grab a ball or pull on either end of a gachapon capsule to get a reward inside; at other times, you may have one dog latched onto a water spout, causing the other end to act like a hose. Bit Loom Studios found a lot of interesting applications, and even when a gimmick was reused, it didn’t turn stale.
There are three main Worlds in the game, each with eight levels built around a particular theme: Sleep, Food, and Play. These concepts are applied in a variety of interesting ways. Throughout Sleep World, for example, there’s apparently a curfew in place, as sentry birds will return the pups to a bed at the start of the current area if they’re seen. Meanwhile in Eat World, Red and Blue might water crops to make springy tomatoes appear, allowing them to access the next platform. In Play World, a variety of pseudo-minigames await, like mini golf.
A main station allows access to each themed World’s hub, from which each level is accessed. Clearing one level will cause subtle changes to the hub and allow access to the next level. Moving between hubs, levels, and areas within levels is done by travelling through warp pipe-esque serpents, like a strange twist on Snakes and Ladders. Littered throughout are goofy cartoon NPCs who react to the dogs’ presence, offer clues, or request items. The whole game is rife with charm.
Controlling the dogs is somewhat easy in single-player. In fact, I often would lead with Blue and let Red get dragged along for the ride as I moved from one area to the next. They have unusual physics as they glide on their stomach; sometimes I’d fall off a ledge because they tripped over each other, or one dangled too close to the edge. After a natural adjustment period, however, it became fairly intuitive. There were still some awkward moments where I’d have to be extra careful on the analog stick, but overall I had a good handle on their mechanics after a couple levels.
Things get interesting in multiplayer, however, and this is where Phogs! can become a true test for any manner of relationship. Controlling one end of the dog each is a make-or-break teambuilding exercise, especially in some areas where a chasm must be traversed, particular platforming maneuvers must be used, or items manipulated in an unusual way. Voice chat is essential for online multiplayer—I can’t imagine being able to beat many levels without communication.
(If you ever played The Adventures of Cookie & Cream back on the PS2, you may have an idea of what’s in store here. Working together to complete tasks is essential.)
The addition of both couch and online co-op makesthis game’s modest price tag a tremendous deal, especially with twenty-four levels to complete, multiple collectibles to discover in each, and small cosmetic items to unlock. Each level takes about 15-30 minutes to complete at a modest clip, without venturing too far from the beaten path for the most diabolical collectibles.
Speaking of the levels, they are very well designed. The game employs fixed camera angles and very rarely did perspective become an obstacle—mostly a few instances involving walls and moving from exterior to interior areas. Each stage steers the player in the right direction in a natural, intuitive way without beating them over the head with a Navi-style guide. However, some feel a little long. As a game geared to be accessible to the youngest gamers, some stages could have been cut in half for more digestible hunks, lest kids lose their attention span. (Should they want to give up halfway through a level, the game will let them pick up again later from the start of their current position, which is a welcome touch.)
It is a bit of a shame that there isn’t a more overt narrative at play. You’re just dropped into a world and nudged toward the puzzles. Granted, the world is an interesting one—a mix between the aesthetics of Untitled Goose Game and Adventure Time, with the core gameplay of LittleBigPlanet—but I could have done with a little more table-setting.
As it is, you’ll enter a level, progress from one puzzle scenario to the next, and then wind up back at the hub and do the whole thing over again in the next level. Each puzzle is clever enough, but without some goal or larger context, it’s a bit like flipping through a book of various brain-teasing puzzles until you’ve cleared it cover to cover. By the boss of the first world I had a vague sense of a bigger picture, but not enough to make the level-to-level grind any less plain.
Nonetheless, this is a charming and original little puzzle-adventure game that should appeal to a wide variety of audiences: kids, families, or even adults looking for something fun and innocuous for game night.