PHOGS! review: what a good dog (dogs?)

I can’t quite believe that PHOGS! is actually out. I first played this game at EGX Rezzed waaaaaay back in April 2018, and it’s been subject to a few delays since. But I was rather taken with it on my first play in those dim and distant pre-coronavirus days, and I am happy to say that it still oozes charm and warmth all these decades later (Is this right? – Ed).

The game’s hook lies almost entirely in its unique protagonist. Or protagonists. Or protagonist? OK, look, there’s this dog with no legs, but it has two heads – named Red and Blue – and you control each head independently using the analogue sticks on your controller. So in essence you have a sausage with two bitey ends.

But the really fun part is that one player can control one end while another can control t’other, and thus much merriment and calamity ensues. Cleverly, two players can even share one controller, so no one has to make do with the slightly broken MadCatz joypad you bought as a cheap spare, with that chunk broken off the rubber stick and the dodgy button from when someone spilt juice on it. You know the one.

As well as gracelessly shuffling along the ground, each lovable dog head can s-t-r-e-t-c-h to reach stuff and grab things with its dirty dog mouth (or simply bark if there’s an absence of grabbable things in the vicinity). And thus the stage is set for myriad puzzles that involve stretching and grabbing things, as well as endless enjoyably low-key arguments as you berate the other player for not going in the direction you think they should have been going in, no I know I didn’t say we should go that way but it’s obvious isn’t it, that’s the platform with the switch on it of course we should be going up there, just grab the thing grab the thing grab the thing, argh you’ve missed it and now we need to go round again.

As you’ve probably guessed, PHOGS! is at its absolute brilliant best when playing with two. Even the most mundane actions, like navigating a narrow walkway, become iridescently exciting and enjoyably frustrating when there are two people clumsily guiding the conjoined ends of a wobbly worm dog. It’s a hoot, I tell you. Although it’s possible to play PHOGS! in single player, by using the two sticks to independently move each doghead, I’d heartily recommend you save this game for times when another human being is around, since it is approximately ten times better with two people involved. And that’s a maths fact.

Handily, there’s an online mode for when you can’t tempt another human into your pathogen-ridden flat, or for particular times when the law forbids you from partaking in such fraternising. I haven’t actually tried doing this, but I know this mode exists because it’s right there on the title screen. Perhaps a more professional reviewer may have actually dived into this mode and scrutinised it for matchmaking, lag, and so on, but you’re stuck with me, so I guess we’ll never know any of these things.

I will also hold up my hand at this point and say I haven’t finished PHOGS!, because I am a busy man with lots of things to do, and playing video games is a disappointingly small percentage of those busy things. But I can tell you I’ve finished one of the three worlds and played a fair chunk of the other two, and generally it’s all pretty damn good. The game is at its absolute best when each new level throws up a genuine surprise, like the stage when you’re suddenly transported into a series of arcade machines. It’s that wonderful Mario feeling of being thrown a great idea, being given just enough time to be thoroughly dazzled by it, then being thrown into something else. The Party World in particular is a non-stop roller-coaster (sometimes literally) of neat ideas, and has some of the best stages in the game. There are also some very clever and funny ways to utilise your two-ended hollow dog, like turning it into an impromptu hose pipe.

Unfortunately, PHOGS! can’t quite keep up this relentless rate of fire from its ideas cannon throughout – the Sleep World in particular becomes a bit of a slog, with regular reuse of puzzles involving switching lights on and off. And it doesn’t help that the levels of that particular world look almost drab in comparison to the searingly bright colours of the other environs. Which prompts me to point out that for the most part this game looks utterly gorgeous – its sunny disposition certainly takes the edge off the winter gloom outside.

Mechanically, it works pretty well, although I did find myself getting stuck behind the odd object, and the stretching can sometimes cause our doggy pals to go flailing in a bizarre arc. Although the latter is more of a hilarious feature than a bug, to be honest. No, the one thing that holds PHOGS! back from unblemished greatness is its pacing – a series of fantastic, idea-laden levels can be followed by a few slightly tedious ones with tiresome variations on the same mechanic. And I also found that the levels themselves are a bit too long. It can be hard to get through some stages with two players artlessly attempting to coordinate their respective dog ends, and often what you think is the finish actually turns out to be just the end of the first part of three separate sections to one giant level. The two-player tugging is fun, but it requires so much concentration that the game would benefit from having shorter, sharper stages with more breathing space in between.

But forget all that, because the hats are amazing. Each level has several well-hidden golden bones to find, and these can be exchanged for some ADORABLE head gear. I love the hats sooooo much. There’s even a cat hat. And a little space helmet, and a pinwheel, and OH MY GOSH THEY’RE GREAT. More hats please, I want all the hats.

Anyway. PHOGS! is an absolute blast with two players, and I’d highly recommend playing it if you have another human in the vicinity and you’re tired about arguing over whose turn it is to do the washing up, and instead want to argue about something else. Because low-level spats over who’s controlling which end of a physically impossible two-headed sausage dog are the key to human happiness.

PHOGS! was developed by Bit Loom Studios, and it’s available on Switch, PC, Xbox One and PS4. We played the Switch version.

Disclosure statement: review code for PHOGS! was provided by Coatsink. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.

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