Platformers are one of the most popular genres out there, and for good reason too – they’re usually easy to get into and fun to play. The problem is, there are far too many of them on the Nintendo Switch eShop – the store is saturated and finding a new interesting one is often quite tricky. Also, most indie platformers tend to ramp up the difficulty to prolong the gameplay, but what if you lack the talent for bosses, the timing for precise jumps, and the skill for aggressive enemies? Or, maybe you just want a casual game to pick up and play, a platformer you could lounge back and enjoy with your kids. If so, then you’ll want Portal Dogs, an easily accessible platformer for any gamer, regardless of skill.
Brain Connected both developed and published the game, their first retail release since Somyeol and Somyeol HD, a game created in the 2011 Global Game Jam. Launching on Steam, Itch.io, Android, and the Switch, Portal Dogs is far more advanced and shows how the developers have improved and enhanced their skills over the last nine years.
In Portal Dogs you play as the ‘Dog King’ who is out to help guide all of his subjects back to their portals, let’s take a look…
Portal Dogs is a puzzle platformer that is played across multiple worlds. The thing I really enjoyed about this game is how each world focuses on puzzles that revolve mainly around a specific transformation, allowing you to master them before the game combines them all in later levels. This lets you experience the new puzzles at a steady pace, transition well from old puzzles, and get used to the changes made without being overwhelmed or confused by how each of them works. The transformations both the Dog King and his subjects can turn into are a Regular dog, Small dog, Wheelie dog, Jumper dog, Evil dog, and Inverted Dog.
Each transformation not only has different ways to tackle the puzzles, but they also have both strengths and weaknesses which complement and contrast the different styles.
• The Regular Dog is the basic dog that is weak to enemies, spikes, and fire, alongside having no abilities.
• The Small Dog can fit in crevices, yet is still weak to everything.
• The Wheelie Dog loses the ability to jump but is no longer threatened by enemies.
• The Jumper Dog is a dog coiled within a spring, allowing you to jump more easily and go through spikes – but not traverse through fire.
• The Evil Dog does not fear fire but is vulnerable to spikes.
• The Inverted Dog is an invert-coloured dog that changes not only aesthetically, but it also inverts the controls as well.
The way the game incorporates these transformations is via portals that appear within the levels. When either yourself or one of your followers goes through one of these, you transform into the indicated ‘dog’. Not only will you have to use this to your advantage to bypass hazards and reach the exit portal, but you’ll also have to be mindful of what state you and your minions are in as you can only exit the stage whilst in a specific body.
While Portal Dogs does great in gameplay, it lacks in the level design department. Every world is visually the same as the last; a slight Mother Nature theme with grassy earth, a few trees, rocks, plants, mountains, and some clouds. While this doesn’t deter anything from the game itself, it is noticeable and leaves some desire for imagination – objects and colours that fit the stage’s transformation would have been nice. For example, maybe a mine level for the Wheelie dog, a red fiery theme for the Evil dog, or a factory theme for the Jumper dog?
Putting the gameplay aside, Portal Dogs’ strength also lies in its ability to target any demographic. The Dog King’s portal is always relatively close to the beginning and easy to reach, not often requiring transformations or puzzle solving. This allows you to rush the game, bypass the more difficult levels, and even allow children to play without getting frustrated and still feel like they’re accomplishing something by ‘finishing’ the levels. Speaking of accomplishments, each level has 3 targets to achieve: Completing the level, finding the bone collectable, and successfully rescuing all of the dogs.
This is still on par with the target audience being anyone as the collectables and rescuing the dogs is not hindered by the difficulty. The dog bones you will collect aren’t hidden in passages, hard to reach spots, or require any tricky methods to obtain. More often than not, the bones are in plain sight and simply require talking an alternate path or jumping onto platforms to reach them, making this a great introductory title for new gamers or younger children who haven’t played a platformer before.
The last ‘puzzle’ component is rescuing all the dogs, which can be tricky due to the way this works. Basically, in Portal Dogs you control all the dogs at once, which can be awkward at times. You’ll have to first find the dogs and wake them up (similar to Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee), make sure they’re the right transformations, and then get them to their portals safely. With half a dozen transformations, collectables, dogs, and different worlds to get through, the question remains of how well they pulled this off.
Portal Dogs is an easy to control game, as you only need to jump and move (there is a singing button to awaken dogs from afar, but I never resorted to using it). Given the simplistic nature of the controls, this game handles very well. I never had problems controlling the Dog King nor traversing the levels, specifically as him. I addressed the Dog King because the dogs you find throughout the level makes manoeuvring a little more difficult due to the simultaneous controlling nature of this game. Simultaneous controls aren’t a bad thing if handled well, though I yearn for either a conga mechanic or maybe a group dynamic – like Pikmin.
You see, every dog mirrors the movements of Dog King from the very moment they awake, often resulting in frustration. You’ll find yourself walking into walls on purpose, with the sole reason to ‘huddle’ Dog King and his followers together to prevent unforeseen accidents whilst you move about. Without this alignment, you’ll find that you can be subject to separation fairly easily, which leaves you with two options.
Your first option is to go back for the lost souls – but going back means they’ll move back as well! If there is an enemy, cliff edge, or hazard behind them, this isn’t a feasible option, so I found myself simply leaving them behind most of the time. This brings me to the second, and best, option – when the dogs get left behind, they’ll eventually fall back asleep. This means you can slowly approach them and regain control over them without having to worry about the companion running away from you and into trouble (or off a cliff).
But, due to how busy some of the later stages can get, you can find yourself accidentally leaving them behind without even realising it. At least they’ll sit and stay, like a good boy…
The puzzles within Portal dogs are all quite manageable and nothing which should overwhelm or provide too much trouble for younger and less-skilled gamers. Most of the mechanics you’ll come across simply revolves around pulling switches, finding keys, and placing bombs to make passages, but the main mechanic is simply ensuring your canine companions have been transformed into the correct dog type.
I thought that utilising various transformations with specific traits, rather than superpowers, was the right way to go. Superpowers or abilities, for each of the transformations, would have been too excessive and difficult to manage, especially on top of simultaneously watching your dogs – something I feel younger gamers may have struggled with. So, this more simplistic approach allows you to focus on exploring the levels without having to rely too much on skill as you only need the transformations to make it through the environment.
My only concern, that I hope the devs will address or change, is the camera. As long as you’re not jumping, this isn’t a concern, but in a platformer, it’s the key mechanic. When you jump in Portal Dogs, the camera stops moving until you touch your feet back on the ground. This is quite detrimental when you go to jump down, off a cliff, as you’ll see Dog King go off the screen but you won’t see him until he hits the ground. Whilst in mid-flight you’ll still be able to manoeuvre him and his followers, but you may not be able to see him. I had to restart multiple levels due to this, as I’ve missed platforms, landed on enemies, or fallen into hazards, simply because I can’t see where Dog King is going.
This also applies whilst ascending as well – I’ve tried jumping early off of vertical moving platforms, only to find the screen remaining stationary until I’ve successfully landed.
Portal Dogs is an easily accessible puzzle platformer for all ages and skill levels. Although there are some minor gripes, they are easily overlooked with the fun you’ll be having. Once transform for the first time, the joy only continues to increase from there as you learn what they do and how to master them. It’s a game not too ruff around the edges, and I recommend you to fetch a copy fur hours of enjoyment.