By Ethan Gach
In a genre dominated by games about building cities or tending farms, Dog Sled Saga is a refreshing fusion of unlikely ideas and personal details. In developer Trichotomy’s game, the bustling metropolises are replaced with wintery cabins and side-scrolling tundras. Instead of harvesting crops, you train and nurture snow pups. There are no spreadsheets of information to optimise or boundless ambitions to fulfil. It’s just you, the dogs, and cut-throat sled racing in the great outdoors.
The game finally made its way out of Early Access this week, almost three years since it was first launched as a Kickstarter project back in 2013. What began around the simple concept of throwing food to pets eventually grew into a nuanced system of dog maintenance and racing. Winning on the sled requires feeding your furry pals treats and encouraging them in the right ways, but none of that’s possible if you don’t get to know each dog beforehand.
Getting a sense of each one’s unique personality is half the battle. Does Ace feel starved halfway through each race? Will Tucker slow down for seemingly no reason at the worst possible times? Do you have it in you to retire Tucker because despite his pixelated adorableness his lack of commitment is driving away all your best sponsors?
Dog Sled Saga is the result of a collaboration between creators Dan FitzGerald and Lisa Bromiel, which potentially explains its evocative feel and no-frills focus on a handful of core ideas. When you’re not racing, you’re paying the bills, breeding new dogs, and enjoying the brisk sub-zero weather. When you are, it’s not to different from riding Epona in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, except you’re trying to regulate the stamina of four animals instead of one. You have limited carrots, or in this case, dog treats, so making sure they’re distributed to the right hounds at the right time is key.
What save’s this system of checks and balances from ever becoming to rote, however, are the rhythms of the games scenery and in-between moments. I never considered racing sleigh dogs for a living when it came time to pick out a career, but Dog Sled Saga totally nails the appealing sense of rugged simplicity and self-sufficiency. While other racing games are bloated with bad fonts, inscrutable stats, and too many menus, FitzGerald and Bromiel’s project is austere. It somehow makes a virtue out of loneliness, making a convincing case for the companionship of canines over humans.
The game is out on iOS and Android in addition to PC, and was designed with the touch interface in mind. Is there a better way to play Dog Sled Saga than curled up near the fireplace with a tablet? Probably not. But the game is too good too hold off on it until it snows.
You can watch Dog Sled Saga’s release trailer below.