We’ve all had dreams of becoming a successful dog sled racer (i.e. musher). It’s a big part of the human condition, really. 1) Be happy in life. 2) Win the Iditarod. 3) Be rich and famous/successful. Now we can live out that dream with the runner/simulation mashup that is Dog Sled Saga.
There’s an underlying story involving an almost legendary sled dog named Aurora and her rise to fame from humble beginnings. You know, the typical tale of “this animal seemingly came out of nowhere to capture our hearts and be absurdly good at a thing” sort of tale. I guess it’s okay to have some kind of plot, but I really don’t think it’s a necessity. Managing your sled team, qualifying for tougher (and more rewarding) leagues, and keeping everyone at peak performance during a race are really the only reasons I needed to keep playing.
Truth be told, Dog Sled Saga wasn’t quite what I was expecting. Then again I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting the first place. It’s got some simulation elements to it – such as acquiring new dogs for the team, deciding when to train and when to rest, having dogs learn skills and specializations as they gain race experience, etc – but it’s not as micro-managey as I anticipated. While surprising at first, I think this fits quite well with the more arcade-y feeling of the races.
Still, it’s not great that the game throws a lot of icons and numbers at you that without letting you know what most of it means. For example, right off the bat you’re supposed to pick three dogs for your team but there’s nothing to indicate what the different stats equate to or whether higher or lower numbers are better. Does this stat mean the dog would be best in the middle? In the back? In the lead? I sure as heck couldn’t tell you.
It’s the dogs themselves that really sell the management side of things for me, simple though it may be. There are a fair number of breeds represented, with a decent assortment of colors and fur patterns to help set them even further apart. They also tend to develop their own personalities based on their inherent stats, and from the skills they learn along the way. Delphi has made a great lead so far, occasionally inspiring the rest of the team to the point where they won’t get tired for a few precious seconds. Sunny has been a very reliable “wheel” (i.e. the last position in the lineup) although he can be a little obstinate at times. And Sadie, well, she’s the rock keeping the whole team anchored. Even after progressing to higher ranking leagues with tougher competition, I don’t expect I’ll ever replace any of them.
Races are where you’ll likely spend most of your time, and they’re an interesting approach to what I think could best be described as “runner” style gameplay. The dogs pull the sled automatically, so your job is to make sure they keep doing it at a good pace and speed. This is accomplished by tossing food to the dogs as they start to tire (requiring some basic but still tricky skill-based tap timing), tapping the screen to leap over hazards, watching out for trees that might block the food you throw, and keeping the lines between the dogs’ harnesses from tangling. It’s all pretty simple in practice, but it works. The constant mental shift from timing throws to avoiding obstacles to fine-tuning the dogs’ positions to anxiously glancing up at my spot in the race is a seemingly odd mixture that kept me far more engaged that I would’ve expected. Really, the only problem with it is that chucking food to the dogs requires a decent amount of precision, and sometimes it felt like some of my misses weren’t deserved.
While I may not have known what to expect when playing Dog Sled Saga for the first time, I certainly wasn’t disappointed. It’s an entertaining mixture of racing and team management that lets you progress at your own pace and bond with your canine teammates. It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, but I’m definitely okay with what it turned out to be.