Ever since Nintendo took the “virtual pet” craze to the next level by offering up actual digital dogs in their hit DS release(s), Nintendogs, game developers have mined this niche looking to excavate the next hit animal avatar. So, in the years since, casual gamers have been granted a vast menagerie of pretend pets in titles such as Horsez and Catz. The use of pet familiars has even hit the hardcore mainstream gamer, with developers like Peter Molyneux introducing a dog companion that your hero gets to befriend and nurture in his forthcoming follow-up to Fable, due later this year. That said, as dog lovers will attest, there is nothing comparable to the bond that develops with Man’s Best Friend – a fact that developer Yukes aims to showcase in their new release The Dog Island.
While The Dog Island borrows elements of the aforementioned Nintendogs title – as well as cribbing wholesale from Nintendo’s other big casual property, Animal Crossing, at heart it actually closer in form to a traditional 3rd person platformer/adventure game. As the game begins, the player is offered to choose their dog star from a list of 48 breeds. As an owner of two labs, I gravitated to the yellow Labrador Retriever and immediately named her Abby, after my own precious pooch. (Chatham will have to sit this one out unless a sequel rolls over).
Once you have chosen your canine character, the game begins proper, dropping you into a curious burg populated solely by puppies. The 48 breeds are on full display here and the town they live in bears a resemblance to the cute, storybook villas that populate Animal Crossing. Here the dogs all carry jobs so in the course of your travels you will run into a Dalmatian milkman, a Schnauzer sea captain and a bulldog mailman (who I assume chases after himself).
The introductory chapter and town serves as an extended tutorial, walking the player through the assorted abilities at your dog’s disposal. The most important skill is your scent sniffing ability. At several stops throughout the game, the player is tasked with uncovering a hidden item (yes – this game about dogs is brimming with fetch quests). A gauge at the bottom of the screen acts as a radar. As your dog begins sniffing (activated by holding the A button), the gauge will fill up the closer you get to your quarry. Once the meter is completely full, a sound cue will alert you to dig. At that point, two quick flicks of the Wiimote will prompt your dog to dig in that spot and uncover the hidden treasure. Throughout the game, you will be tasked with finding all manner of items at the request of fellow dogs in order to progress further in the narrative.
And yes, there is a story to these proceedings. As mentioned, the game begins in your dog’s home village where on the evening of a big festival, ominous shooting stars herald the arrival of bad tidings. Soon, your beloved sibling falls ill, and your dog is sent out on a great sea adventure to locate the mysterious Dog Island where a famed doctor (technically a veterinarian) holds the key to healing your sister. As you begin your quest to locate the ingredients that will create the salve required to save the day, you encounter a large assortment of dogs who ask you to perform various tasks to assist them in their day or with their problems.
This is another area where The Dog Island shares similarities with Animal Crossing. The tasks given to you by the other animals often involve some sort of menial work (fishing, sniffing out hidden items, insect gathering) that you are then rewarded with bones that serve as the game’s currency. These bones can then be used at the various shops to procure new abilities, increase your health bar or purchase clothing items to pimp put your pooch. A number of these tasks are optional – there for the taking for those who really get drawn into The Dog Island.
There’s a lot to do here and a surprisingly lengthy adventure so the big question – is The Dog Island worth marking as your territory.
The Dog Island has been released on both the Wii and the PS2. The inclusion of the latter often sends up red flags as the Wii has seen too many quickie PS2 ports with little done to take advantage of the increased power offered by the Wii hardware. While nothing in this title would seem out of place on the PS2, the environments and character models are bright, colorful and well-animated. The various locales you visit wouldn’t look out of place in Nintendo’s own Animal Crossing series, making this game a good fit on the platform. A good deal of attention was paid to constructing and animating the pooches and each one looks very cute in a strange, surrealistic way. While the bodies share similarities to the realistic hounds on display in the Nintendogs series, the heads are large, super deformed noggins that give the dogs a close resemblance to the Animal Crossing avatars. It also gives them personality and you’ll quickly get used to their unique look. This game is pitched squarely at the Nick Jr. crowd and I employed my own 3-year old daughter and 5-year old son as a litmus test for the characters’ appeal. They both enjoyed watching the dogs scamper about, performing human tasks and instantly fell in love with the onscreen rendition of their own beloved pup. Sure, there’s not a lot of complex geometry employed here and neither is it required. The Dog Island boasts a crisp, clean cartoony aesthetic that represents the property well.
The game is controlled solely through the Wiimote. With that said, some of the actions could have benefited from the addition of analog control afforded by the Nunchuck attachment. In order to guide your character through the environments, the player must move an onscreen icon (a paw print) that the dog will follow. The closer the icon is to the dog, the slower he’ll move and by nature, the further away you move it, the faster he’ll run. By pressing the B button, the player can instantly initiate running – useful for avoiding the various animal predators that crop up during your island excursion. The A button is selected to prompt your dog to follow one of the onscreen context sensitive actions (i.e. Exit a room, talk to a character, etc.) As the game was developed for the PS2 as well, which does boast analog controls, I feel these IR-centric controls were shoehorned in for the Wii build. While that’s fine for the mini-games (i.e. fishing, digging, etc) – they’ve crammed too much activity into a controller that wasn’t developed to handle that workload. Of particular note are the camera controls that are mapped to the d-pad at the top of the remote. Games like Super Mario Galaxy and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess have demonstrated elegant control schemes for navigating a 3D world using the Wiimote/Nunchuck combo – thus eliminating the camera frustrations that can crop up during this game. Overall, there seems to be a lot of unnecessary point and click actions that could have been remedied by co-opting those proven control schemes.
The Dog Island features a surprisingly lengthy adventure that should keep younger gamers entertained for a good period of time. Sprinkled throughout the proceedings are a number of mini-games that utilize the Wiimote in various ways adding some variety to the standard hunt and fetch activities employed throughout the main story. True, most of the actions have been seen in other games (fishing and its standard yanking motion make yet another return in a 3D Wii platformer) but the actions are simple enough that the target demographic should enjoy these brief respites from the main adventure. Animal Crossing fans will delight in the various side-missions that provide currency for your pooch and thus open up a myriad of customization options to really dress up that doggy. Taking a page from Nintendo’s book, there is a great deal of text to page through in the cut-scenes and spoken dialogue is sparse – so those parents with gamers who are just beginning to read (or not there yet) may want to play alongside and help them work through the adventure – as a number of your tasks are relayed through written instructions.
(Not Rated) The Dog Island does not feature a multiplayer component and is therefore not rated.
As the game pays less attention to enemy encounters (there is not much in the way of combat), the artificial intelligence proves difficult to rate. The characters all follow their scripts and during my playtime, I never encountered any game breaking bugs or glitches. The development seems solid.
This is a children’s game and the difficulty is gauged appropriately – with some very light puzzle solving providing the most challenging aspect of the game. The mini-games all feature simple motions that are a snap to learn so even the youngest players should find themselves adept at navigating the adventure very quickly. The game’s focus is on exploration – while advancing it’s storybook narrative – and the task at hand should prove accommodating for most young gamers. As noted above, there is a large amount of text within the game, perfect practice for blossoming bookworms, but some children may require assistance from a parent or sibling in order to decipher what they need to do next.
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Yukes is head-over-heels in love with Nintendo. Not only did they co-opt features from Nintendo’s games catalog, they’ve also cribbed from some of their curious design choices. One of the most prevalent complaints lobbed at the big N is their outright refusal to embrace full audio voiceover (a feature of most games since the mid-90’s). Yukes has followed their lead and presented, in true Zelda fashion, pages upon pages of text where every once in awhile the character will pipe up with a short, two-second snippet of audio (think of Link and his audible ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ when being told of his next challenge). Here we have dogs delivering the dialogue meaning every few lines they’ll offer up a ‘Bark’ or ‘Woof’. It happens just enough to drive any real dogs in your house crazy as they tear the place asunder seeking out that phantom pooch. The case could be argued that these are dogs,
after all, and thus real speech would be impossible. Well, these dogs are also working for the postal service and tell me on what Bizarro World does that make any sense.
The music for this game is pitched just about right – light and bouncy during the exploration segments while dark and ominous as some mild grim shadings begin to color the tale. Bear in mind, nothing gets too scary but the music does a nice job of matching the mood onscreen. That said, none of the tunes really stuck with me after the fact. The mark of a good or bad game score is how easily it gets stuck in your head. As this one vacated my noggin the second I powered down, I’d call the music right down the middle – appropriate for the onscreen action but it’s not winning any awards either.
The game boasts a surprisingly lengthy adventure that coupled with the various side missions and the myriad of customization options could keep some gamers quite busy. It is obviously built for younger gamers in mind and through its quest structure and large world to explore comes off as an amalgamation of Nintendo’s hot properties Animal Crossing, Nintendogs with a dash of Zelda thrown in. While not nearly in the same league as those titles, this is a pleasant little diversion for younger gamers who I have no doubt will be charmed by these canine adventurers. For those gamers who stare wide-eyed and oblivious at the mention of Noggin, Sprout or a Backyardigan, this title is certainly not for you. But the kiddie set should lap this one up.