Rusty Moyher delivers a brutal platformer roguelike in Dig Dog ($2.99). You play as a dog that will go to the ends of the earth to get as many bones as possible, even the ends full of weird evil creatures and spikes everywhere. C’mon dog. Those players out there who enjoy getting tested by games will like this, as it’s a well-made platformer with a simple but effective visual style. But even if you like games with no fail state, Dig Dog is here to accommodate you as well.
In order to dig in Dig Dog, the player has to jump, then hold the jump button to dig downward slowly, and rapidly tap to dive and dig fast. Every action in the game requires jumping, and considering what’s above vertically. The dog can also air dash by holding left or right and hitting jump. Some enemies have spikes on them, and the air dash is the only way to take them out.
Dig Dog is brutal, but not in an unfair sense. It just doesn’t give the player much wriggle room for failure. Any mistake, any bad decision, that gets punished by the game. Additionally, the player having only two hearts, along with the limited invincibility time, means that there’s no smart reason to go charging headlong into danger without a plan. The first step to doing well in Dig Dog is to only descend when it’s definitely safe. The player can bop most enemies on the head, but in general, anything but a pure height advantage will lead to the player taking harm…and then getting one step closer to death. There are some timing elements where you can air dash near the ground to take out an enemy on the same plane as you, but in general, avoiding threats is a good idea.
Once you’re confident enough, the game does reward risk-taking. Take out a bunch of enemies at once with either the air dash or consecutive bopping without touching the ground, and the game grants extra coins. Shops appear randomly, offering power-ups. There’s a reason to start from earlier in the game beyond high scores: it’s easier and cheaper to buy items in the early levels, and the powerups can help out a lot. Buzz Helper turns the buzzsaws into useful weapons because they no longer hurt! In fact, I almost recommend playing the early levels and getting good at them just to figure out which power-ups are good. Relentlessly trying to get as far as possible means you’ll be working with your basic abilities through some of the most difficult portions of the game. But then, the game never is “easy" at any point in Bone Hunt, so it’s just about building up patience and skill to do well.
Thankfully, Dig Dog‘s sessions are short enough that digging back into the game when failure hits is never frustrating. And the mechanics are designed well enough that failure feels like it’s my fault, and not the game. It’s hard to get stuck, or get into a bad situation that wasn’t a result of you being reckless. The monochromatic visual style does mean that some enemies can hide in the world, but this is an intentional effect. It’s a simple but slick look for the game.
Most of what I said applies to the hard Bone Hunt mode of Dig Dog, but that’s only half of the experience. There’s also Free Dig, the easy mode of the game, and this is more of a Desert Golfing-inspired experience where the game just goes on and on with generated levels. It’s possible to die, but the game just resets the level. For those that want to just enjoy the mechanics of Dig Dog, this is the mode to play. And Dig Dog‘s mechanics are quite enjoyable to play with. Digging quickly downward through the ground feels good, with the right amount of screenshake. The air dash is fun, and the way that it just makes the dog go sideways not only serves a functional purpose (as it does attack two tiles vertically), but also adds a little bit of comedy to the game. It is a game about a dog digging for an endless number of bones while facing off against weird demon creatures, embrace the ridiculousness, even to a subtle degree!
The problem with Free Dig is that I think it’s best served as a completely alternate experience to Bone Hunt. It’s not good as a practice mode beyond learning the mechanics. But what Bone Hunt teaches the player is that any mistake comes at a steep cost, and one bad decision can lead to death, and you’re lucky if your one mistake doesn’t leave you dead. Take away that punishment, and suddenly the player can get sloppy, and not worry about facing each situation in a cautious and calculated way. It can develop bad habits.
Now, I’m not saying that Free Dig isn’t a legitimate way to enjoy Dig Dog. It is! It’s a lengthy game mode that will give players that enjoy a less-stressful experience a lot of fun. I don’t like that it’s listed as the “Easy" mode because I do feel like it psychologically makes it seem a bit more like it’s the less-worthy mode because of the perception of difficulty screens. I’m not going to say that all difficulty selection is worthless, the Wolfenstein 2 difficulty selection screen amuses me, and be willing to poke a little fun at yourself. But the two experiences here between Free Dig and Bone Hunt are so different that I don’t think either should suffer any delegitimization by making the player feel like associating “easier" with “not the same." Instead, let the two modes stand on their own. People will go back to what they want to play.
For me, Bone Hunt is what I want to play. Even when I do zonk out to play a game somewhat mindlessly, I still like a sense of progression, which is why Desert Golfing‘s innate pointlessness never did anything for me. I suck at roguelikes, but I enjoy when I do really well. And thankfully, Bone Hunt does give the player milestones to go after with progression, especially as future checkpoints are earned by reaching them multiple times. There’s still goals to reach in the long term. Bone Hunt is an enjoyable challenge, a solid pick-up-and-play roguelike platformer that will really test you. If you’re ready to die a lot, and git gud, well, Dig Dog is the game for you.