Arts video game review

‘Russian Subway Dogs’ is a punny canine platformer

In mother Russia, when you bark at vodka, vodka bark at you

8690 runner 2016 11 08 12 15 34 76
In 'Russian Subway Dogs,' you play as a dog hunting for food.
Courtesy of Spooky Squid

Russian Subway Dogs
Developed by Spooky Squid
Published by Spooky Squid
Rated T for Teen
Available on PC

At initial glance, the beta test of Russian Subway Dogs by Spooky Squid Games Inc. is fun-to-play, charming, and quirky in its art style and character but has a high learning curve (for an average gamer like me) from level to level.

The basic mechanics of the game involve you, the player, playing as a Russian subway dog who can walk back and forth across a platform (using the left and right arrow keys), bark at people (using the X key) to cause them to drop items such as shawarma or alcohol, bark at items to make them bounce in the air, and jump to catch food (using the Z key).   

Russian Subway Dogs uses game mechanics that combine to create  fun combo-actions that increase your points. Barking at a person holding vodka releases a vodka bomb that, when launched towards a person with food, will create flaming food or can interact with other vodkas to create a bomb twice as strong. With different items, you can gain different power-ups or can increase different food combos or enable different powers, and the combination of power ups with food make the game enjoyably iterative. The iterations of these combos fit with the overall humorous style of the game; for example, hot sauce is a power up that allows you to breathe fire.

The game, as described by its creators, is a “systemic-arcade game,” highlighted by Miguel Sternberg (one of the two game developers of Spooky Squid Games Inc.) in his tweet about a Medium article. The tweet quoted the author of the article, D.W. Wallach, in their description of when they saw the way the different mechanics of the game worked to their benefit in an especially chaotic level:

“While your only inputs are to jump or bark, these two actions can create some wild scenarios. … an enemy NPC dog caught [the hot sauce] instead — receiving the power up to shoot fireballs. …the rival dog ended up shooting fire at a caribou that was charging me… [which] turned into cooked meat, and my family was well fed that day.”

While the game itself is fun to play over and over again, for an average gamer like me, I’d say the increase in difficulty between the first two levels is too large. You have to earn 500 points to pass the first level, but you need 2000 to pass the next.. I found this a little frustrating at first, but having multiple objectives within each level to complete during repeat plays allowed me to gain skills and strategies that would help me beat the next level.

I enjoy that this isn’t just a mindless arcade game. After the first level, if you only rely on the scaring people into giving up their food mechanic, you will not be able to beat other levels unless you learn to kill the rival dogs, make flaming food, or figure out other interesting combinations.

The only mechanics of the game I dislike are the ones where you have to re-read dialogue (which is refreshing and cute the first time) every time you select a new level, making you slightly weary of the dog commander instead of ecstatic to see his image pop up on the screen. This doesn’t necessarily apply to the dialogue your kittens have when you leave, because it’s an easy way to make a game charming by having a short and sweet “farewell” or “welcome” for dialogue.

There is also a mechanic where at the end of the level, if you don’t reach the threshold amount of points, you watch the dog slowly die while it says: “Reach F to unlock the subway.” You have four seconds of pointless gameplay at the end of each game just dying, jumping up and down in front of the closed train doors, while your controls are in slow-motion.

Mechanics and arcade technology in mind, I think the art style is what makes this game mesmerizing to play and watch. There are quirky icons you can play as, funny (and punny) dialogue, a catchy and dramatic soundtrack when you win or lose, and very intuitive UI that make the game much easier to understand. I like that they use some Russian text in their game alongside English to add to the authenticity of the cultural setting, and it uses a well-rounded color palette (red, black, beiges, and military green).

Overall, the concept of being a Russian subway dog who has to compete with other dogs to bring food home for their family is one that you never knew could be such a cute, addicting game. While I wouldn’t pay $15 for it, if you have a group of friends and a couple of weekends where you’d want to finish it all, this would be a good source of casual fun.