OPQAM, the developer of DOGOS, tells us their game is a fusion of the old and the new; an attempt to inject modern graphics and an open world feel into the classic sh’mup formula. For the small development studio based in Buenos Aires, it’s a bold claim to make. Can DOGOS give us the old school fix we crave, while keeping things fresh for a modern audience? Pure PlayStation’s Dom O’Leary has jumped in his ship, outrun the Zeetnuk attack force and blasted his way through the front lines to bring us his verdict. Read on below for the full story:
If I had to describe DOGOS in a single phrase, it would be ‘Old School.’ Health pickups, extra lives, screens full of enemies and attacks, big boss fights… it ticks every box on the sh’mup feature list. But in a game that tries to bring this oft-forgotten genre into the modern age, this is both a blessing and a curse. Make no mistake, DOGOS is a fun, frantic, and challenging game. A few design miss-steps and a lack of any meaningful replayability, however, may prevent this game from being the indie sweetheart it could otherwise have been. Join me as I examine the reasons that I think DOGOS falls just short of its lofty goal.
First let’s look at the gameplay. The combat will be familiar enough to any gamers who, like me, are ancient enough to remember MegaDrive classics like the ‘Strike series. For those of you who don’t, it breaks down like this; you have three weapons, primary (attacks airborne targets), secondary (attacks ground targets) and special (which are gained from in-level pickups in various forms). In DOGOS you’re given the titular snazzy super-ship; a first prototype based on alien technology, humanity’s answer to an alien invasion, and asked to use these weapons, along with full 360 degree movement control, to take down increasingly difficult and numerous enemies.
In addition to blowing up enemies, you’ll get additional objectives like blowing up enemy installations or blowing up big bad bosses. Stop me if the variety is too dizzying. These sections are often broken up by on the rails sequences where the ship’s thrust is taken out of your control and you’ll be dodging and shooting through twisting caverns, or blasting through shields and dodging laser grids. Though some of the early levels feel a bit flat and devoid of purpose, the later missions really ramp up both the challenge level and the inventiveness of the maps and scenarios.
So far, so good, right? This is, after all, what you might expect from a game of this genre. Well, my answer to this is both yes and no. For example; the open levels allow you to back track and look for elite enemies and bonus ‘badges’ (challenges like ‘kill a certain enemy’) but some maps give you a task like ‘destroy all enemies’ and flying around an open area looking for one or two ground units you missed can become tedious. There are 14 levels in total spanning tropical islands, volcanoes, and alien facilities. But the map design ranges from lifeless to genius with little coherency. Peering into the depths of an alien mothership is far more interesting than flying past the same palm tree a thousand times.
There are a couple of other quirks that prevented me from quite enjoying DOGOS as much as I wanted to. The aforementioned on rails sections are a welcome pace-changer in many levels, but they are almost completely un-signposted. This led to a couple of frustrating deaths as control is taken away without warning, leaving you to smash into the nearest cliff head first. On balance, on the lower difficulties this is not so bad – the checkpoints are forgiving enough that death just means restarting the on-rails moment. I can see this being rage-inducing on the one life only hard mode, though.
The boss fights also suffer from some inconsistency. At their best, they are a frantic ballet of dodging multiple projectiles and picking your chances to return fire. At their worst, they are frustratingly lengthy bullet sponges. (I’m looking at you, ‘War Core.’) In fairness, this does not crop up often enough to make the game a drag as about 7 or 8 out of the 14 levels come with boss fights and most are interesting enough.
Typifying the ‘almost but not quite’ nature of the game, the weapon progression system is fun but limited. There are four primary weapons, three secondary weapons and four special weapons which you will unlock throughout the campaign. They are different enough to feel like rewards when earned, but the nature of the attacks means there’s little point in trying out different combinations as it’s a linear curve where your next weapon is always out-and-out better than the last. It does, however, give you the option to replay earlier levels with a better arsenal to earn the bonus objectives.
The special weapons work in a way that I personally did not get on with, though this is probably just a matter of taste. Essentially, enemies drop pickups randomly; these can be health, lives or the various special weapons you have unlocked. Picking up one of these glowing icons gives you three uses of the weapon, simple. But, any weapon you pickup overwrites your last pickup, and there’s no switching between them. Accidentally picked up some rockets while dodging attacks? well, your fancy super laser is now gone for good, until you pick up another anyway. This system encourages you to use the attacks rather than hoard them, but often means using them feels like a waste.
In most sh’mups, gameplay would act as the be all and end all. DOGOS, however, attempts to add an interesting story to your explosion spree. Your character starts off as the only (he thinks) survivor of an alien ambush, narrowly escaping thanks to his nifty new fighter, the DOGOS. The story unfolds from here through a series of journal entries between missions and some in mission dialogue between the pilot, Desmond, and another character that you will meet in the first mission. The journal pages themselves are nicely detailed (keep your eyes peeled for some amusing gags in the ‘tip of the day’ section) but the sound quality of the voice over is not good. I’d like to give the benefit of the doubt and say this is meant to recreate the sound of a Dictaphone recording, but the electronic distortion on the voice sounds like bad file compression to me. It’s noticeable, but forgivable from a small development team.
One thing that does not work about the story, though, is the jarring tone mismatch between Desmond’s melancholic introspection and the over the top action of the game itself. He flies like a cat who has taken a large bag of amphetamines (assuming said cat could fly advanced aircraft), but has the personality of an emo kid on Prozac. It’s a valiant effort to give some personality to a character who is mostly unseen (the ship is the star) but ultimately Desmond’s somber mood ended up taking some of the excitement away from the experience, for me at least.
There is one major issue that I feel I need to point out with DOGOS, it didn’t particularly bother me as it’s not the reason why I play these types of games, but it doesn’t really chime with OPQAM’s message of modernising the sh’mup. Namely, there is no online component whatsoever; not even a leaderboard, despite the levels having a scoring system. It feeds into the other main criticism I would level at the game; a lack of replayability.
Outside of going back to earlier levels to earn badges (which seem to unlock different cosmetics for your ship – but the requirements are never clearly defined), or playing again on a harder difficulty (the range of difficulties is well-balanced overall and provides a challenge even on the easier settings), there is little reason to go back to DOGOS. This could have been alleviated slightly by letting you replay missions with the second ship (you choose between two with slightly different stats at the start) once the game is complete. But the only way to do this is to start over, losing the progress of your current game. This is compounded by a short trophy list. There is a gold trophy up for grabs for completing the game on the hardest difficulty; but other than an additional bronze for gaining all badges, I had all other achievements after a single play through of the campaign.
Lastly, there a couple of points that don’t really affect how I’ve scored the game, but I feel are worth mentioning. First; I would urge caution to anyone with motion sickness who picks up this game. I don’t have an issue with it normally but the amount of pirouetting and pivoting you will do in this game to dodge attacks and return fire made me slightly dizzy at times. Second, the reflexes and constant shooting that the more challenging levels demand gave me the kind of hand cramp I haven’t experienced since the 90’s. This can be alleviated by playing in short bursts, which is probably the best way to play this game, but some harder missions can take upwards of 30 minutes, given deaths and restarts, so it is something to be aware of.
So you may be asking yourself; ‘what’s the verdict?’ Given the amount of conflicting points in the above review, I suppose I can’t blame you. But that sums up almost perfectly how I feel about DOGOS, it has a lot of good ideas but falls somewhat short of a perfect execution when they come together. To sum it up, I would say that if you are a fan of the shoot em up, especially the 16-bit classics, you will have a lot of fun with DOGOS. I do feel that a modern audience will be put off by a lack of features, but that said, if you’re in it for pure gameplay then definitely give this game a go. The niggling issues I have mentioned above may have prevented this game getting a higher score, but DOGOS shows promise and I would love to see what OPQAM could achieve given greater resources.
DOGOS will be available via digital download through PSN from the 6th of September. Happy Zeetnuk hunting, pilot!
Review Disclaimer: This review was carried out using a PS4 digital code provided by the developer. This does not affect the content of the review or the final score. For more information, please read our Review Policy.