PHOGS! Review

March 1, 2021
REVIEWS
PS4
Also on: PC, Xbox One, Switch

Phogs is a cutesy two-player puzzle game that sees you both controlling the same character, a dog with no legs, and a head on each end, each player controlling an end. It's possible to play it single-player, but I don't see the point since the fun comes directly from trying to control the same character between you. It's a delicate balance, but one that feels surprisingly successful. It's all too easy to see how frustrating it could be when two people control one phog, and the immediate image is one of frustration as you both pull at opposite directions and achieve absolutely nothing, but in reality while you can absolutely tussle in different directions, you can also stretch by holding down a button, and can thus solve any issues of a local nature without both having to coordinate with any degree of precision.


NOM


It's a clever way of avoiding the game being unplayable, while still limiting the players to the main feature of this game: making your phog eat lots of different foods in order to solve puzzles and find rewards in the form of golden bones as you navigate some strange world connected by weird snake-like beasts. In order to move between stages, you have to bring some kind of food to them so they open their mouths, then disappear inside with your food and emerge at the other end, where there is also a head. Evidently these animals have the same digestive issues as our heroes (hero?). Maybe they are phogs too? In which case, they are cannibals. A disturbing thought. Are they being helpful, and know they are transporting us from one location to another? Or are they hungry and continually disappointed as we emerge from their stomachs and wander off to a new part of the adventure? I have probably given this more thought than I should have.

You can move your phog around, and have two main buttons. One stretches your phog so that you can reach further, and the other controls your head, making it jump in the air and bark excitedly, which is more fun than it should be, and I found my end of the phog barking and jumping repeatedly as it navigated the world. It gives your phog a bit of character, along with what seem like completely pointless emojis you can create on screen showing the state of your phog's mental health, as well as similarly pointless hats you can spend your rewards on. When near an object with which you are meant to interact, however, it will also grab a firm hold of whatever it is, allowing your phog to drag it somewhere and then release it with the same button. As such, you can pull and push things where you want them with some degree of accuracy.

Arthur always dreamed of being a pinball bumper


The game comes with a warning that you shouldn't feed your real pet dogs all the different things that your phogs eat in the game, just in case you have rivers of chocolate and strange golden acorns lying around at home. The levels reminded me of the room in the old Gene Wilder version of Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory film where everything is edible, and has a chocolate river running through it. While there are no Oompa-Loompas here, there are a variety of creatures that require tasks completing, and who sit around waiting for you to solve them, rather than try any kind of solution themselves. 

There are various ways to solve puzzles, since your strange two-headed form allows all sorts of disturbing solutions. Your character's head, for example, can attach onto taps, which gush out water or chocolate or, well, who knows what, and the contents will travel straight through your phog, emerging from the other head. Water can thus be redirected, causing plants elsewhere on the screen to grow. This being a strange cartoony cutesy world, those plants are often bouncy, and allow you access to previously unreachable parts of the level. Puzzles are quite varied, and the solutions can be pleasing. For example, other creatures exist that love certain foods that you are using to solve an aspect of the puzzle. Therefore, when you put the solution in place, these other creatures will come along and eat your solution before you can progress, and therefore they also need to be dealt with before you can do so. Recipes need to be followed and ingredients cooked or otherwise dealt with, in order to satisfy NPCs who will give you rewards or allow you access to new areas.

The game has a fairly open feel to it, so you can navigate between the different areas and solve puzzles in whichever order you want. While that is good in stopping you feeling stuck, I also found it confusing, and without the guidance of my son, would have just wandered around the strange world in a kind of daze. The different areas all have different names, and the weird snake creatures keep a helpful count of how many bones you have taken from each area, but I had no idea where any previous area we had attempted was if I needed to find it again, and when accessing an area, I had no idea what we had already accomplished, or where I was meant to be heading next.

My end of the phog, then, was increasingly useless in trying to navigate the world, generally moving in the opposite direction to what was needed. If you don't move, your end of the phog goes to sleep, and a string of Z's appear as he snores his way through the level while the other person does everything. I found myself doing this more and more, as my son barked (like all good phogs) instructions about what I was meant to be grabbing on to or stretching towards. His grasp of the areas and problems and solutions showed that the game is far better designed than I could appreciate, and the designers would have been proud to see how instinctively he understood who we were meant to be helping, and how best to do so. 

If you eat a torch, this happens.


The game occupied some kind of weird middle ground on the difficulty scale, where my ten-year-old son seemed to find all the problems easy enough to solve first time and with the minimum of fuss, and I snoozed along helplessly behind, being woken up when we got there, and with specific instructions that I could just about do without messing it up, and then, when my son was satisfied, I was allowed to drift off to sleep again.

I have never experienced a gulf quite as big between us (and different games have different gulfs, I'm not always quite as senile as I appeared in this game). It's just I found the different areas of the open world so hard to tell apart, and the puzzles so hard to identify from just background scenery, that by the time I was working up an idea of what we should be doing, my son had already worked it out and been attempting for some time while my movements, had I been unhelpful enough to make any, were just getting in the way.  I'm sorry to say that this was probably not the co-operative result that the designers intended.

We love our co-op split screen games, and have spent much time on Overcooked, Moving Out, and many others. My son enjoyed this game, and was keen for me to give a positive review. When I said I didn't think I would be able to comply, he wanted me to mention how much he enjoyed it. He thought the game was cute, he enjoyed the phogs and how to control them, and he loved the puzzles, but it's never the first game he goes for when given the choice, and I'm not sure how long a shelf-life it will prove to have with him.

As for myself, I wasn't grabbed by the cutesy style, despite all the colours and characters. I remember the fun cake-shooters and things in the Little Big Planet series, and that game had the ability to feel the sweetness, and make the ingredients come alive as you blasted puddings around at each other. Here, as you push huge marshmallows to plug and unplug chocolate geysers, it fails to feel like a candyland paradise, but instead rather flat and uninviting — to this bored food critic, at least. 

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6
Some of the puzzles are clever, and they seem varied enough to keep those who enjoy it interested for a while, but the whole thing seems — despite obvious efforts to make it sweet — strangely bland.
David Braga

A tired and befuddled writer in his mid-forties who, having had his gaming gene surgically removed in his early twenties, is now returning to the gaming world due to the enthusiasm of his games-mad son. He is finding the scenery much changed and very confusing, though with much quicker loading times.