Dogsledding is one of those things you do not see very often in video games. Whether it is due to a lack of popularity or perhaps the mechanics are difficult to gamify, that has not stopped developers from trying. Trichotomy has been working for years on Dog Sled Saga, which recently left Steam Early Access and releasing a 1.0 version. Through simple mechanics, Trichotomy has translated dog sledding into a fun and enjoyable experience.
Dog Sled Saga is quite easy to get into, thanks to a simple tutorial that clearly explains the core gameplay mechanics. Avoiding rocks, preventing dogs from being tied up and replenishing their stamina are all done with just a few easy clicks of a mouse. Though simple, the streamlined mechanics makes you want to continue racing rather than putting the game down.
Once you're ready to start your career at Mt. Saint Something (the game has a little bit of humor), it is time to choose three dogs. There are different types of breed here from St. Bernards, Huskies, Labs, but the thing you really need to pay attention to are the personalities. Each dog has a personality that might make it more suitable for a certain position in your race, either a wheel, middle, lead. Slotting eac dog according to their speciality will make the race easier, but you can still win despite not having three dogs with specialities. I find it best to pick three dogs of your choosing and see what happens as you can always hire and fire dogs after the initial selection.
When not in a race, your cabin is where you will run day-to-day operations. Options such as hiring trainers, expanding your kennel, and even breeding will come as you progress. Training and caretaking are two options that will be vital to making sure your dogs are in peak condition when it comes time to race. Training increases skill that is represented in a simple meter outlined in colored boxes.
Caretaking is quite explanatory as you give your dog(s) a little more TLC and reduce their fatigue. These two systems are very simple which makes navigating the game much easier. However, there is no penalty for constantly increasing your dog's skills on consecutive days. It appears the only way your dog gains fatigue is through racing, and not through training. There is no need to balance days between training and caretaking, other than giving your dogs rest right after a race and then continuing to build their skills.
During the race, as I mentioned before, the mechanics are pretty simple. Dodging rocks and preventing tie-ups are quite easy, but keeping your dogs from being too tired is the key to victory. When a dog starts to get tired, it pants, which is represented with a visual cue and audio cue. Once this starts to occur, throwing a biscuit to your dog will refresh them. This is done easy enough with a click and hold of the mouse button until the arc is directed at the dog you wish to feed. Feeding your dogs when they are tired will keep you in the race, but failing to do so will result in your sled slowing down due to your tired hounds.
This mechanic of keeping your dogs refreshed is simple and fun. Knowing when your dogs are tired is important, and the controls are quite easy. The secret of feeding your dogs comes in a risk and reward system that will level your dog's stamina gauge.
There are a few other things in Dog Sled Saga that are included but do not feel fully realized. Sponsors will come calling as your dogs gather more fame and provide bonuses such as decreasing your league fees or ropes that have a tendency to not become tangled. These are fine, but as soon as a sponsor comes calling, you HAVE to make that decision then and there. I find only two of the four bonuses to really be worth it. As your dogs increase in skill, I find no need for a better sled or rope that will tangle less. The idea of sponsors is good in theory but could bring more varied offerings.
A "jerk" becomes your key rival in occasional races, in which beating him will result in more fame for you and your dogs. This feels like an undercooked idea as I only lost once to my rival before beating him on every encounter afterward. He seems no harder to beat than any of the other nameless mushers that you race against. The "story" between you and him is minimal and other than more fame for your dogs, there are no other benefits to racing against him.
Once I got to League 5, my interest started to slip with Dog Sled Saga. Having a four-dog race certainly brings more challenge but I was winning every race with no issues. The challenge ramps up tremendously when qualifying for League 6, in which a five dog team is required. Your accuracy and timing are absolutely essential here as the racing is faster than before. I like the difficulty spike but sadly there isn't a way to test out a team of this size without trying to qualify. Qualifying takes money, and failing several times in a row will start to empty your bank account.
Despite a few issues, I enjoyed my time with Dog Sled Saga. Leniency on how you raise your dog's skill levels might deter players looking for a challenge, but this plays right into the hands of casual players who want a quick and fun experience. A nice graphical style, pick up and play controls, and an appealing price makes Dog Sled Saga an easy recommendation for those wanting something new to try.
+ Gameplay is easy to understand and pick up
+ Bit graphics and animation
- Leveling dogs is a little too easy
- No opportunity to practice team combinations
Hours played: 6 (on PC)
Available on PC and mobile