(PlayStation 2 Review) A Dog’s Life

Developer: Frontier Developments
Publisher: Hip Games
Genre: Action / Adventure
Players: 1
ESRB: Teen
Reviewer: Nick Stewart

Overall: 4 = Below Average

In a videogaming world filled with endless clones of popular hits, and clones of those clones, it’s often refreshing when a title can make you stand up and take notice, for whatever reason. Of course, it’s preferable that your attention is piqued because the game is actually good, and not because, say, it’s one of the craziest damn things you’ve ever seen. For good or ill, the recent Dog’s Life for the PS2 falls into the latter category. Labeled as a kid’s game, it’s supposedly about allowing you to run around various environments as a dog, though actually sitting down and playing soon reveals an inexplicably bizarre and mind-bendingly odd, dark little schizophrenic experience.

If nothing else, Dog’s Life can stand proud as what one can only assume to be the only game in all of existence to allow you to defecate, pick up the still-warm crap in your mouth, and then fling your feces at nearby children, old men, and horses. When you initially boot up the game, it’s likely that this kind of experimentation is going to take up a chunk of your time, as you roam freely around the level, from area to area, just to see what type of bowel-relieving antics you’re capable of doing. After all, it’s difficult not to be filled with some sort of incredibly warped hope when you jump onto a moving car, perch yourself on the driver’s side of the windshield, and give the irate, honking driver a front-row seat to what will surely fill his nightmares for weeks to come as you crap not even a foot from his face. Then, when you hop off and watch your dung roll quietly, almost embarrassingly off the hood of the car to come to a standstill on the side of the road, you have to remind yourself that this is, after all, a game for children. At first, it seems like the game might be some sort of weird sandbox for strange, repressed urges; however, unfortunately or not, it turns out that this is not the case.

In fact, it almost seems sad to say that, if Dog’s Life possessed much of this same kind of bizarre, “why the hell is this even possible in a videogame” kind of gameplay, it could stand out as some sort of truly off-the-wall kind of gaming experience that is generally reserved for overseas markets. As it stands, however, the ability to do tricks and relieve yourself is an interesting if not wholly unsanitary distraction from the game’s core of run-of-the-mill repetition.

The game’s plot, such as it is, revolves around a country dog named Jake, whose girlfriend Daisy has been dognapped for Mysterious and Ominous Reasons. Naturally, it’s up to you to guide Jake in a third-person perspective through the various locations and levels to find out who took Daisy and why. However, doing so is actually far less interesting than the initial gameplay might suggest. In order to progress through the game, you have to earn bones—the game’s currency—by activating various quests and mini-games in one of two ways, the first being the simple act of “talking” to any one of the quest-giving individuals just standing around a level. Quests activated in this way often doing something within a certain time limit, like fetching batteries or sheets of music, keeping certain dogs or birds at bay, and so on. These quests tend to encourage a certain amount of exploration, and are usually the more entertaining ones to push through, sometimes even requiring some very basic problem-solving.

The second way to activate quests and mini-games is by using Jake’s apparently patented Smell-O-Vision, which switches you to first-person perspective. From this vantage point, the world appropriately becomes black and white, which allows you to clearly make out the various colored smells that litter the surface of the gameworld. By running over these smells, you “collect” them; collect all the smells of a given color, and you enter into a specific type of mini-game. For instance, collecting all yellow smells in an area may activate – yep, you guessed it – a peeing contest with the area’s resident pooch. Other smells activate digging contests, tug-of-war, treat races, and so on. With perhaps the exception of the treat races, all of these mini-games involve little more than rapid, non-stop button-mashing in order to push Jake to act faster than his opponent. The hitch with these is that each opposing dog for the area has a certain “bone rating”, and unless you’ve got a nearly equal or superior number of bones than your opponent, you’re not going to be able to beat him. This means that in order to defeat certain opponents in these types of competitions, you’re going to have to run around, completing quests and mini-games in other areas before being able to even consider beating them. The “collect the upgrade before trying to access this area” dynamic is often seen in these types of games, and the way it was adapted to this particular game works well enough, though it doesn’t exactly remove the monotony of doing the same thing over and over, from area to area. As a result, the core gameplay feels rather dull and repetitive.

Now, while it might sound as though Dog’s Life is perhaps less than impressive, one should keep in mind that it is intended for children. The criticisms offered above aren’t exactly from someone within the target age group, so consider that if you’ve been considering picking this one up for a son or daughter, brother, or younger cousin. What you should also keep in mind, however, is the extremely bizarre, dark undertone that the game has. As previously mentioned, there’s a mystifying, almost psychologically fascinating obsession with fecal manipulation, not to mention any number of other strange items, such as an incident where your efforts to help a farmer (who actually uses the word “crapulous,” incidentally) end up leaving you the target of a band of rogue crows who will violently and continuously crap on your head any time you enter the area. Another particularly odd incident occurs when you’re tasked with helping to provide eggs to some neighborhood children, so that they can then throw those eggs as hard as they can at the local butcher’s crotch, for no reason whatsoever. What’s more, you actually see the action from the egg’s perspective as it soars through the air, only to forcefully thump into the poor butcher’s groin. Hell, the plot even has a Hestonian whiff of Soylent Green to it. I wish I was making all this up. It’s all rather mind-bendingly odd, and quite frankly, a little subversive. To see this kind of thing in a supposedly wholesome kid’s game about a likeable, friendly dog is not unlike watching Sesame Street, only to have the Count interrupt his obsessive-compulsive actions and take a giant dump on his palatial dinner table, and then start muttering under his breath about how he’d like to kill Big Bird so he can eat him, and thereby absorb the Yellow One’s power. Then he goes back to counting. That’s more or less how jarring the sudden moments of bizarre darkness are in Dog’s Life.

Of course, there are other elements to the gameplay, such as the graphics and sound, though neither of these really bear too much discussion, as neither has a particularly significant impact on the experience. Given, the movement animations for the dogs are actually fairly impressive, which is easily counterbalanced by the hideous textures and nearly illegible menu screens. The same goes for the sound effects and music, which are middling to fair. The only truly comical aspect of the sound comes with the voice acting, which is humorous without ever intending to be. The voice actor for Jake is decent enough, though when he looks at the camera and mutters, “Mmmm, bones,” and proceeds to make drooling noises, it’s awfully difficult to not picture some guy in his mid-30s dribbling onto a mic in some studio somewhere.

Ostensibly a kid’s game, Dog’s Life is currently being marketed towards children and adults with child-like spirits and a love of dogs. This is a somewhat deceptive approach, as the marketing should instead be focused upon fecalphiliacs who enjoy repetitive, rote gameplay and would like an innocent-appearing virtual forum in which to practice their obsession. I suppose, however, that this would make for a much more difficult ad campaign, however representative it might be of the gameplay. To be fair, the underlying theme of all things crapulous isn’t the dominant one here; however, it is a significant part of an entirely bizarre videogaming whole, which is equal parts grating repetition and ungodly, unexplainable strangeness. As an actual kid’s game, it is somewhat questionable, though probably rather harmless. As a game for anyone else, Dog’s Life is a fascinating curiosity, a schizophrenic wolf in lamb’s clothing. If you want to be able to say that you’ve crapped, farted, and urinated in videogame format—even Postal 2 was only able to nail two out of those three bodily functions—then you may wish to give this strange little beast a rental.

(This review is based on a retail copy provided by the publisher.)

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