By all rights, Word Up Dog is a game I should love. It’s a quick-fix puzzler that combines dungeon exploration with timed spelling challenges. It’s got a goofy cartoon hip-hop aesthetic with a funky soundtrack. But most importantly, it’s the new release from Sarah Northway, the designer of one of my favorite mobile games, the zombie-themed strategy title Rebuild. Unfortunately, though, Word Up Dog didn’t quite live up to my expectations.
The premise is fun, if silly: Your mutt, trapped underground, must dig his way through a series of chambers, collecting enough bones to buy his way to the next level. The catch is it costs bones to dig out earth, which makes planning your tunneling important. Along the way, you’ll collect letters as well as bones. Spelling words will earn you bones, and fulfilling one of the timed challenges, like making a 5-letter word using the letter N, will earn you bonus bones. The animals you meet in each chamber will sell you items like dynamite and wild-card letters, which can help you reach your target faster as well as remove obstacles like rocks and bugs.
The design is clever, in theory—you should find yourself constantly making interesting decisions, both in exploration (which route will get me to that letter A quickest?) and in puzzle-solving (what’s a 6-letter word that includes a T?).
But in practice, the systems tend to fall apart. For one, the balance of play is heavily tilted toward exploration instead of spelling: In some levels, you’ll spend far more time searching out letters than making words. Letters are abundant in some levels and sparse in others. That can get frustrating given the cost of digging tunnels and the ticking clock of the spelling challenges. Considering this imbalance, obstacles like vines, rocks and lava often feel more annoying than challenging, especially if, like me, you find solving word puzzles more engaging than navigation. While the seven levels are nicely varied in environment, and new mechanics are introduced smoothly as you progress, level layouts are not polished enough to feel as rewarding as spelling.
And then, of course, there’s the hip-hop lite corniness—which is no doubt intentional on the part of the Canadian Northway, but can be equal parts endearing and irritating. The Disney-gangsta speech of the cartoon animals reeks of the jive-talkin’ sidekick archetype in mass-produced kids’ movies. Fortunately, you can set the game to “Queen’s English” if you prefer your goofiness in faux-Brit form.
On her website, Northway describes her work on Word Up Dog as a kind of palate-cleanser after the heaviness of Rebuild. “I needed a unicorn chaser,” she says. Word Up Dog certainly has sweetness in spades. But it doesn’t quite satisfy like a main course should.
Word Up Dog
Platforms: Android, iOS
Developer: Sarah Northway
Release Date: 2/21/2013