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DOGOS / 9th of September 2016

Decent shoot ‘em ups are quite hard to come by these days, though thankfully the mighty Cave are releasing DonDonPachi Resurrection on PC and, of course, Studio MDHR have their gorgeous, Treasure inspired platform shooter, Cuphead, coming to PC and Xbox One at some point over the next two months, but otherwise, well, it’s pretty slim pickings. Sensing a gap in the market, Argentinian indie studio, OPQAM, have put together a mixture of one half free-roaming, top down shooter with one half bullet-hell schmup. The end result is something that harkens back to the days of 16-bit gaming, well it does for me anyway, recalling the likes of Zyrinx’s Red Zone, though sadly, it never quite hits such heights, but at least, for the most part, it’s far from being a total write-off.

The presentation, unfortunately, sets things off to a bit of a ropey start, with fairly long loading times and a difficulty selection similar to the recently reviewed F1 2016, wherein the level selected is permanently tied to the save file. So, for those who wish to play through the game, returning to replay earlier sections on a higher difficulty level, you’ll have to erase your save file and start entirely afresh, now this – to me – isn’t the smartest move to begin with, but it really doesn’t make any sense whatsoever here. The player’s ship can’t be upgraded in any way, save for the unlocking of different weapon types, but other than that, there’s no progression to be had; no improved firepower, no upgraded defensive attributes, so why stop players from changing difficulty levels on the fly as it were? DOGOS is already light on game modes, with just the campaign to plough through, and no online leader boards to be had, so this decision will likely cost OPQAM a number of sales as they are clearly limiting the replay value of the game by doing so.
The narrative of DOGOS centres around the struggle of mankind to fight off an alien aggressor, the Zeetnuks, who are hell bent on our destruction, so it’s the usual fare really. Naturally, the setting isn’t really delved into, but what’s clear is that technology has obviously moved on massively, which is why Desmond Pheonix – the game’s protagonist – is the pilot of a highly manoeuvrable and rather deadly fighter, the KZ 72 (a prototype weapon that combines human and alien technology). The player is eased into the action quite well, with new enemy types and special weapons introduced at a fairly sedate pace, though some mechanics, namely the effects that enemy weapons can have on the ship are never delved into at all, but rather sprung on players, which typically happens at the most inopportune moments. As the story progresses over the game’s fourteen levels, Desmond takes the fight to the Zeetnuk forces that have invaded Earth, moving from hunted to hunter to struggle against overwhelming odds and finally take down the aliens’ most powerful weapon – a device that becomes a regularly occurring boss towards the end of the game.

The KZ 72 may not be upgradeable, but there are some changes that can be made to it during the course of the campaign, the least important of which is the rather frivolous ability to change the paint job between one of six different designs. More importantly, however, DOGOS allows players to change their load-outs, with the game employing a system fairly similar to Galactic Attack and, more recently, Crimzon Clover, by featuring weapons designed to target enemies placed on one of two different planes. Unlike these two examples which both use a lock-on missile system, DOGOS features three different weapons for ground attacks, each with varying degrees of destructive power, rate of fire and so on. Naturally then, each has its own strengths and weaknesses, but all seem to struggle to hit the smallest enemies, which can result in frustrating and drawn out fights with some of the game’s weakest foes, this could likely have been easily circumvented with an increased level of splash damage across the board, so it’s hopefully something that OPQAM will continue to tweak after the game’s release.
On top of the ship’s two primary weapons, there are also special armaments that can be picked up, these offer a variety of attacks (and one defensive item) to help players survive the bleakest of situations. Mega Bombs, as one might expect send out a shockwave of destructive power, homing missiles, well, home in on stuff and the laser cannon, well, it just fires a beam of energy from out of the front of the ship, this can only hit airborne targets and isn’t particularly powerful either, making it fairly useless. The homing missiles are superb to begin with, but use them in an area filled with enemies and their effectiveness decreases remarkably, targeting too many targets and seemingly preferring to attempt a strike on those protected by energy fields, seeing far too many missiles simply wasted.

A nice feature added later on is the ship’s ability to disrupt energy fields, seeing a chargeable beam sent out to punch holes through barriers, allowing the player to progress. This is most commonly implemented into sections where the player is tasked with manoeuvring their ship through areas fraught with environmental hazards, making for a welcome change of pace from the norm. If I could modify it though, I would remove the need to charge the weapon before it can be fired as there are some sections of the game that simply cannot be overcome on the first attempt because of this, making it feel a bit too much of trial and error at times, though thankfully these moments are few and far between.
DOGOS is built on OPQAM’s proprietary Easy Engine which allows the action to flow at a smooth 1080p/60fps throughout with only a handful of frame rate dips when the screen becomes absolutely jam packed with enemies and bullets. It was never going to be the most beautiful looking release this year, but there’s actually a decent amount of variety to DOGOS’ locales, and a smattering of fairly impressive effects to be found here. Sound effects are essentially what one would expect from a game of this type, though kudos must go out for the music which is definitely more of a highlight, featuring a variety of tunes that would feel right at home on a classic schmup game and a fair few others that hint at some strong retro wave influences. I must point out though that the game’s narrative features voice acting, and whilst the dialogue is generally poor, the acting is simply downright atrocious, but thankfully, this was never going to be a particularly important facet of the game and is unlikely to put anyone off. Well, not too much anyway.

I cannot help but feel that I am being overly harsh on DOGOS here, for the most part it was actually a fairly enjoyable game to play, but it is one that is really rather flawed. With tweaks to weapon balancing, the removal of the Zeetnuks ability to reverse the player’s controls (which is more than irritating) and the addition of greater replay value (variable difficulty settings without the need to start all over again), it would likely find itself well on its way to being an essential purchase. It’s certainly a solid foundation on which OPQAM can build going forward though and a heartfelt homage to the glory days of gaming, which is probably all that we could have asked of it in the first place.
James Paton
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