A Dog’s Life

Gamestyle Archive Intro: Chris reviews a unique gaming experience with A Dog’s Life that dates from the end of 2003. They don’t make them like this, now, before or any time soon.

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A Dog’s Life is one of the few games where the protagonist can openly defecate and urinate on the surroundings. Had a certain Dave Mirra been a bit more rebellious, of course, then this might not be the case. Gamestyle wonders who else’s mind went all scatological when told of a game centred in the ‘realistic’ world where you control one of man’s best friends.

You play as Jake, a lovable hound who was nearly dog-napped by two imbecilic dog catchers. Unfortunately, despite failing to nab you, they’ve stolen your bitch. So you’ve got to rescue her by tracking down those pesky catchers and doing things that only animals (and Tom Green) would do. Let’s start out by congratulating Frontier, the development team fronted by David Braben (co-creator of the classic Elite) for actually getting to create and (more importantly) publish something slightly unusual. And we’ll continue by looking at how you play as a dog. There are two views that are interchanged; a third-person (sic) view and a first-person (sic) view known as ‘Smell-o-vision’, where you see the world like the pedigree chums do – through the medium of smell. Thankfully smells are colour-coded, which may not be biologically accurate, but this is a small concession to make for gameplay.

In the levels – based around the village of Clarksville, the snow resort of Minniwahwah, and the urban sprawl of Boom City – you need to use your Smell-o-vision to track down different scents. The largest volume of scent will get you a bone as a reward, while others will enable you to compete in a selection of mini-games involving the dog relative to that level. The mini-games mix between the energetic (chasing) the rather obvious (repeat the sequence) and the scatological (marking your territory – need Gamestyle say more?). Each level has a mixture of smells and direct missions. Certain humans require some doggy power to help them out; like the boy whose toy helicopter is on the roof, or the farmer with a fox problem. Jake can’t do all the missions required, so after you win a mini-game the local hound will allow you to take control of its body and perform tasks on Jake’s behalf.

Although the body-changing isn’t an especially innovative idea, the way that it’s incorporated into the gameplay is excellent. There is a problem of structure, however – as you may find a certain scent on beginning a level, complete the mini-game and are now in control of a dog with a time limit, but without knowing what to do. Maybe the stone-cold sober approach would be to find the 50 purple scents from every level (if you will, the ‘common scents’) – thus completing the levels – then moving onto the other colours. The flaw could be that you’re thinking like a dog; running about like a rocket on wheels. That isn’t even a major flaw in the game. Arguably, it is the repetitive nature that will put off more experienced gamers, though former fans of platformers will find some solace here. The puzzle aspect is well-judged, and a sense of reward is pleasing.

The game does have considerable charm, and is pleasant to play (a compliment, by the way), which is not only down to some well-written one-liners, but also to the music. The score is excellent; comprised of lo-fi instrumental – almost chill-out tracks – utilising guitars and some marvellous xylophone sounds. It’s very relaxing. The flaw would be the size of the game. Whilst not exactly explorable, the levels can be gotten through fairly swiftly and there are no multiplayer options. Completion in a week will be easy, and although not every bone will have been unearthed – nor every scent unearthed – with no multiplayer, A Dog’s Life barks ‘Rental!’ more than anything else. It feels petty so late in a review to bring up graphical issues, yet there are many here that do nothing to damage the game, but enough to diminish the experience of exploring this world. Although not vital, when creativity conjures up an atmosphere such as this, the small infractions are noticed. The memory card save is also rather hefty, taking nearly one-sixth of a memory card.

As an experience, as well as a smartly-written and smartly-presented game, A Dog’s Life is a great example of off-beat European software. Gamestyle greatly enjoyed being Jake for a while, and hopes that more imaginative titles will come around. However, kids – the doggy game is more for Christmas, and not for ‘life’.

Gamestyle Score: 7/10

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