Reviewed on Sony PlayStation 4Also available on Google Stadia, Microsoft Xbox One, PC and Nintendo Switch
I love dogs. Ask anyone what my favourite animal is, and without hesitation, they'll tell you this. Heck, ask them what my favourite thing in the world is, and they'll probably hesitate only for a second before saying the exact same thing - and that's only because my love of pizza is very close behind. As such, as soon as I read about PHOGS! - a puzzle-platformer developed by Bit Loom Studios and published by Coatsink Software - I just knew I had to play it.
In PHOGS!, you play as the gelatinous doggo duo of Red and Blue, who are tied together both physically and spiritually by their stretchy belly, love of food and toys, and need to sleep on an exceptionally regular basis. You'll adventure through the worlds of Food, Play and Sleep in search of Bones, Boingles and birds to bork at - and with all of these comes new experiences, new secrets, and new areas to explore. Within each of the 24 levels, there are a variety of mini-puzzles, mini-games and objectives to complete in addition to the overall objective of finishing the level. With no two levels employing the same structures or mechanics, this makes for diverse gameplay that is engaging for players of all ages and abilities. Though some segments of the game are challenging and require some careful platforming and a solid strategy to work through, there is nothing that cannot be overcome with a little bit of time and patience. It will also take time and patience to gather all of the collectables - 77 Bones, 23 Boingles and 41 hats - though this is well worth doing if wanting to acquire the secret final hat at the very end of the game.
Each world concludes with its own specialised boss battle, which involves the completion of several smaller tasks in order to complete the overall objective. Without spoiling anything, these battles involve no direct combat but do see you taking on some of the trickiest platforming puzzles and minigames in the game in order to beat them. As such, when overcome, these boss battles give you a satisfying sense of accomplishment and reward you with a special item for your efforts in helping others. Once all of the levels in all of the worlds are completed, and you've beaten all three of the bosses, you'll find yourself given access to a final secret level with plenty more puzzles and secrets to seek out. This level is much more substantial and involves some never-before-seen mechanics, so you best be prepared to throw what you know out of the window and take on this extra challenge when you come to it!
Throughout the game, there are three core controls for players to master: movement, grabbing, and stretching. Depending on whether you play alone or locally with a friend, you will either control both Red and Blue simultaneously or work cooperatively with your partner while each controlling one half of the doggo duo. Referencing the single-player controls, Blue corresponds to the left side of the controller while Red corresponds to the right. Movement is controlled with the analogue sticks, barking and grabbing with the bumpers (L1 and R1), and stretching with the triggers (L2 and R2). These controls feel natural and logical when playing, but gosh, do they take some getting used to. If, like me, your brain doesn't take much to confuse, you'll see your doggos spinning in circles for much of the first few levels while you try to figure out which way they're walking and why they're not walking in the same direction you think they should be. It's also important to note that stretching is operated from the dog you choose, so if holding onto something and choosing to stretch, you may see some rolls of fluff start to build up in place rather than enabling your other dog to move further away.
The engaging gameplay of PHOGS! is complimented by its colourful aesthetic and cheerful soundtrack, both of which are charming and perfectly suited to the younger target audience. Red and Blue are not only the goodest of boys, but are also incredibly cute, and their unique animations when barking, bouncing and biting make PHOGS! a joy to play. The other animals and characters throughout each level add to this positive sentiment, as all have their own quirks and sound effects to take notice of - such as the teddy bears who will reach down and give you a belly-rub if you stay near to them for long enough. Each of the three worlds has its own unique look and feel, with the worlds of Food and Play teeming with life and vibrance, while the slightly more mellowed world of Sleep is disturbed only by the shrieking 'alarmos' that interrupt the peace and quiet of all involved (including you). Though levels have their own unique make-ups and directions, they retain notable relevance to its overall world theme through common features, such as the starry night sky in Sleep or the recurring 'munchlets' in Food.
Thus, the overall gameplay experience offered by PHOGS! is well-polished and thoroughly enjoyable - though there are a few aspects that may pose problems for players, and did trouble me at several points. The most significant of these is the camera, which due to the nature of the controls for Red and Blue, is automatic. In many segments of the game, this automatic panning is inconvenient and does not make moving through the more complex platforming sequences as easy as they should be. Particularly in the Sleep world, the distance of the camera from the doggo duo means that it is difficult to see them and move comfortably, and at several points in all worlds, I found myself meeting an untimely demise after falling off an edge I couldn't quite see or judge the distance to. The lack of vibrational feedback on the dogs while moving only added to this misfortune, as it is not easy to tell how close to an object they are or if they have connected with the desired object successfully.
The inevitable collision issues with objects, and bugs with how the dogs interact with their environment, were also bothersome at times. These cost me progress if needing to select to respawn from the menu, and a fond favourite of these was getting one dog trapped underneath a moving lift, and then watching the belly stretch uncontrollably without my input with each movement. It's safe to say I don't think Red and Blue were supposed to stretch quite that far, and respawning was needed. Where there are moving elements - such as water wheels, lifts, and sliding rails - I'd therefore recommend exercising extra patience and caution. A final quite simple issue is that, depending on what headgear you're rocking - or even if you're going collar-only - it can sometimes be difficult to see which dog is which due to the camera distance. The collars are quite thin strips of colour and this adds to the aforementioned confusion when controlling the dogs.
These nags aside, PHOGS! is a fantastic puzzle-platformer for all ages and abilities, combining well-designed mechanics with a bright, charming aesthetic. No matter whether playing alone or with a friend locally or online, there are plenty of levels and collectables to keep you occupied, and you can have a lot of fun barking, bouncing and biting your way through. Though at times the lack of camera controls and environmental glitches can lead to some unfortunate demises, the experience is one well worth investing in and is not to be missed. You can pick up the game for PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch or Google Stadia from December 3rd.