bork bork bork bork bork
Of all the varied methods of forced cooperation few are more immediately identifiable as the three-legged race. Work together and you’ll move with minimal time lost, but fail to sync up and you’ll both fall flat on your faces. PHOGS! is this premise applied to an entire game, as well as completely legally distinct from the Nickelodeon cartoon CatDog in every way. It’s DogDog now.
PHOGS! presents itself similarly to a traditional 3D mascot game with multiple hub worlds containing levels that are unlocked linearly. The worlds themselves are selectable in any order, each one representing part of the holy trinity of dog interests: Food, Sleep, and Play. Mechanically this broadly translates to worlds featuring platforming, puzzles, and minigames respectively. It also means that each has to take a level or two to introduce you to the core gimmicks as any one of them could have been chosen first, and by the time you get to whichever world you saved for last this gets fairly frustrating. As you’ll see throughout this review, “good but frustrating” is going to be a common theme.
Controls are simple. Each noggin on your noodle is controlled separately along with three buttons: jump (which barks because of course it does), bite (which lets you move things), and stretch (because noodledog). To its credit the game gets far more gameplay variety out of these moves than I’d have thought possible, though that’s in part due to a range of environmental effects that alter your Phog’s state in all sorts of ways. A freeze, for example, solidifies whatever shape your stretchy self is currently in allowing you to reach across gaps you otherwise couldn’t. A wizard makes one half or the other shrink or grow, leaving you uneven. Spotlights alert birds who will pick you up and pop you in a nearby bed for a nap. Point being they’ll inconvenience you at worst because nothing bad ever happens to the Phogs.
Don’t go into this thinking that it’s especially focused on platforming though. I mean the Food World sort of is, but puzzles, minigames, and level gimmicks end up taking the lion’s share of the game’s runtime. This is where some of the game’s issues start to crop up. Loosey-goosey physics combined with a very wiggly character make for sections that feel like your fate is up to the whims of a capricious two-headed god. Sometimes you’ll effortlessly clear a section, while other times running the exact same area while scouring it for collectables will produce an entirely different result. It’s bizarrely inconsistent and to its credit this is often a source of genuine comedy, with occasions where you’ll be yeeted to the stars or into the abyss for seemingly no reason or strange physics interactions allowing you to clear sections in ways that I’m convinced couldn’t have been intentionally designed. That said there are clearly rules to how it works and I look forward to seeing what speedrunners can do with this wonky toybox, because this game is going to be especially ridiculous to watch played optimally.
As far as the actual content of the levels goes it’s a mixed bag. Generally speaking the later levels of each world are more engaging, but there are positive exceptions like the excellent mini golf level in Play World. The real problem is that PHOGS! often gets bored with its ideas before you do. Most concepts that aren’t traversal-based only last for one level when they could have been iterated and expanded on. This is made especially apparent in the final section after you clear all 3 worlds, which eschews the traditional endgame “final exam” in favor of introducing Even More Gimmicks right before rolling the credits. I appreciate the sheer variety of content the developers came up with, but being given time to really dig into any of them would have been appreciated. Perhaps a Super Mario 3D World-esque postgame world with some extra challenges could have helped in that regard.
Let me briefly digress to make a couple suggestions should you want to play this yourself. First, don’t play this solo. PHOGS! is very much designed to be a co-op and that’s how we played it in its entirety. In the interest of thoroughness I tried running around solo but it felt joyless by comparison. It’s 2p or 0p. Second, and arguably more importantly, do not save Play World for last. We went Sleep – Food – Play and this was a mistake. Play World is far more focused on goofing around than challenging the player, which is thematically appropriate but makes for some awkward pacing when played after the other two and immediately followed by endgame. This isn’t even a criticism because it’s easily circumvented by just not doing that, but you’ll have a far better experience knowing this going in.
PHOGS! regularly switches between aggressively adorable and actively annoying. Did I enjoy my time with it? Very much so! Did it take at least a year off my life due to horrific blood pressure spikes? Probably! I said more no-no words during our playthrough of this than I typically use in an entire month. Folks with a tendency to smash controllers need not apply. That said it’s a game where you play as a happy barking noodle and receive pets from the inhabitants of its varied worlds so I’m confident that it will win most players over despite its frustrations. While there are other dedicated co-op games that will hold up better long term, few have got PHOGS! matched for charm.
Reviewed on Steam.