Dog Sled Saga
By: Dan FitzGerald
Although I’d been looking forward to Dog Sled Saga for quite some time, I didn’t really know what the gameplay would be like. I just knew it was about racing a team of sled dogs. I like dogs (who doesn’t?) and the pixel graphics made them look adorable, so of course I had to play it. It’s been in development for a while, but thankfully the game was released on all platforms at once, so we mobile gamers didn’t have to wait for it. It’s a natural fit for touch screens, though there are a few kinks that need to be ironed out outside of the racing part of the game.
First off, I really love the core gameplay, which is the racing. It’s a bit of an auto runner, but very different from any I’ve played. And the races are fairly short, not endless. Basically, you have a team of three to five dogs. You need to keep them energized by throwing treats for them to catch. When you see one is panting a bit, you touch and hold the screen, and release when the arrow is pointing at the hungry dog’s mouth. If you miss, you wasted a treat and will have to try again. If you take too long, though, the dog will start to fatigue. If you run out of treats because you’re wasting too many, you also risk your dogs getting tired. There are stations you pass that automatically refill your treat bag, but you want to be careful not to run out before you encounter the next one. You can see the game in action in this video I made:
If your dogs get tired, they start to slow down and could cause knots in the harness. Then you’ll have to spend extra time tapping to get rid of the knots, while still keeping your dogs well-fed. Other elements are thrown into the mix, like snow and wind, or obstacles that you need to jump over by tapping the sign three times. There are also trees that could interfere with your throwing. The game gives you a warning sign for these so you know to wait for the tree to pass, but if you play it too safe, your dogs could end up waiting a long time for their food. So there’s a lot of split-second decisions to make. Had the game been less forgiving, I might have actually gotten frustrated and given up early on. But this isn’t a punishing game. It gives you a lot of room to mess up. You don’t need to have a perfect run to win the race. But you do need to recover from any mishaps you have in a timely manner, so you can pick up speed again. It can be a bit frantic at times, but it all works really well with a touchscreen. I never felt like I messed up because of the controls — all misses were my own fault. I could usually even tell a treat would miss right after I released it.
Sponsors are a really nice addition to the game. If your dogs do interesting things like catch a treat mid-air, they’ll get photographed and earn fame points. The higher level their fame, the more often they’ll get sponsorships. These act like upgrades. For instance, you can increase your bag’s capacity to hold more treats or have your sponsor pay a percentage of your fees. These perks can make a huge difference. The catch is that you have only three slots and some sponsorships can take up more than one slot. Ideally you want three different sponsorships, so you have to make tough decisions between keeping a stronger one that takes up more slots or keeping the weaker one that takes up only one slot. I really liked that aspect of the game, as it allows you to choose the upgrades that you feel will help you the most.
Another nice touch is that you can rename your dogs as much as you want, whenever you want. That’s great news for anyone like me who has trouble making decisions when they have permanent consequences!
There are also some skills, favorites and faults that the dogs have, but I never felt like it was imperative to learn about them all that much. Sure, you can memorize which dogs like what and try to play towards their strengths, but just focusing on keeping them well-fed and untangled seemed to work just fine for me, allowing me to win almost every race. It seemed more important to make sure the dogs were in the right positions (each has an affinity for being a lead, rear or middle dog) and that they rest up and train before their next race.
Between races, you’re managing your dogs and your finances. You can choose to rest your dogs to get rid of their fatigue, but each day they rest, their skill decreases. So you want to make up for that with some training. You only have a few days between races and racing is the only way you can earn money. So it’s important to have your dogs in tip top shape for each race. If you don’t have enough money come bill day, you’ll have to get rid of a dog. You can’t race without paying your league fees and each dog you have increases your bill. I learned this the hard way and do wish the game had explained it better. Instead, it asks you if you want to hire a new dog the second you have enough cash for it. It doesn’t explain that if you spend that money, you won’t have enough to pay the bills. Depending on how much you like resource management games, this will either greatly appeal to you or drag the game down a bit. I have mixed feelings, as I think it does add some weight to your decisions. But it also made the game feel grindy and repetitive sometimes.
Once I learned to pay attention to my bills, I was able to manage my money more easily. I slowly gathered enough money to qualify for each league until I made it up to the final, the seventh. Still, it made certain aspects of the game feel a little hollow. The more I played, the more I realized that it makes more sense to stick to five solid dogs (as long as I can keep them from getting overly fatigued during races) instead of hiring more dogs that will sit out the races. You can train a dog without racing, but certain things can only be improved by actually using that dog in a race. For instance, the fatigue meter. If you get enough perfect throws with a dog, his max fatigue will increase, meaning he won’t get fatigued as quickly. So if you leave a dog in your kennel too much, he’ll have a harder time racing when you finally take him out. Since the races vary between three, four, and five dogs, even in the highest league, some dogs will have to sit out some races no matter what. So you’re always playing a bit of catchup with the dogs that sit out. The dogs also build rapport with others when they race with them, so you’ll want to keep them together longer. Basically, the game rewards you for sticking with the same dogs.
I would love to have more dogs, but it just doesn’t make sense. I currently have seven dogs, but my two Shih-poos have been ignored for the longest time. That’s because I only need one good wheel and one good lead dog. The rest need to be middle dogs. I have five good dogs all leveled up, and they only really get fatigued during the five-dog races when it gets hard to feed them all in a timely manner. So I guess what I’m saying is I wish there was more of a reason to have lots of dogs, besides them being cute. The game seems to punish you for having more dogs instead of rewarding you. In fact, I were to start over I probably would have just limited myself to five dogs, six max. I suppose the extra dogs and breeds can be part of the end game if you so choose — race enough to afford to keep hiring more dogs and expanding your kennel. I just wish the game gave me more of a reason to do that other than collecting for collecting’s sake. It also makes the breeding aspect feel wasted, which is a real shame, as it’s something I was looking forward to.
As I mentioned early on, the game does have a few bugs. Some are minor, but others can prevent you from accessing some content, and you might not even realize it. First, the minor bugs. I’ve had some crashes on transitions, usually when pressing a button. It’s never happened in middle of a race and it wasn’t common enough to stop me from enjoying the game. It’s a minor nuisance, as getting back to where you were only takes a few short seconds. There’s no long loading screens to deal with and the game saves frequently, so you shouldn’t lose any progress. There are also occasional popping and crackling sounds, but it’s less of an issue with the music off.
Also, while the dog racing part is a perfect fit for touch screens, the menus are less so. Although you do scroll through menus by swiping, it feels very clunky. Thankfully, the parts of the game where precision matters are precise. You just need a bit of patience for the menus and any other scrolling.
The bigger issue is a bug that caused me to miss content, and it’s hard to even tell that it happened. There’s a story within the game about a special dog named Aurora. We learn about her through letters and there’s a monument of her that is sometimes a race destination. The letters are added to your journal so you can read them at any time. The problem is, my game considered the story complete while I was still missing nine pages. The last one I got was on day 365 and I’ve now played over 800 days and qualified for the seventh and final league. There’s no more progress to be made. After talking with the developer, I learned that I also missed out on the rivalry with another racer. That’s probably why I missed out on the rest of the story. He’s working on fixing that, but until then my game does feel a bit unfinished. There’s no closure.
Let me reiterate that even if you encounter the same bug I did, you can still experience the core game. It just feels a little open-ended without the rest of the story. I got to league 7, so now what? It feels a bit anticlimactic to go all this way and have no closure. I still very much enjoyed all the time I spent with the game and don’t regret any of it. But I hope I can see the ending and maybe even an endless mode in the future to give me more of an incentive to continue playing. Perhaps a leaderboard to compete with others and see how far you can go before your dogs get tired? It’s kind of odd that there isn’t any endless mode when the gameplay would lend itself so well to it.
I really enjoyed my time with Dog Sled Saga. The animals have so much personality and the racing aspect is a ton of fun. It’s a bit frantic but still very accessible. Despite some bugs and the fact that I missed out on some content, I would still highly recommend it. But if the bugs are a concern for you, you might want to wait until they get ironed out. I’ll make sure to update this review when that happens. I do hope some sort of endless competitive mode is added at some point to give me a reason to keep playing. If you’re dying to race a team of adorable sled dogs and don’t mind a few bugs, nab Dog Sled Saga here, dagnabbit!