The Unlikely Legend of Rusty Pup Review
It’s a brave game that makes you scratch your head before you’re even allowed to play it, but The Unlikely Legend of Rusty Pup isn’t your average puzzler. It is one of the most aggressively aloof indie games to have been released in the last few years — a gorgeous, yet standoffish title which throws out mere crumbs in place of overt signposting, and a sing-song narrator spewing rhyming instructions in lieu of a straightforward tutorial. If it takes you longer than a couple of minutes to work out how to get past the damn title screen, you may be in for a rough ride. If you don’t engage with it in your first hour, there’s a high chance you’ll give up entirely. And that would be a shame.
Gory Detail, a small indie band formed from ex-Rare employees behind the cult classic Conker’s Bad Fur Day, has crafted a sumptuous and macabre world filled with steampunk delights, not least of which is the lead character: a wind-up, dog-headed unicycle thing. Guiding Rusty Pup to the exit of each level is the basic goal; completing that task is another matter entirely. Rusty moves autonomously, attracted to lights dotted around the level which you can activate by pulling their cord, the careless use of which can lead to him wandering off ledges, into chutes, and — more often than not — to a grim death.
You can zoom in and out of each level to get a better picture of it, but it’s unlikely to help you initially as you won’t have a clue what the hell is going on. Only by repeatedly dashing Rusty’s metal head into the concrete after a fall from a chute will you start to grok the basics. Taking Lemmings as a blueprint is a good mindset to have. Since you have no control over the protagonist, you instead need to master his environment by placing bridging blocks you collect to span gaps before he reaches them. Such materials may either be fragile and collapse after he moves over them once, or they may be more permanent and let him go back and forth without plunging to his doom.
To make matters worse, you’re on the clock. If that three-minute timer hits zero, it’s a trip back to the start of the level. Since Rusty is afraid of the dark, any navigation that sees him wandering across a level without light will speed up the countdown as his fright takes hold. Rolling into fuzzy robot friends can freeze the timer and give you a few valuable seconds to play with until your buddies collapse and die (did we mention the game is morbid?).
Rusty Pup’s aesthetic meshes the clanking 2D atmosphere of Metal Slug with the carefully drawn lines of Steamworld Dig, but it has a grimy beauty which outstrips both. Rusty moves ponderously and progress is made slowly as you get to grips with what the game expects from you. Here, the logic will take you some time to understand and even then it may invoke serious head scratching. Your doggo can fall a great distance as long as he has a crate or barrel under him to break his fall (and provide more building material for you to utilise). Otherwise, a fall of half a screen is likely to end you, yet dropping a bridge tile in the wrong place will make Rusty refuse to progress. Sometimes he’ll jump over a gap himself, other times he will mutter nervously, awaiting your intervention. The ever-ticking clock and laborious pace means that levels will be played through many times with different attempts at progress until you hit upon the correct solution — but whether that’s trial-and-error or pure luck is a 50-50 split.
So, accessibility isn’t high on Rusty Pup’s agenda, but don’t dismiss it because of that. His tale is subtle, his goal opaque, and the two faceless, diametrically opposed narrators berating, encouraging, prompting and mocking his progress are at once fascinating and infuriating. Their rhymes are appalling at times — in content, structure and delivery (a cheeky wag might call it “doggerel”) — though not quite enough to drive you away. The object of most levels is to obtain a number of floating brains which Rusty needs to store in his metal stomach before flushing them down a toilet (no, really). The more brains you collect, the more levels open up for you to tackle and the more the story will be revealed — both within the titles of each level and the bowels of the actual challenge.
At some point, if you persist, things will click into place. It is likely to be a genuine “AHA!” moment after a couple of hours of bewilderment, but once you realise that at the core of Rusty Pup is actually an ingenious series of workflows predicated on you laying paths, yanking chains and pulling levers all at the correct time, the frustration will melt away and you’ll be left with a challenging but engaging puzzler. Later levels present different environmental challenges for you to navigate such as roaming robots with torchlight that Rusty follows instinctively, or teleporters which split you into duplicates and seriously mess with your head. You may need to invest in a planner to navigate some of the devious routes you’ll have to follow to avoid getting impaled, crushed, or smashed to pieces.
The Unlikely Legend of Rusty Pup will have slipped under the radar of many, given it came out at the same time as a slightly better known game named Red Dead Redemption 2. Even so, a marketing blitz is unlikely to have made much of a difference regardless of its release date. It’s a tough game to warm to and a niche prospect in general, even for puzzle fans. Yet like the mangy mongrel you found wandering the streets and took pity on, the more time you spend with it, the more it starts to appeal. It might not be your best friend to start with, but with time, persistence and training (of you, in this case), it might end up occupying a warm corner of your heart.