By: Roberto Nieves
Developer: Bit Loom Games
Available on: PC, Playstation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Google Stadia
If you are old enough to remember VHS tapes, you are old enough to remember the large variety of shows and cartoons in the 1990s. There were dozens to choose from, but Nickelodeon happened to have some of the strongest and most memorable portfolios of toons from The Wild Thornberries to Rugrats. In 1999, an odd cartoon debuted and quickly became popular, known as CatDog. The show's premise involved a bizarre creature, a cat and a dog, who share one body in a strange world inhabited by other anthropomorphic creatures. The show became a hit, airing 68 episodes over four seasons. Like the show, the new cooperative game PHOGS! is unique. PHOGS! is a cooperative adventure and unlike anything seen in the gaming marketplace. With bright, vibrant visuals, charming levels, and an incredibly polished control scheme, PHOGS! is one of the best and friendliest co-op experiences available today.
My experience with PHOGS! began with meeting Coatsink Rep Jack Sanderson at PAX West and PAX East, playing the earlier builds of the game. The game intrigued me with its soft visuals and its extremely tight and responsive controls and gameplay input. In particular, at PAX East 2020, I so happened to play the game with a complete stranger and had a remarkable time figuring out the level with her. It was a brief but incredibly enjoyable demo, one that was far more relaxing than the other, more action-oriented games that I demoed at the time. The final release is far wider and grander than expected but still retains the qualities that made it such enjoyment to play at PAX East 2020.
PHOGS! has no big story and no narrative arc. In this dreamscape, there are the lands of Food, Eat, and Play, as well as all the levels wrapped within. As the two-headed doggo, Red, and Blue, players work together to solve the many puzzles of the dreamscape. Along the way, players collect hidden items, including bones. Players utilize absurd physics to stretch, wrap and connect through the game's many challenges.
PHOGS! is as pure of a cooperative experience as gaming co-op experiences can get. Most cooperative experiences tend to be common and familiar or overly complex. Borderlands is certainly a co-op loot shooter on the simpler side, whereas PayDay 2, while exciting, can be rather difficult and more complex, even in co-op. PHOGS! simply does away with all that, squarely focusing on a simple gameplay mechanic and expanding on the grand visual scale and possibility that the unique puzzler provides. As an avid gaming enthusiast, it is nice to play something more relaxing and laid back but still engaging and not resorting to violence to tell its engaging narrative.
PHOGS! has the ability for players to play in single-player, with the controller mapped to control both dogs. The game, however, was made to be enjoyed with others, both online and in person. Online multiplayer works well, but if players can do this safely, given the COVID-19 pandemic, couch co-op is where PHOGS! truly shines in its silly, fuzzy world filled with absurd happenings.
Each world has its own unique puzzles, from opening doors to lighting lights to making ways across gaps and chams. The simplicity of the controls makes PHOGS! extremely accessible, but challenges players to use their imaginations as well as their wits to think how to solve the latest challenge. These puzzles provide a firm challenge, but nothing could be described as tedious or back-breaking, unlike other co-op games of this nature. The cute and cuddly aesthetic of PHOGS! gives way to something fun but still challenging, especially for completionists out there that want to find everything PHOGS! has to offer. In particular, each level has a number of bones scattered through the level.
Red and Blue can stretch, twist, and contract. How these mechanics function is entirely dependent on the puzzle at hand. Some puzzles require turning a lock, and others require reaching a switch. Other objects, like jumping platforms, also provide other ideas to maneuver through the level. A unique mechanic is the use of elementals, such as fire and light. If Red holds a light bulb, the light comes out of Blue's mouth, which is essential for illuminating hard-to-reach areas. The same can be said of water. If one side latches on a water sprout, the other dog will shoot water.
Overall, the gameplay in PHOGS! is remarkably well-done, polished with a keen sense of keeping the player in mind. There is never any kind of confusion or fumbling with the controls, and the challenges, while not a cakewalk, are certainly not going to overly frustrate the player to the point of discouragement. It's a distinct and wholesome experience, ambient, peaceful, but enjoyable, and I recently felt this kind of enthusiasm through a gameplay interaction with a best friend of mine.
Recently, I visited a close, dear friend of mine from college to play a round of PHOGS!. My friend, who I've named Silver for this review, is a fellow gaming and anime enthusiast, leaping into the adventures of single-player games like Uncharted and God of War, but also being a dedicated connoisseur to the world of Nintendo, especially Animal Crossing and The Legend of Zelda. After many rounds of slaughtering murder hornets in Earth Defense Force 5, PHOGS! was a good way to depressurize from the hours of explosions and laser fire. What I thought would be a nice, coasting experience turned into a charming co-op experience that had us wanting to come back to it the more we thought about it.
The two of us hit the ground running in the dream level, a level filled with drowsy dinosaurs, sentient alarm clocks, obnoxiously large bedrooms, and boats that sailed through the night sky, all under a dreamy moonlight. The two of us communicated, worked together, and laughed our way through the level, commenting on the strange and bizarre ambiance of PHOGS!, contending with obnoxiously loud alarm clocks and surveillance crows that sought to impede our progress. Some moments did have me look up Youtube videos, but only to not skip out on any secrets. We were relaxed but engaged, having fun trekking our way through the world fo PHOGS!, all the while trying on different hats for the pups.
In the several hours we spent conquering the dream world, we laughed, chuckled, smiled, and immensely enjoyed our time. What PHOGS! presented was a world where the experience is just as rewarding as the result. Other games find enjoyment in the result, with all the hard work leading up to the end, but PHOGS! was different, entertaining, and rewarding through each moment of puzzle-solving and exploration. The game even brought out a different personal observation compared to other co-op experiences I have had. Silver and I have played other co-op experiences, such as I Am The Hero and Shing!, but there was something that brought a purer sense of friendship and camaraderie. We weren't in a video game to fight everything and everyone, but instead, we were in a video game to solve, fix, and bring things back together. The two of us had been through our own difficulties in recent years, only exacerbated by the pandemic. Still, the two of us just relaxing and solving problems as a video game version of CatDog is genuinely wholesome silliness that was warm and contagious. After finishing our round with PHOGS! we went to play Super Mario 3D World on the Nintendo Switch, but we couldn't stop thinking about PHOGS!. Silver wound up recommending the game to his best friends, including a pair of newlyweds. Even now, the experience of PHOGS! was incredibly memorable, even sometime later.
PHOGS! isn't perfect. The game can get rather repetitive, even as the puzzles and worlds change from time to time, and there isn't a tremendous amount of variation from puzzle to puzzle, but it's the journey that counts. PHOGS! is likely one of the very best co-op experiences around today. Maybe so for 2021 with its great visual presentation, strong gameplay mechanics, and ultimately wholesome video game of working together to fix the world. PHOGS! is a great game.
PHOGS! was reviewed on the PlayStation 4 with a review key generously supplied to Stack-Up by Jack Sanderson of Coatsink