Grapple Dog review: a cute yet frustrating platformer
Swinging up the wrong tree
I resent Grapple Dog for making me resent Grapple Dog. Look at him. He doesn’t deserve it. See his little paws, there, dangling out of that cannon? Tip of the iceberg. You haven’t seen his eagerness, his joie de vivre, as he swings between the many improbably-convenient floating grapple hook platforms of the world. You haven’t witnessed the plucky determination with which he clambers up wall after wall, no matter how many times he’s climbed them before. You haven’t admired his gumption as he bounces atop each polar bear head, or upon the still bouncier belly of every (unwilling) crab.
By the end of my seven hours with Grapple Dog, I wanted to strangle the bastard with his own goddamn hook.
We started off on much better terms. Sure, it was immediately clear that he’d never move with quite the same precision as a Meat Boy or a Celeste, and yes, I felt it when I targeted robotic goons to jump on. Hopping between platforms felt fine, though, the wider targets calling for less meticulous degrees of control - and besides, I was busy getting acquainted with the grappling hook.
It’s a decent hook in some regards, but it’s woefully limited. You find it in the opening minutes, amid some sealed ruins associated with an ancient, revered figure known as the Great Inventor. You find your first robot there, too, who of course tricks you into freeing him so he can destroy the world. That sets you off on a race to reclaim five more (sadly non gameplay-altering) ancient artefacts, swinging through classic platforming zones like lava, beach and ice. It’s all very Saturday morning cartoon, complete with a jetpacking scientist bunny who fancies Grapple Dog but is, like, super shy about it. All agreeably cute, for the most part, but right now that’s distracting us from talking about the grappling hook.
You can only aim it diagonally left or right, or straight upwards. Once it’s attached you’re free to shimmy up and down, as well as build momentum by swinging left or right. Not too much, though. You can’t keep swinging above whichever point the grapple is stuck to, so you can never send yourself properly flying, like you might in Worms or Webbed. It’s as if there’s some mysterious cosmic force bent on denying you that pleasure, which I suppose must be the hand of the designer compelling you to jump through each level’s prescribed hoops rather than soar over them.
I can’t totally condemn that approach. I can see how it’d be harder to design dozens of challenging levels around a less-hampered hook, and this one still has its moments. It shines during the short, sadly rare stretches where you’re allowed to build up a nice bit of speed, chaining one swing into another as you sail between spikes and assorted robo-chumps. That’s when Grapple Dog is at its best, when you’re propelled along by the swing of your rope or the blast of a cannon. Tearing through screen after screen feels energetic, pacy, Sonic-esque, as you move forward with all the confidence and panache a name like Grapple Dog should inspire.
When Grapple Dog is at its best you’re propelled along by the swing of your rope or the blast of a cannon.
Tragically, the main emotion Grapple Dog inspired in me was frustration, because I seemed to spend far less time gleefully swinging than I did painstakingly redoing sections after either dying or missing a critical jump. Every level contains five gems, which are treated like bonus stars in Super Mario except they’re hidden with less ingenuity and are actually vital for progress, because you need to hit escalating cumulative totals in order to access the next world. It would be a perfectly decent structure if so many of those gems weren’t positioned in such a way that fluffing a jump sends you plummeting back past platforms you’ve already navigated half a dozen times. It’s also sometimes far too easy to move past a point you can’t go back to, walling those gems off unless you replay the entire level.
Those aren’t the only circumstances where repetition raises its ugly head. The early worlds are gentle, but towards the end Grapple Dog gets gruelling. Oh, how I longed for Celeste’s approach, where death typically undoes seconds of progress rather than making you clamber back from a miserably distant checkpoint. The boss fights at the end of each world are the worst offenders, because they tend to involve several minutes of easily avoidable attacks before ending with a quick dangerous flurry that takes practice to beat - practice you can only get by sitting through those easily avoidable attacks, which become less easily avoidable as you lose patience, which makes them even less easily avoidable and ahhhhhgh.
There’s a comparison to be made with Dark Souls, which (arguably only just) gets away with repeatedly shoving you through far more gruelling meat grinders because it’s a) brilliant b) tonally-consistent and c), most importantly, fair. The back third of Grapple Dog was packed with moments where I’d die for reasons that didn’t feel like my fault, like brushing a wall that meant a jumping robot could damage me, or being forced into the path of an absolutely hateful flying snake. One time I died at the very, very end of a robo-T-rex chase because I fired myself out of a cannon a split-second too early, hitting part of a spike wheel that the rex was obscuring. Reader, I screamed at him.
There are some (not quite) redeeming creatures. I like the animals you occasionally bump into, from the goats who’ll charge through blocks if you bring them carrots to the insufferably exuberant polar bears who yell at you to jump on them. I also like how the beach world is full of surfer dude otters who just want to nap, as well as endearingly blazed-looking robo sharks and neat gravity-defying ceiling oceans that make for novel traversal when combined with your grappling hook.
I wish I could point to novelty beyond that, but there are only glimmers. The final boss fight has the big robo-bad pulling weird weapons and monsters out of strange, previously unseen dimensions, which could have made for far more interesting environments and obstacles than drawing on familiar archetypes. I also can’t wrap up without mentioning how Grapple Dog shoots itself in the paw by implying that reaching the MacGuffin artefacts will expand your move set, because their greyed-out silhouettes are placed right next to the hook. It’s a small mistake that results in a disproportionate degree of disappointment, and an excellent example of how not to manage player expectations.
At the end of the day, though, it’s repetition that kills the beast. Demanding mastery through repetition can work for platformers, but only if it’s done carefully and thoughtfully, where you don’t have to go slug through long trivial stretches before you get another go at the hard bit. The grappling here feels good when you’re allowed to build momentum, but too many levels are more interested in killing it. I’m sorry, Grapple Dog. Swing on.