Saturday, December 12, 2020.
by Adam Dileva

PHOGS! Box art I guess I should come clean and admit that I’m a cat person. I’ve actually never owned a dog until recently, yet somehow a game about a two headed dog fell into my lap, so here we are. That’s right, I said two headed dog, and actually, they are conjoined by their stretchy belly too. If you couldn’t tell already, PHOGS! is clearly a game that doesn’t take itself too seriously and is better for it. I can’t think of any other games off the top of my head that lets you control a two headed doggo set in whimsical and very colorful worlds, complete with numerous puzzles and minigames, so there isn't much direct competition.

PHOGS! is from the teams at Bit Loom and Coatsink, and it’s clear that it was a labor of love over the years. From its opening minutes of seeing the cutest game doggos in recent memory, you’ll constantly have a smile on your face from start to finish along its 8-10 hour journey, depending on how you choose to play; solo or alongside a friend. It’s not without its issues, but at its core it was a fun experience I’m glad to have had.

Man’s best friend, named Red and Blue, are linked doggies that also happen to have a stretchy belly, so they are inseparable. Across three distinct worlds you’ll solve puzzles and navigate across 24 different levels. The worlds themselves are all quite varied, as you’ll go through Sleep World, filled with pillows, teddy bears, dim lights and annoying alarm clocks. Food World has you traversing across mountains of tasty treats and food, complete with massive chocolate rivers. Lastly, and my favorite, was Play World. Here you’ll go to the beach, an amusement park and even an old school arcade that brings me back to my youth, complete with tons of minigames Red and Blue will have to complete and solve.

Every world is very distinct and unique, each with their own themes and puzzle types. In Sleep World you’ll have to utilize light to get passed some puzzles, while Food World has you using fountains of chocolate quite often to progress. While there’s a brief tutorial to teach you the basics, new mechanics and puzzle types are slowly introduced, letting you get a grasp on how to solve them going forward. While there is the odd spike of difficulty that had me stumped for a while, the difficulty curve is quite steady throughout for the most part, meaning almost anyone could play alongside you and still progress.

While you’re generally getting from point A to point B, or more specifically, from the worm you entered and heading to the next worm to slide down, there are plenty of extras to find, such as golden bones that can be used to purchase unlockable headwear for the companions, and other collectables for those wanting to get more out of their purchase.

As for the puzzles themselves, most of them are quite cleverly designed, and since much of the gameplay utilizes physics and momentum, it’s always fun to swing Red and Blue from grapple point to the next, or stretching to wrap around a ball to maneuver it where you want it to go. Better yet, some of the minigames in Play World has the doggos playing air hockey, fishing and other interesting games that I quite enjoyed.

While there’s no direct narrative or dialogue, some NPC’s will have a thought bubble above their head, showing you an item they want, usually rewarding you with a secret golden dog bone. Some of these are mandatory, others are not. Each world is broken into six different levels and a boss. Some stages can be longer than others, but on average, it took me around two hours or so to beat each world and move onto the next. You’re able to freely start in any of the worlds you like and go back and forth, but you won’t know what happens when you complete all three worlds until you do, and no, I won’t spoil it for you.

So how does one control a two headed dog? Quite simply actually, depending on your control scheme. If you’re playing alone you’ll control both heads with one controller. If you’re playing local co-op, each player can use their own controller and control their own head, or you can play online with a friend, each controlling Red or Blue. Surprisingly, even playing solo wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be for the most part, save for a few certain puzzles and timed sections.

Red and Blue are conjoined, but move independently. The Left side of the controller controls Blue, and the Right, Red. The sticks move the head, the Bumpers grab onto objects and the Triggers make your body stretch, allowing them to reach further objects. It takes a little getting used to in the beginning, especially solo, but once you learn what side is Red and which is Blue, it almost becomes second nature eventually. The Bumpers will get the most use, as they are how you latch onto objects. For example, to get across a gap you might have to bite onto an anchor point with Blue, stretch and swing your body over a gap with Red and grab on, then letting go of Blue and shrinking back to regular size. It’s interesting puzzles like this that you’ll utilize throughout your adventure.

The doggos even have emotes that they can use with a press of the face buttons. This allows you to communicate with your partner if you’re happy, sad, confused or want to look for the objective. There’s no real necessity to utilize these, but they are cute to have, plus, using the sad emote when your co-op friend constantly screws up is always good for a laugh.

As you collect golden bones that are hidden, you’ll come across shops along your way, allowing you to spend them and decorate Red and Blue however you see fit. These hats add no gameplay variations of any sorts, but make some of the cutest dogs in gaming even cuter somehow. Some of these are quite well hidden, so you’re going to have to be quite thorough if you want to find them all, of which a handful of achievements are tied to.

At the end of each world you’ll come across a boss ‘fight’. I use that term loosely, as it’s still mostly just platforming and puzzle solving, but they are done quite well. I don’t want to spoil any of them, as there are only a handful, but they were easily one of the highlights with my time in PHOGS!.

Normally with small indie games like these, online play is something you can’t really expect, so when I saw that this was actually included with PHOGS!, I was quite surprised. Given the way that the state of the world is in right now, couch co-op simply isn’t an option, yet I was still able to play with a friend in online co-op, so kudos to Bit Loom and Coatsink for putting in the time and effort to do so.

Now the only real issue I had with the online component is that it’s only co-op with people on your friends list. You choose to make an online game and then invite a friend, meaning there’s no matchmaking or lobbies if you wanted to play with someone unknown. I get it though, as you need a lot of communication, so doing so with a stranger might not be the best idea, but if you have no friends that also have the game, then it might be an issue and you'll have to play solo. That being said, PHOGS! is on GamePass, so there’s really no reason you shouldn’t be able to convince a friend to go for a walk beside you.

This of course isn’t without its issues though. More than a few times a friend and I that played together had random issues where she couldn’t see what was going on, or things that were happening on her screen totally differed from mine. Whenever we ran into oddities like this we either simply respawned back at the last worm or simply re-invited to the game again. Thankfully there’s really not that much time lost even doing so, as checkpoints are plentiful.

PHOGS! has a certain charm to it. From its opening moments you’re thrust into a vibrant and colorful world that just makes you want to smile. The doggos are absolutely adorable, and even though I’m not a dog guy at heart, I’d adopt Red and Blue in a heartbeat. Level design is done quite well and the only real issues I ran into were weird physics that would sometimes fling my doggos in weird directions or not control as smoothly as I anticipated. Each of the three worlds are very distinct and was a blast to explore and solve. Audio is just as fitting, with light tunes that suit the worlds and backdrops, and the woof’s that Red and Blue give every time you press the bumpers never gets old. Also, those damn alarm clocks are utterly annoying with their ringing, but designed to be, so it’s hard to hold it against it.

There’s a laundry list of small little bugs I ran into, to the point where I actually stopped taking notes, and while I was initially going to list them all out, I realized that by the time the credits rolled, it didn’t matter because I had a smile on my face nearly the whole time. PHOGS! doesn’t take itself seriously (I’m not sure how it could with a two headed dog anwyay) and works well as a single or co-op experience. Yes you can play solo, but it’s a much better experience alongside or online with a friend, even though you’ll probably curse at each other at least a few times when they screw up.

I wish Red and Blue actually existed, as they are utterly adorable and would no doubt be the goodest boys you could ask for. PHOGS! puts a smile on your face, is utterly weird yet charming, and unique. Give a two headed dog a bone, or two, and download PHOGS! on GamePass if you’re looking for a unique puzzler that is simple yet entertaining.

**PHOGS! was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall: 8.0 / 10
Gameplay: 9.0 / 10
Visuals: 8.0 / 10
Sound: 7.0 / 10


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