Have you ever wanted to play an old-school platformer as a dog named Pablo armed with a grapple hook? Maybe Grapple Dog is the game for you. Rocking a retro aesthetic and Bionic Commando-style swinging mechanics, Grapple Dog does exactly what it promises in its title, and then some.
Clearly inspired by similar titles from the past, Grapple Dog aims to claim its place among the pantheon of mascot platformers, and it gets incredibly close. Made independently by Joseph Gribbin of Medallion Games, this is a title platforming fans don’t want to miss.
Grapple Dog is a 2D platformer that gives Pablo a Bionic Commando-style grappling hook that can be used to swing, jump, pull Pablo towards enemies and even complete risky platforming challenges. Like Cappy in Super Mario Odyssey, the hook in Grapple Dog is a robust mechanic that successfully extends itself across the game’s runtime.
The grapple has the exact weight and momentum it needs, allowing for some truly fluid movements between obstacles. Figuring out how long the grapple’s length should be and when it’s best to let go of the swing to get the right speed, height and direction, is a really rewarding mechanic in its own right, outside of the scenarios it’s used in.
Once the game teaches the basics, it doesn’t provide pop-ups or menus on how best to use the grapple, instead using the level design to help guide you through the possibilities. This really helps sell how well designed and fun to use the grapple is, allowing it to speak for itself whilst being complimented by the level design.
Every jump and swing can be done faster and for a longer distance, and the grapple can be chained with other moves and obstacles to help glide across levels. Slowly understanding how to best interact with the environment with the grapple is what makes Grapple Dog a delight to play. Every level and challenge therein can be done with more precision, and the time trial mode emphasises that, as you start to understand the flow of the game and go from merely completing the levels to excelling at them.
Plenty other mechanical ideas act as satellites around the orbit of the grapple, although some work better than others. Everything you do interconnects in such a way that certain levels – specifically the ones that focus on smoothly connecting mechanics instead of segmenting them – help the grapple to work even better.
Being pulled away from fluid movements can really slow down the experience though, as some mechanics and ideas grind things to a halt. This is most evident when platforming challenges completely ignore the grapple, or when the pace of the gameplay gets sluggish and the grapple can’t be used effectively. Granted these moments are few and far between, but they still exist and they hinder an otherwise fairly sublime platforming experience.
Indeed, when the synergy of grapple and platforming mechanics help create a sense of urgency, the game is at its best: by using blocks that crumble under the player’s feet, enemies that chase relentlessly, surfaces that are damaging to the touch, and timed platforms that need to be manually activated, the games forces on-the-fly decision making that pushes Grapple Dog to its limits, and this is where the game shines.
Some of the mechanics used alongside the grapple are brilliant, and others feel oddly frustrating or slightly imprecise in a way that really contradicts the tight movement on display. None are deal-breakers, but after the game forces you to run from a metal-floating-snake-monster whilst combining all you’ve learned in a quick-fire test of skill, some other basic mechanics feel lacklustre.
Bonus levels, time trials, and some tough end-game sections are where this sense of urgency and synergy of mechanics present themselves at their best though. These options for harder challenges that reward skill are an excellent addition to Grapple Dog, and they also don’t impede the main game’s difficulty curve.
That difficulty curve also isn’t impeded by incredibly difficulty challenges, instead the player is given choice in dictating how much they want to test themselves. Players can choose between going along the main path for the basic experience – which is still a platforming workout in the latter levels – or exploring the levels for collectibles and tackling the much more difficult bonus levels and end-game content.
Having this organic player-driven challenge alongside a well-paced difficulty curve for the main levels means Grapple Dog isn’t forcing its overall difficulty on players, but instead providing a choice for those who master the grapple to further test themselves.
That said, some useful accessibility features can assist those who need it: as infinite-jump, no-damage and the ability to turn off scrolling backgrounds are all present. These feel like almost like a bare minimum though, as any specific accessibility features aren’t present. Remapping of buttons, different control methods, and maybe some sort of jumping guide-lines whilst swinging would go a long way to help people with specific needs, among many other features.
Aesthetically, Grapple Dog is presented like a classic platformer. Players control Pablo the dog on his quest to save the world, where all the characters speak with cute little noises Banjo-Kazooie-style, and there’s even a crow with a severe case of existential dread. It’s these types of little details, alongside the story, that sell the game as positively inspired by the classics.
On Switch there were a couple of framerate drops. This didn’t happen often, but when it did (which seems to be when the screen gets quite busy) it’s lethal because of the precision required in some of the platforming.
The entirety of Grapple Dog feels like a love letter to mascot platformers of the past, yet it still introduces more modern ideas and considerations for players. It’s simple on the surface, but putting in the time to understand and experiment with the grapple mechanic, whilst pushing your skills as far as you can via the bonus and end-game stages, helps make this game a lot more complex than it first appears.
Grapple Dog is a solid 2D platformer built around its core grapple mechanic. Whilst it has a lot of charm charm and some fun level design, a handful of the mechanics fall flat instead of utilising the grapple to its full potential. When Grapple Dog brings everything together for frenetic platforming though it’s a lot of fun, and these moments alone mean fans of the genre should at least give it a try. I’m very curious to see what might come next, as there’s certainly a few good ideas on display here.
- Weight and momentum of the grapple mechanic
- Introduces harder challenges in an organic way
- Almost all the mechanics feed well into one another
- Lack of deeper accessibility options
- Nintendo Switch version can drop frames
- Some mechanics don’t work as well with the grapple