One of the greatest features of games, and art in general is that of versatility in interpretation. A single “genre” can cover a vast array of various titles, many of which are nothing alike, all thanks to various developers redefining or reinterpreting facets of specific mechanics or core features that make up the general definition or gameplay central to certain themes these games portray. The results of this unlimited amount of creative freedom made available to all, while certainly daunting, can be a double-edged sword.
DOGOS is Argentina-based OPQAM’s latest entry into the Action sub-genre Shoot ‘Em Up, or Schmup. More specifically, this is a sub-genre of Schmups defined as a multi-directional shooter. Made with controllers in mind, the left stick determines directional movement and strafing while the right stick determines camera and ship rotation. A specific mechanic of DOGOS is the distinction between aerial and land based units. Most schmups treat any enemy as fair game to both guns and missiles, but DOGOS requires each to be attacked separately. Enemy aircraft are eliminated with your own main guns, while ground units require air to surface missiles and bombs to be destroyed. While this mechanic is not entirely unique, it’s important to take another title into consideration when reviewing DOGOS: OPQAM’s own Project Root.
Presenting itself as a spiritual successor to this 2014 release, DOGOS takes the ideas and ideals of Project Root and expands and improves upon them… mostly. Because of this, I will explain a little about Project Root before I continue on to DOGOS, as the very nature of DOGOS is contained within. Project Root, from what I’ve been able to play and gather, is a nostalgic call back to earlier sandbox shooter titles like the Strike series (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strike_series), Super Stardust, and Zone 66. Going back to these series’ “Root(s)”, OPQAM wanted to create a game that played and felt like an instant classic when compared to similar entries in the genre with skill based shooting, punishing difficulty, wide open maps, and memorable boss battles. In many ways, that’s exactly what Project Root was, and is, thanks to many of these systems being well implemented in key mechanics such as: specific arial and air to ground weapons systems, large free flowing maps with objectives made to be tackled from any angle, and a ship that can be upgraded as the player progresses through story missions. Overall, I found Project Root to be classically enjoyable, but fairly slow movement made many maps unnecessarily long and tiresome to traverse until your thrusters were upgraded sufficiently. Unique special weapon power-ups and large boss battles helped mix up combat, but most areas had so many enemies to chase down it sometimes felt like it made more sense to just leave them alone. A decent radar helped you keep track of where your current objectives were, but without reference marks present, you never really knew how close or far away you were to anything.
So how does DOGOS reinterpret those systems?
It’s kinda a mixed bag. Eliminating Project Root’s single ship upgrade system in exchange for two ships with static stats, but with multiple weapon loadouts that unlock as you progress gives players more diversity in how to deal with oncoming problems. Giant, ambiguously over-sized maps have been reshaped into a more linear approach with well defined borders surrounding large areas connected together via winding tunnels. Aerial and surface weaponry is still a must, as many new enemy types provide a plethora of targets on both fronts (some even inflict status effect-like debuffs). Special weapons also make a return one at a time, unlocking new ones as you progress through the story. Also, a map of the entire area with main enemy locations and objectives clearly marked is present, although bringing up the slightly opaque map obstructs the majority of the screen.
Story and mission updates are now fully voiced by the two main characters, which makes everything a little more coherent and easier to follow. Character portraits look much better this go around, in my opinion, and suit the aesthetics of DOGOS. Regarding the visual stylings, DOGOS looks great while played. Both ships are uniquely shaped and colored, easy to spot amidst the carnage of your cannons and missiles blowing up enemy units all while dodging hostile fire. Each stage also has great visual appeal, ranging from underground caves with ample magma deposits ever flowing to the crags and valleys following a mountain range full of lush flora to the seaside of a large landmass with small islets dotting the coastal range. Enemy designs are also attractive and generally easy to spot, despite their efforts to sometimes hide behind pillars or under the cover of tree branches. The sounds of DOGOS is also improved from Project Root with clearer, crisper sound effects and a primarily rock-based soundtrack with prominent bass lines and 80’s inspired guitar riffs to help drive the tempo occasionally mixed with piano interludes sprinkled here and there.
Unfortunately, despite all of these updates and lessons learned from Project Root, DOGOS is still plagued by many of the same problems. While maps are more enjoyable to navigate, you do so at a break neck pace, and by break neck, I mean I wanted to break my neck due to how long it took for me to pilot my “advanced prototype airship” from one location to another. This is a returning problem from Project Root, and one that is counter-intuitive when compared to how the developer promotes the game to be played. Players are encouraged to speed around, shooting as many enemies at once while dodging the incoming volley of return fire, but when this is done in practice, it’s almost instant death, or at the very least the sacrifice of a large portion of your health. Couple this with the fact that some ships introduced in the 5th level inflict status effects that further oppose this desired way of play* and the player is now forced to approach each altercation with extreme caution, slowly chipping away at sections of the enemy force until it’s safe to proceed. Thankfully checkpoints are present and appropriately implemented, relieving the past stress of replaying entire maps when you lose your last extra life, and there are times when you will lose your last extra life. Some sections play out as an auto-scroller, leaving you to direct your ship to avoid both enemies and the environment, both of which are entirely safe to crash into at any other part of the game, but for whatever reason are now extremely deadly. Weapons, for the most part, are fairly satisfying, but air to surface missiles are extremely annoying due to both their accuracy when fired and the need to constantly pull the trigger to fire them, even though its predecessor allowed for constant firing. And, no, I don’t consider target reticles to be missile path suggestions that are sometimes upheld, just like I don’t consider accidentally hitting your target because you spam the trigger to be a skill shot. Inconsistency is annoying, especially when it’s regarding a system you expect to work so you can concentrate on everything else.
Like I said, a mixed bag.
DOGOS is a great idea, a great prospect, but the execution is not as well implemented nor improved as it could have been. The solutions for some of Project Root’s failures presented are marred and even overshadowed by the existence of other problems, both new and old. It’s certainly playable and can even be enjoyable, but the slow pacing, addition of jarring auto-scrolling sections, and the constant snowball effect of minor quirks all push heavily against the player’s potential to actively appreciate this title. The double edged sword of unadulterated creativity strikes again. Hopefully OPQAM’s next venture into the multi-directional shooter will prove more fruitful.
*Specifically the electric & reverse shots. The electric shot forces the player’s ship speed to be drastically slowed from a crawl to a near stall for a solid 3 seconds, and the reverse shot simply reverses all of the player’s controls, including the camera. Keep in mind that while these effects are being resolved, nearby enemies with homing bullets that are shot 3 at a time and stack together aggressively seeking the player for what feels like miles are continually being fired, demolishing your ship in seconds flat in the wrong situations.