There's a great comic by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely called We3, in which a future military weaponises animals. There's a dog, a cat and a rabbit and the idea is that they work as a team and basically shred whatever's in front of them, which is all fine until... well, it isn't. We3 was running through my mind as I played the opening of Metal Dogs, a game that has a simple elevator pitch: what if dog, but with many guns?
A top-down RPG-lite shooter, Metal Dogs initially casts you as the dinky Pochi, a Shiba Inu breed that is rocking an arsenal of weapons, and lets you run into some baddies firing away before you get absolutely slaughtered by some high-level nasties. I always like games that do this: give you a glimpse of what's to come, and emphasise the protagonist's relative powerlessness. Not sure I enjoyed seeing Pochi splatted over the map, but you can't have everything.
From here Metal Dogs settles into a simple rhythm of small objective-led stages which, after the first few tutorial missions, start including large boss enemies and items. Each dog has a satisfying dodge-dash, carry three weapons on its back, and use one piece of equipment, and the canine response to your commands is precise.
Initially Metal Dogs doesn't impress: the first four or five stages all basically involve shooting away at ants and plants with the equivalent of peashooters. It also tosses in a couple of enemies that are possible to take down but overpowered: there's a persistent levelling system that chugs along in the background, distinct from the upgradeable gear.
Then all of a sudden, Metal Dogs takes off. I was amused enough by the concept and the frankly bizarre translation to keep playing past the first twenty minutes, at which point it starts to give you all of the toys, introduce much more interesting enemy types, and add equipment modifiers that allow for limited customisation of playstyle. I mean, fundamentally you're always going to be a dog strutting around with high-grade military ordnance, but you can dabble in all sorts of weapons or just say screw it and stick three massive cannons on your back.
I'm not going to say Metal Dogs is a great game, because there are tighter shooters out there and, even in the high octane fights, it never quite has enough oomph in the effects and explosions to set tails a-wagging. But it's a decent shooter with a whole swathe of sub-systems and a surprising amount of charm: when I discovered I could have sunglasses on my Pochi, I smiled, and when I found a Doberman to add to my roster I actually got excited.
There's a sci-fi story gradually being told between missions: you're initially resurrected by some crazy scientist, who soon opens up various areas of the hub for use between sorties. There's a doghouse (!), a shop, and soon a weapons lab to re-roll modifiers and a warehouse for storage.
The overarching narrative aside though, I have to share some of this game's language with you, which is both endearing and very ludicrous at the same time. The first tutorial mission is called 'Loyal dog, embrace the machine gun." If that wasn't good enough, the second mission is called 'Embrace the stronger machine gun.' I am ready for such an embrace.
Then you get the mission descriptions. For a mission called 'A lump of romance, Gold Ant' the text is as follows: "WANTED! Gold Ant. This monster is very popular among hunters due to its high cash value. If you find one, there is no choice but to hunt it. You can party with the money, or invest it in new weapons. It's also a good idea to save up for your retirement. As long as you have money, you get through life one way or another."
I have to admit that pensions weren't at the forefront of my mind when I was dodging a mechanical hippo's fireballs and launching SCUD missiles up its tailpipe, but the game about weaponised dogs makes a good point.
Developer 24Frame describes this as a roguelike, which I'm not sure is accurate: it's more in the lineage of stuff like Diablo, a looter shooter of sorts where the game becomes kitting out your dog army (there's three in total: Shiba Inu, Doberman, and a Bulldog) with daftly overpowered kit, and mincing the high-level enemies that once gave you trouble.
Metal Dogs pleasantly surprised me rather than blowing me away. The concept is just fun in itself, and that charm holds for longer than I expected. But it also keeps the new stuff coming, and escalates the action in bitesized missions that continue to be moreish: even if I can't quite shake the sense that, yeah, I probably should get back to work. Only problem is Pochi needs a new collar, and it ain't gonna buy itself.