Review: 'One Dog Story' - an indie game that is a bit 'ruff' around the edges
Every dog has its day, but since the setting for this game takes place in a confined lab for the most part one wonders; was it ever really day and did this dog have it?
It's hard to say. On one hand, One Dog Story was a successfully-developed independent game that has a complete, playable, and coherent story. Coming in with no outside expectations, this game accomplishes what it set out to do. If played on its own, you may enjoy what it has to offer. Unfortunately, the game wears its inspiration upon its sleeve with how it was named. If you played Cave Story before this, you will come to realize that this spiritual successor did not add anything or modify the formula in any way that improves on its inspiration. In fact, the modifications seemed to make the game less enjoyable.
One Roo Critique
For instance the weapon upgrade system: in Cave Story you would get drops from killed enemies that would make your guns more powerful, while One Dog Story puts a wedge between destroying your opposition and upgrading your arms. Enemies instead drop mutagen, which is then used to purchase upgrades at predesignated areas. This was a bad decision, because it made boss fights needlessly one-dimensional.
See, in both games as you take damage you lose weapon strength and health. So in a longer fight in Cave Story, you could destroy minions in the area to give yourself a respite and regain not only your health but the strength of your weapons. Because of this change in One Dog Story, you find yourself harshly punished for damage with no chance to recover or plan on taking out smaller minions to regain lost resources. Even worse, in one of the boss battles they force you to fight the minions before you can even attack the main threat, which will only give you healing and mutagen; and mutagen is basically useless until the battle is over.
There was also one cardinal sin that to me is inexcusable in any platformer: non-telegraphed bottomless pits in a game that has verticality. What are these, you may ask? Well in the original Super Mario Bros., you didn't have to worry about these. Since the game had not verticality and only moved horizontally going below the screen would mean death. That's it. Simple. But ever since platformers have evolved, the screen can also move up and down. This is fine in and of itself, but it must be conveyed to the player strongly if they are not allowed to jump off a particular edge. That doing so will mean they will die. So it should be telegraphed to the player in some way that they can not go down any further. Especially when you don't take any fall damage to speak of.
Super Mario 3 does this by starting Mario lower on the stage with the cliff line being right below Mario, so you get a feeling where the cliffs are right off the get go. You can go up from where you start, but not further down. If you ever played Mario Maker you will know when a player violates this unwritten rule of design and starts you at the highest point in the stage; suddenly the endless pits are not well telegraphed and leaps of faith become more inevitable. There are exceptions in Mario 3, but those courses usually have no bottomless pits (3-9 for example).
One Dog Story doesn't have too many of these, thankfully, in fact I only found those in one area of the game in the middle which seemed far less polished than the beginning. However the fact that these surprise pits still exist in any regard is inexcusable. Call it a pet peeve. I just don't want to jump off a ledge and be surprised when I suddenly die. Especially if it was 15 minutes from the last save spot.
There are also some other sudden and unexpected events that can impact your character and break the immersion of the game. When these occur you suddenly become well aware that you are playing a game, and here is a couple of other examples that harmed my experience:
- When dialog boxes opened, the rest of the game doesn't freeze. For instance, if you are in the water when you are talking you will still be drowning as you read and if you have aggravated an enemy, they continue to approach you when you are reading. This caused me to skip the dialog of certain areas once I realized reading it was putting me in danger of dying.
- Some animations were not polished or telegraphed well and some reasoning for these events was also confusing. The biggest sinner of this was the fight with the guardian. While it was clear what needed to be done to defeat the boss, the failure state made little sense. Your avatar would suddenly stop if you failed to hit all the barrels against him. You would literally wait to be killed. This was even though there was plenty of room to continue to flee the foe if I had agency over my character. Having the control ripped from me just because I failed some pre-ordained task is quite rude and makes the task feel artificial rather than necessary to the success of my character.
It may seem like I'm ragging on the game a bit, however I was able to finish it to the very end, which is saying something. The game being on the shorter side could be credited with this, though. The hindering resource mechanic made it difficult for me to get to the 'true' ending. But given the situation and how much I would needed to have farmed to defeat the final boss I didn’t feel it was worth it, so bring on the tragic ending!
In the end, there's a game here, it's playable and does what it sets out to do. But if you have not played Cave Story, do so and save yourself this experience. It is more polished, even though both are indie games.
And this year has so many better games with anthro characters coming out and out already: Sonic Mania, Sonic Forces, Night in the Woods, Yooka-Laylee, Tooth and Tail, Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap, etc. So I believe we can all afford to be a bit more persnickety this year.
But to end on something nice: the strongest part was that the controls were quite responsive. While the game was tough, combat was in your hands, and at no part did I feel my ability to control the character was my hindrance.