When indie developers make games, they usually opt for the platform game or follow some of the current trends of pixel art and rogue-like qualities. A blessing in disguise, Portal Dogs, is a platform indie game, but it doesn’t follow the pixel art aesthetic or rogue-like blueprint.
What’s the idea behind Portal Dogs then? Well, let me tell you. You play the king of dogs and have to save your loyal subjects by getting them to follow you through a series of portals, transporting them to safety. Once they are safe, you can exit the lands yourself, rinsing and repeating a total of four worlds, made up of five levels each.
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Portal Dogs couldn’t be any more simplistic if it tried as this game is about gameplay rather than gimmicks or CG rendered showcases. That said, the graphics in the game are quite charming. They have a certain aesthetic the resembles the 16-bit era of Team17, Core and Gremlin titles, only much more polished a.k.a. in HD. Ignoring any references to bones, Portal Dogs immediately reminded me of Chuck Rock; only the former is more focused on simple puzzles than solely platforming action.
The objective for each level is to rescue several dogs by getting them to follow you, getting them to enter a portal and whisking them to safety. You then go back and save yourself, collecting a bone in the process to complete all three tasks: rescue your subjects, collect the golden bone and save yourself.
Your subjects will shadow your movements so if you jump; they will at the same time but there will be times when they might get ahead of you or behind meaning that you could easily fudge a jump over a gap. If they die, i.e. fall down a chasm or walk into an enemy, you can still complete the level, but you won’t get a perfect score. In this case, you can bring up the menu and restart, or try playing through the level to get accustomed with any surprises then restart.
When you start out as the king, the controls are simple: X or A will jump, Y or B will bark, move left and right, and there you have it. Next section. It is straightforward, however, as the game involves reaching various platforms to rescue your subjects, collect keys or backtracking when hitting a switch, jumping through a portal that morphs you into something else, then back to the exit portal.
The camera angles can be infuriating. On occasion when you are at the top of the screen and need to drop down, it is a leap of faith as you have no idea if you’ll land on something you’re not supposed to, or fall off the screen having to restart the level again. This also applies with some switches. I would hit a switch, and a rock platform would move, taking me up a level.
As I would jump on the moving platform, the camera would swipe to another area where another platform is in motion, meaning the king was dead as he fell into the abyss. The loading times are quick so that you can get back into the action, but this trial and error method when learning each stage can be an absolute pig at times.
While I’m venting, note that you can complete every level just by saving the king – there’s no need to save the other dogs or collect the bone unless you want to 100% everything. As the Switch doesn’t have achievements, this didn’t give me the incentive to perfect every level, but the completist in my wanted to do so, plus, despite the game flaws, it is a fun pick up and play puzzle/platformer.
Just be prepared to turn the music off. It’s not that it’s repetitive, but there’s something quite annoying about hearing this jolly Mickey Mouse type score when the flow of the game doesn’t match the tempo. If it was used in another game, i.e. The Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse, then great.
Menu systems don’t make a game, but they add to the experience. The menus in Portal Dogs are very much no-frills, looking like a website button circa 1999. It doesn’t ruin the game, but it would have been nice to see a bit more attention to these menu selections and less of the splash screens advertising the publisher Brain Connected every time. That was off-putting and haven’t seen this approach for a while. It’s not that the loading times are long, but a black screen with the bold font depicting the game makers was a little too much.
So, we need to rein this back in a little as the negatives are outweighing the positives. Is there anything I did like about Portal Dogs? Yes, of course. The visuals are great and was surprised that I would find some connection to saving these animals. As a dog lover, seeing these green gargoyle-like creatures weren’t on the surface very cute, but I warmed to them – each with their own little stylish mohawk or tuft of hair.
My only criticism isn’t the actual character design of the dogs, but they have this Paper Mario visual style where when they turn, they’ll sort of flip in a manner like they weren’t 3D but 2D. As the game is a 2D platformer, it seemed a little bit surplus and unneeded, but again, that’s just personal preference and no real detriment to the game.
Playing each level is like having another Jaffa Cake: you know you should move on, but something is appealing about indulging with ‘just one more’. It was quite rare for me to leave any of the dogs behind and as tempting as it was to speedrun through a level to ensure the king’s safety, it was in my interest to rescue the dogs and grab the elusive bone for a three-star combo. While the challenges seem quite straightforward, the difficulty is consistent, notwithstanding the screen issues when jumping off a platform or when the camera inadvertently moves.
Portal Dogs would have been a game I would have played regularly as a kid ‘back in the day’. The visuals are great, the difficulty not too off-putting and just a simple pick up and play title. The adult in me, however, has seen the changes in game development. With the number of games I have played and continue to play regularly, there are many more titles that have more appeal – be it a unique concept or lavish graphics or thumping soundtrack.
That doesn’t mean Portal Dogs should be missed though as it’s quite easy for a title such as this to get lost in a flood of other indie titles with bigger marketing budgets and accolades. It would be good if there were a playable demo of the game available on the eShop to try it before you buy as it’s a good platform game, but whether it will be the focus of your game time is debatable.