Capsule Review: Russian Subway Dogs

Russian Subway Dogs hits you with two things right off the bat: a charming sense of style and humor, and an absolutely daunting number of systems to keep sorted in your head as you navigate its single-screen subway platforms. It’s a game whose bewitching pixel art and cutesy soundtrack disguise what is, in practice, a fairly intense hardcore arcade experience, with numerous bonus tier potentials comparable to a pinball machine.

The game works something like this: you take control of a mercilessly cute animal avatar, many of whom are pulled from the most adorable corners of independent games (these aren’t restricted to just dogs, either, although the critters are essentially just different skins), and are let loose into the chaos of a train station. The passengers (and enemy strays) deployed by each train pace and bound to and fro, and you choose your targets based on what they’re holding; shawarma, vodka, coffee, hot sauce, hamburgers, even ever-toxic chocolate. Your ultimate strategy is to spook them into dropping these items by barking right behind them, then snatching that quarry, hopefully before any adversaries do, or before the items burn or blink away.

Don’t miss: Our interview with Miguel Sternberg, creator of Russian Subway Dogs.

What seems simple at the start gets intimidating almost immediately. The first level features vodka drinkers and shawarma eaters, and barks send their consumables flying in often unpredictable arcs. The trick is to learn how to predict these arcs, and constantly set yourself up to snatch the food out of the air, or combo it with explosive bottles of vodka and increase its point value, all the while studiously dodging explosions and hazards yourself. This means that reading the screen can get downright dizzying, but you’ll eventually get a grasp of how to manage things and enter that magical meditative high score flow, a trance which makes two-minute levels feel like ten seconds.

Before long, the game introduces increasingly absurd and delightful twists, whether they be esoteric objectives (fatten up a bear before cooking it, incite “elk cannibalism,” and so on), hilarious interstitial character chatter (you serve at the whim of the “proletaricat”), even ability restrictions which fundamentally change how you play (being asked to beat a level without barking presents a gratifying reinterpretation of how the game works).

The pacing is incredibly smart, though this leaves some of Russian Subway Dogs’ best content and easter eggs gated to about fifteen or so levels in. Getting there requires a certain constitution from players unfamiliar with similar games, like Tribute’s Curses & Chaos or a few classic cabinets of yore. Once you pummel that staged content, there’s a seductive leaderboard for “endless” versions of stages to climb, if that’s your cup of kvass.

If you’re tickled by the prospect of being Question Hound and repeatedly yelling “FINE” at people, you’ll see Russian Subway Dogs as an insta-buy.

VERDICT

Yes if you like coffee-break games, doing break-neck score-multiplier math, and cute cartoon animals; Probably Not if you have terrible hand-eye coordination, lack a PC controller, or are very touchy about Marxist satire.

Main takeaway: Russian Subway Dogs is clearly a labor of love, but it targets a very specific type of player.