The shmup genre is a place that has been stretched long and thin by the passage of time, seemingly exhausted from repetition and routine to the point of becoming one of the most explored and well-worn parts of the medium. Somehow, the small Argentinian developer OPQAM have broken through the brusque, old mold of the genre by adding fresh modern elements to create a game that has one foot in the past and one foot in the present.
Dogos, as unbelievable as it may sound, is not a game about dog memes or dumb internet jokes. The surprisingly-narrative focused space shooter blends together exploration elements of Metroidvania titles with the classic and frantic action of overhead shmups. The interesting combination feels so natural that it’s shocking it hasn’t been done before, especially for as old and viscous the genre has become.
You take the role of Desmond Phoenix, a pilot in a world that has been ravished by biomechanical extraterrestrials. 50 years since the robotic alien’s arrival on Earth, the planet as we know it is but a barren wasteland, run dry from its resources. However, thanks to some fancy new ships that take advantage of alien technology humanity finally has a fighting chance in the form of what pilots have dubbed “DOGOS”.
While the story is as clichéd as a diamond in the rough, it’s interesting to see the small team at OPQAM give it their full attention. The game impressively features a fully voiced cast both in the form of diary entries before and after missions as well as in-game dialogue sequences. Unfortunately, thanks to the soft voiceovers and the overbearing soundtrack, most of the speech is pushed to the side. Instead of hearing important story moments, you’ll be hearing faint voices undercutting mostly unmemorable and repetitive music throughout. Hopefully sound balancing will be something that’s ironed out before the game’s full release later this summer.
Thankfully, the game’s mechanics are fluid enough to make its varying gameplay avenues satisfying. Levels are broken up into separate checkpoints bouncing between short Star Wars-like trench runs and the longer, more methodical main portions of the stage. One moment you’ll be flying into a level at break-neck speeds and the next you’ll be given free reign to explore every corner of the map. Sometimes it can lead to a jolted feeling of progressing, yet the way the level design naturally integrates these moments of transition help alleviate any moments of trepidation in-between.
The levels in particular are designed to not just help aid in the varying types of play, but also can offer both interesting battle arenas and fun puzzles to overcome. Since the game utilises a twin-stick shooter control scheme, ship movement is relegated to one stick and the ship’s orientation is assigned to the other (or the WASD and mouse respectively on mouse/keyboard controls). It gives each stage its own identity of variability keeping the game fresh even in the second and third playthroughs.
Yet while the mechanics feel comfortable and fresh, the core controls seem in direct contrast to the rest of the game. It’s highly recommended to play this game with a controller, thanks to the slow pace of the game’s reaction-time. It’s not a simple issue of performance, however. While moving left-to-right and up and down feel perfectly fine, readjusting the point of view of the ship is always outpaced by your own actions. If the mouse is used, the game doesn’t take the extra speed and fluidity of control into account and simply feels broken. Even when played with a controller the problem is not completely alleviated thanks to similarly slowly moving bullets and missiles. While the game tries to feel fast and claustrophobic it instead feels unnecessarily difficult. The intent in the design is clear but unfortunately it isn’t able to recapture the same frenzied speed of other overhead shooters like Geometry Wars.
What OPQAM delivers is a game that attempts to be unique, despite living in the skin of a mediocre space shooter. While superficially it seems like it shares the same production value of a late PlayStation 3 Housemarque game, it’s evident that this is a much smaller team with an even smaller budget. Even still, its 3D worlds feel so fully realised that it’s almost a disappointment you can’t explore them more thoroughly than from a distant glance. With the little slice of the game we were given, Dogos impresses by being more than expected even though it still can’t become greater than the sum of its parts.