Review: The DOG Island (Nintendo Wii)

The DOG Island
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Yuke’s
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release Date: 05/06/08


Dogs are great, aren’t they? I mean, assuming you’re a dog person, anyway. They’re lovable, adorable, cuddly, and loyal (so long as you take care of them properly). But while dogs in real life require constant attention, feeding, and walkies, dogs in video games are often a simpler affair: with the exception of Nintendogs and other “pet simulators”, most game dogs are either the protagonist, and thus require only that you keep them from falling into a pit or some such sillyness, they’re assistants to the protagonist, and thus don’t require much at all (dogs like Yamato from Shadow Dancer and Rush from mega Man require next to nothing and are loyal to a fault; dogs like Huey from Haunting Ground and Brown from Rule of Rose are a little more needy, but still generally self-sufficient), or they’re antagonists and require a boot in the hindquarters.

Generally speaking, though, dog protagonists are pretty… [i]rare[/i]; while it’s not uncommon to see a dog as a supporting cast member (in everything from the above mentioned games to Samurai Shodown and Metal Saga), actual canine heroes are less common than, say, cats (Bubsy and Blinx), rodents (Rocket Knight and Aero the Acro-Bat), rabbits (Jazz Jackrabbit and, on the opposite side of the coin, those accursed Rabbids) and even freaking monkeys (though, in fairness, everything’s better with monkeys). Save for A Dog’s Life, it’s pretty hard to come up with a game where the primary protagonist was a dog of some sort.

If you’re the sort of person who’s been pining for such a product, look no further: The DOG Island (you have to write it like that or it doesn’t work) not only puts you in the role of a canine protagonist, it puts you in a WHOLE WORLD full of canine companions. Specifically, super-deformed dogs (IE big head, small body). And you know what? It’s an absolutely diabetes-inducing level of adorable.

Seriously. I’ve been showing the game to people all week and all they do is go “Awwwwwwww!” and grin like dopes. It’s amazing.

Surprisingly, TDI has a plot, which goes a little something like this: you live with your mother and either a brother or sister (your choice) in a tiny town full of Italian dogs (seriously; everyone’s named Maria and Viviana and Donatello, so what am I supposed to think). Your father went missing some years prior while searching for a cure for your sibling’s incurable illness, and has yet to return. During a town festival at the beginning of the game, your sibling falls significantly ill, and your character makes up their mind then and there: rumor has it that a famous and skillful doctor lives on the DOG Island, and you’re going to go there and get a cure, no matter what.

The story is pretty stereotypical, but it’s largely helped along in two respects: first, it’s generally geared towards children, and as such the normal “unwarranted sense of self importance” such stories almost ALWAYS have is eschewed in favor of a nice, simple, cute story that, while not stellar, works from beginning to end, and second, the characters are all large-headed dogs, and are thus huggable and lovable and adorable… and TOTALLY easy to play the sympathy card with. Seriously, over half of the characters have some type of tragic past of horrible embarrassing secret that would be completely annoying in a game starring people, but in a game starring small dogs it’s entirely capable of making you choke up and such. There’s a scene in the beginning we’ve all seen a billion times in movies or on TV or whatever, where your sibling sneaks out of the house to play along with you and your friends, and after over-exerting themselves, they collapse from their illness. If done poorly, this sort of plot point makes the viewer go “Oh, God, not this again”, but in TDI, between the simplistic presentation of the story and the uber-cute characters, the game ACTUALLY makes you feel bad when you see this happen.

I mean, y’know, Dickens it ain’t, but it’s simple and it works; what more can you ask for?

Visually, TDI looks cute and colorful; it’s fairly obvious that the game isn’t pushing the boundaries of the Wii’s technical capabilities, and there are the occasional spots of clipping here and there, but the various breeds of dogs are instantly identifiable, the game world looks pretty decent, and the little details like your dog shaking off water after climbing out of a lake are all there and used to good effect, so all in all it looks good enough. Aurally, TDI has cute cartoony tunes playing in the background that lend themselves well to the mood, and hey, 70% of the beings in the world bark, so the barking sound has, of course, been done justice (even if it tends to repeat from dog to dog). Nothing presentation-wise is earth-shattering, but attention has been paid to getting everything right, and it shows.

As TDI is on the Wii, it makes use of the Wii control setup in a way that is both user-friendly and easy to deal with, to the point where one actually doesn’t miss having a controller in hand instead. All one needs is the Wii-Mote to play; moving around is as simple as aiming the paw icon that appears on-screen in a direction and holding B to indicate that your dog should move in that direction (with the further away the paw icon is representing if your dog should walk or run), thus making the experience easy to move around in. The A button serves an odd purpose, if not a surprising one: by holding it down, your dog begins “sniffing”; this will allow you to find hidden items in the game world by following their scent (and in some cases, their trail) to their location, whereupon they may be dug up with a simple flick of the Wii-Mote. As there are also hostile creatures in the game world, it behooves your dog to have some means of defense; in this case, you can sneak up on unsuspecting hostile (but also incredibly cute) animals and press or hold the Minus button to bark at them (the longer you hold the button, the more powerful the bark), which will cause them to be startled into unconsciousness… which, let me tell you, never stops being hilarious, especially when you do it to a bear or a gorilla. You can also press Plus to access your inventory, status, map, and memos to see what needs doing and what you have/need at any given time.

Of course, most of the fun in TDI comes from being a dog itself, and in this case, TDI does a lot to make that pretty amusing. When you initially start up the game, you’re given the option to choose your gender and the gender of your sibling, but perhaps more interestingly, it also lets you choose your dog breed from a pool of 48 breeds. The breed pool is quite large and incorporates all sorts of popular and less so breeds, from Jack Russels and Westies to Bull Terriers and Pugs and King Charles Cavalier Spaniels, and most of the breeds come in multiple colors, so you can have the doggie of your dreams as your main character from the get-go. You’re then further offered the option to dress your dog in all sorts of silly clothes (what’s on sale at the shop you visit dictates what you can buy, of course) in three positions: hats for your head, glasses for your face, and accessories (like ties, backpacks and armbands) for everywhere else. Giving your dog a bowler hat, collar and tie, and pair of round glasses is pretty amusing, and it’s pretty cute as gameplay options go. You trade for clothing options with Woofs (a currency that seems to be dog bones), which can also be used to buy curatives and such, and are earned by doing good deeds for others.

Which brings us to the only thing that can really be said against TDI: the entire game (and I mean THE ENTIRE GAME) is one long series of fetch quests. Now, ha ha, right? It’s cute and funny and totally appropriate and [i]really, really tedious[/i] if you’re over the age of ten (and possibly so if you’re under that age, too). Now, in fairness, there are occasionally other things to do, like fishing and playing goofy little mini-games now and again, but the VAST majority of the game amounts to someone presenting you with a scent (or something that is a group of scents in one), you wandering off to the location the item is in, sniffing around the location until you find the quest item, then returning to the person who presented you the scent so as to get your reward. Most of the earlier quests keep the quests nearby to one another, but later quests will have you going from town to town to complete various quests, which is rather… boring. Again, smaller kids probably won’t care, and if you only spend small amounts of time with the game on a case by case basis you might not even get to the point where you feel like you’re just doing the same thing over and over, but it bears noting that yes, that’s a problem here.

Of course, the game is designed with kids in mind; the core gameplay experience is about ten to fifteen hours or so, and it’s pretty much a straight shot through it. Enemies aren’t very challenging (they tend to stay in the same areas unless you actively provoke them and they’re fairly easy to sneak up on) and they tend to be easy to avoid or surprise with a well-timed bark, which should be easy enough for most young players. Quests, again, amount mostly to sniffing around for a while until you home in on your target, which is generally rarely difficult; on the occasions where you need to unlock some sort of object or assistance to move further, the game spells out what you need quite plainly and makes it easy to get to. Again, this is really meant to be a kids game first and foremost; sort of a youth version of the more recent Zelda games, with dogs in the place of Link and barking in place of swinging a sword. It’s not the sort of game you’re going to come back to once you’re done with it, as the only reason to do so is to pick a different dog breed and run through the game again, but that might actually be reason enough for some folks to jump back into it again, especially if they like lots of different kinds of dogs.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that I found the game to be cute and cuddly but a little boring and a bit too easy, but when I brought the game to my thirteen year old cousin to play, she thought it was awesome and made me promise to loan it to her when I’m done writing my review. In other words: the game isn’t meant to be complex and challenging, it’s meant to be fun for less experienced casual or younger gamers, and honestly, it does that pretty well all in all.

So, basically, if you’re a dog person, if you’re a casual gamer, or if you’re younger and less skilled at gaming, The DOG Island is really perfect for you. It’s got a lot of gameplay to go through, it’s simple to play and not very complex at all, and it’s cute and amusing. Anyone who’s been playing games for a long time is going to think the fetch quests are tedious (if fitting), but honestly, the game wasn’t made with that in mind. As gamers for the youth set go, The DOG Island plays well, is simple to work with, is pretty amusing and fun, and isn’t very expensive; all in all, it’s everything it should be and does everything it needs to, and should be fun the whole way through.

The Scores:
Story: GOOD
Graphics: GOOD
Sound: ABOVE AVERAGE
Control/Gameplay: GREAT
Replayability: MEDIOCRE
Balance: MEDIOCRE
Originality: MEDIOCRE
Addictiveness: ABOVE AVERAGE
Appeal: CLASSIC
Miscellaneous: GOOD

Final Score: ENJOYABLE.

Short Attention Span Summary:
Generally speaking, most games targeted at kids and casual gamers are either collections of mini-games or mediocre half-baked uninteresting games that, it’s assumed, kids will love because they pack in adorable/familiar characters. The DOG Island successfully manages to avoid being either; it’s lengthy, has a decent amount of depth to it, and is pretty amusing to play regardless of your age. The gameplay can be a bit repetitive at times, and there’s no reason to jump back into it except do dress up different dogs, but for some, that may very well be enough of a reason to have it. All in all, it’s fun for folks of all ages and skill levels; younger or less-experienced gamers will find it to be fun and playable, and older or more-experienced gamers, even if they get a little bored with the constant fetch quests, will still find a cute, silly diversion in The DOG Island.

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