Grapple Dog review: a nail-bitingly brilliant platformer

Grapple Dog by Medallion Games makes no pretenses about what it’s about: it’s all in the title. You play a happy-go-lucky pup named Pablo, and you’re going to save the world with the use of an almighty grappling hook! But it’s so much more than that. I went into Grapple Dog thinking it was an indie (and cute!) riff on Capcom’s Bionic Commando, but that sells the experience short by, well, a long shot.

For reasons that are thinly veiled with Saturday morning cartoon reasoning, our hero Pablo finds himself unwittingly unleashing a robot named Nul while on the hunt for clues about the mythos of a magnanimous inventor. Fortunately for him he comes across an ancient artifact in the form of a grappling hook from said inventor, which lets him conveniently escape his predicament and begin his hunt for the angry Nul. The MacGuffins leading you ever onwards consist of four more relics such as a rotary phone and a light bulb that you must collect for reasons before Nul nabs them.

For the most part, platformers aren’t known for their prose and, in all honesty, I didn’t give much credence to the story here beyond it giving you some kind of motivation. But as you get further into the game, the world expands a bit, because each new world has its own set of denizens that you can talk to (and glean tutorials from) and you can jump into your boat and talk to the friendly crew in between levels. Both of these frankly unnecessary moments of dialog are incredibly endearing and honestly helped me feel a bit more invested in what I was doing. Even more curious is that the deeper in you go, the more insight you gain into Nul’s reasonings, and you find that all is not as it seems. What happens next is… some very earnest discussions between Pablo and Nul that came across as surprisingly heartfelt. It doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in terms of the overall experience, and doesn’t lead into anything other than a set-up for a potential (hopefully!) sequel, but it’s a more substantial chunk of story than is usual in most games of this ilk, and I was a bit surprised by it.

But who’s reading this to understand the plot of a platforming game, am I right!?

In that regard Grapple Dog holds its own in a world full of Marios, Sonics and Shovel Knights. While I was quick to compare Pablo to Bionic Commando‘s Rad Spencer, the truth of the matter is that Pablo’s so much more maneuverable, to the point where it’s constantly fun to play the game. At first I was a little put-off by the fact that you can only swing in predesignated spots, but as the game progresses, most of the world ends up being made of the swingable tiles. The rationale is to get the player acclimated to what you can and cannot do in the first few worlds, because later on your feet barely touch the ground. I mean that quite literally – you need to put up or shut up in the later and bonus stages. Luckily for us, moving Pablo is a joy; his walking and jumping feel perfect, and linking it all together with his grapple hook has you feeling very much like a superhero.

You don’t see very many games in this genre that have such a fantastic learning curve. With hindsight I could see how my skills were deliberately honed through training, because while I felt the first world led me by the nose a bit, by the last I was surprised at what I was capable of doing. Again, the momentum and cadence of movement is extremely satisfying to the point where I didn’t mind the extra challenge, not only because it all feels completely fair, but also because it felt completely doable. Grapple Dog is a game that made me finally understand the speedrunning aspect of video gaming, because mastery feels so good.

Grapple Dog went from “cute indie platformer” to “nail-bitingly brilliant platformer” subtly but quickly at the same time. Everything gelled in a way that few games can accomplish, from its super-fun controls to its clever and engaging level design. Rarely are games this wonderfully made, especially with a small crew. Add to that the charming cast and colorful world, and you have the makings of what could (and should!) be a franchise.

Grapple Dog was developed by Medallion Games and published by Super Rare Games, and it’s available on PC and Switch. We played the Switch version.

Disclosure statement: review code for Grapple Dog was provided by Super Rare Games. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.

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