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The Dog Island (Wii) artwork

The Dog Island (Wii) review

"Some of that innovation should have instead been saved for the different missions you'll attempt. These regularly amount to nothing more than running back through several areas to someplace you've already been—just to sniff out some secret new item—then crossing the map again to return it to whoever wants it. Even after you gain the ability to warp to familiar locations, you'll still be doing a lot of redundant footwork."

When Nintendo released Nintendogs on the DS several years ago, it proved one very important thing: gamers love dogs. The title went on to sell by the millions and was responsible for a wave of clones that persists to this day. Looking at the cover of The Dog Island, you might be excused for thinking it another copycat. Actually, though, it has more in common with something like The Legend of Zelda than it does the latest raising simulation.

The story begins in a village completely populated by dogs. They live in houses that look more suitable for humans, send mail to one another, sleep in beds and throw exciting festivals each year. On the evening of one such event, despite the bad omen of shooting stars streaking across the night sky, your sickly sibling sneaks outside against your mother's orders to watch you compete in a scavenger hunt. The eventual victory is too thrilling and your hapless sibling collapses. There's only one individual who can perhaps save the day: a physician dog from a distant place called The Dog Island.

Early on (even beyond that initial disaster), the game is pretty heavy on the plot. You'll ride a boat out to sea, swab the deck and fish for the evening meal, then find that a fierce storm lies ahead. The captain is concerned for his crew and says that you'll have to try another voyage later, but you're not having any of that! You jump overboard and swim to the island, barely surviving the ordeal and only then because a chipper bluebird looks for help once you wash ashore on the beach. Because so much of the game's introduction is plot-driven, most people will probably play the game for around an hour before things finally settle into a normal routine.

In case the cover art and the nature of the story weren't enough to tip you off to the fact so far, let me be very clear on one point: The Dog Island is clearly developed with younger players in mind. Though there's enough reading that six-year-olds wouldn't be able to go at things alone, they seem to be the group to which the game otherwise caters. Teenagers, of course, will be far too cool to play something that features--among other things--a gang of puppies wearing scarfs and sunglasses or a cocker spaniel in a pirate's cap.

The Dog Island doesn't feature a lot of violence, parents will be pleased to note. Your only weapon is a bark, which can be a quick yap if you tap the button or a howl at the sky if you hold it down for a long time. Meanwhile, your adversaries are fairly tame. Early on, these include snakes that chip away at your life meter by hissing at you within a certain range. Things progress from that to include napping gorillas that occasionally wake from their slumber long enough to hug you roughly--oh my!--and stampeding buffalo so that there's definitely a sense of danger but very little that should give even the most timid of children nightmares.

Puzzle solving is likewise kept suitably simple. Generally, you only get stuck if you haven't been smelling enough things. That's unlikely, since the game eases you into that aspect of things almost immediately. Basically, you press and hold the 'A' button to sniff, which then triggers icons that let you know if anything of interest is in the immediate vicinity. If something is nearby, you'll see a flashing meter that grows more agitated the closer you get to the mysterious component (sort of like 'hot or cold' that so many children grow up playing). Sometimes, you also will see faint footprints that indicate where you should sniff, depending on the objective.

The sniffing mechanics in the game (I never thought I'd type that in a review) for the most part work, but they're not always enjoyable. Sometimes, you only have a general idea of the direction where something lies and there might be a barrier preventing you from getting there. Other times, you might circle for a fair bit--just barely missing your target--and find yourself rather frustrated. I imagine that real dogs face these same torments all the time, but I maintain that the game should have been a little bit more generous about such things to reduce some of the hassle.

Another issue is the general control scheme. Everything is manipulated with just the Wii Remote, which immediately makes things difficult. Since the d-pad is awkwardly assigned to camera controls, that leaves the 'B' button for movement. You point an on-screen paw in the general direction you'd like to go, then hold down 'B' to move there. I would vastly have preferred to leave the Nunchuck attached and use that analog stick instead. Considering how clunky things get here because that isn't an option, I'm fairly certain most kids who play this would have felt the same way. It's certainly not enough to ruin the experience and you will get used to it in time, but for the most part the controls seem innovative but not particularly useful.

Some of that innovation should have instead been saved for the different missions you'll attempt. These regularly amount to nothing more than running back through several areas to someplace you've already been--just to sniff out some secret new item--then crossing the map again to return it to whoever wants it. Even after you gain the ability to warp to familiar locations, you'll still be doing a lot of redundant footwork. Between such assignments, you'll also crisscross those same few environments looking for incidental odors that lead you to flowers, fish, insects and fruit that you can turn in for 'woofs' (the game's currency). Even the few puzzles don't seem to vary things much. Sniffing out food to feed a hippo so that you can jump off its back to a higher ledge doesn't seem a lot different from later doing the same thing for an elephant.

Visuals are at least quite polished, with few technical defects to speak of. Environments are colorful and alive with activity. Each puppy is animated quite nicely and their faces are expressive (probably because the heads are so ridiculously large compared to the bodies). Not only that, but you can spend woofs to purchase different accessories, such as a dapper hat and a business-like necktie for your pup of choice. Again, it's obvious that Yuke's had children in mind when it created this game.

Even children will tire of the fetch quests, though, which is where the game loses most of its points. The spotty controls are tolerable given the minimal emphasis on action, the sickeningly sweet plot is perfectly appropriate for its audience (I would've loved this stuff when I was 7 or 8, I'm sure) and both the audio and visuals are pitch-perfect for a project of this type. Someone responsible for the title was clearly in love with the concept and it really shows. With a little bit more work on variety in missions--more moments like those that take place in the final two hours would've been fantastic--this could have been something really great. Instead, it drags on too long (somewhere around 20 hours if you do everything) by repeating the same few objectives. Patient kids won't mind and parents will love the value. The Dog Island is a fantastic match for those people and cheap to boot. For everyone else, it has “skippable kibble” written all over it.


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Staff review by Jason Venter (May 11, 2008)

Jason Venter has been playing games for 30 years, since discovering the Apple IIe version of Mario Bros. in his elementary school days. Now he writes about them, here at HonestGamers and also at other sites that agree to pay him for his words.

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