Russian Subway Dogs is a systemic arcade style action game where the player assumes the role of a stray dog traveling the Moscow subway system competing with rival dogs and other wildlife to steal food from human commuters.
The primary goal of the game is to earn as many points as possible while avoiding death by starvation. A bar tracking the player dog's hunger drains over time and drains faster when barking and when they they collide with hazards. Barking behind humans surprises them and causes them to throw their food, or anything else they're holding, into the air. Eating food both earns the player points and extends their playtime by filling the hunger bar. Food is worth more points and adds more to the hunger bar when it is caught in the air and when it is hot. Catching multiple pieces of food without letting any touch the ground or get eaten by rival dogs multiplies the point value of each piece. Bonus points are also awarded for eating specific sets of food items such as three different vegetables from the same commuter's shopping bag.
In addition to dogs, humans, and food the subway platforms are also filled with a wide variety of other useful and dangerous objects and animals. Vodka bottles cause explosions that can eliminate rival animals and heat food. Chocolate bars can poison you or your rivals (because it's toxic to dogs). Hot sauce can cause flame breath, flame poops, or pools of fire on the ground depending on where it falls or who eats it. Bears and elk attack the player dog and other creatures but can be turned into food if cooked by flames or explosions. Other tools and obstacles include snow drifts, coffee, and pigeons. The layering of these systemic elements creates situations where the player must make trade offs. For example they might have to decide whether to catch a piece of hot poisoned meat in the air for a large number of points or allow a bear to eat it result in a score reduction and a loss of combo bonus but eventually removing the bear from play.
The game is divided into separate campaign and endless modes. In campaign mode the player collects bones by completing levels with specific target scores or meeting special mission requirements for each level. Certain numbers of bones unlock more levels and alternate characters sprites. Each new level also unlocks a piece of conversation with a communist cat and their cadre of kitten helpers. After unlocking all the levels on five maps the player gains access to a final boss fight. In endless mode the player tries to get the highest score possible using both the combo mechanics and extra challenges periodically offered by the Proletaricat. A run of endless ends when the player fails to eat enough to keep their hunger bar from emptying.