Pixel-art games never really went away, but they are experiencing a resurgence in the retro-community in recent years – particularly rogue-likes, for those of us that want that nostalgic reverie of where our gaming careers began.
Newcomers to the developer community, Trichotomy, a two-person team comprised of Dan FitzGerald and Lisa Bromeil have just released their title Dog Sled Saga on Steam Early Access on December 8, after a successful Kickstarter in May, 2013 and another successful Steam Greenlight campaign in March of this year.
As the name suggests, Dog Sled Saga follows you from the beginnings of your dog sledding career as a rookie, mushing your way through the ranks until you’re top dog (yes, I said it). At its heart, Dog Sled Saga is a management-driven game with excellent pixel animations, enjoyable game play, and a wide open canvas to add more content and creative ideas to what is an sturdy Early Access jumping off point.
Your career begins with an invitation from the owner of Firebowl Kennel, who thinks you have the potential to become the next greatest thing in mushing since the fur-lined coat. He grants you three vouchers from which you can use to purchase your first three sled dogs to make up your team.
Every dog has their own personality (obedient, steady, or strong) which determine their performance during a race, as well as something called a “recognized trait” – more on that later. Breeds range from the obvious Husky and Malamute, but also Labradors and St. Bernard’s, and even more non-traditional sledding breeds like Schnauzer’s and Shih-Poo’s (which is a cross between a Poodle and a Shih Tzu – no I am not kidding).
Each dog has a natural affinity toward a particular position on your sled, but you have to try them out in the position first before you can accurately judge their capabilities. If they’re not a natural, they can be trained to do well at the position over the course of a few races. I haven’t encountered a dog being naturally poor at a position, and if that isn’t already programmed I’d like to see it added, so that no matter how hard you train poor Roxy, she’ll never cut it as a wheel dog.
On your first race, you will probably flub a few things, but I wouldn’t worry too much. The meat and potatoes of racing has to do with your dog’s energy levels and your ability to throw a well-timed treat into their mouths. It’s very mini-game-esque, but still rather enjoyable. As your dogs run, their exhaustion rate determines the length of time they can go before getting tired. You’ll start to hear them panting and you’ll see small breath clouds, and that’s when it’s time to click and hold to toss them a treat. Time it right, and they’ll nab the treat and keep running, otherwise they’ll miss and you’ll have to try again. You only have a set number of treats, so you’d better start to get good at timing.
Effective treat management is the key to victory. While racing, your dogs’ skills begin to emerge: they might be competitive, and put on an extra burst of speed if they see an opponent in their periphery, or they might jump out of line to catch a badly timed treat throw. Fail to manage your team well enough during a race, and the dogs’ faults will rear their ugly heads: they might get more easily tripped up in the tow line, or they might get greedy and swipe the treats off the restock post before you can get to them. The better you and your dogs do, the more fame they accumulate which gets you sponsors and better perks come race time. It’s a surprisingly enjoyable experience managing what happens during a race, as well as figuring out which dog will do well in certain positions, and making sure they’re top notch while on the line.
Placing high in a race earns money, which you can use to purchase more dogs, pay league dues, and pay entry fees to try and qualify for a more advanced league. In between races, you have the option to manage your team, though there’s more work to be done here. The only option is to advance to the next day while you wait for the next races (typically 3-5 days after your last completed race), and while this rests your dogs, they also might get rusty from having to wait too long. I’d love to see some kind of training, grooming, or other interaction option, but right now there’s very little to do other than continue racing and climbing the ranks.
Since its release on Early Access on December 8th, developers Dan FitzGerald and Lisa Bromiel have been active on their website with performance tweaks and additions to basic gameplay outlined, which is always a great thing to see. They have a working list of upcoming features, like more dog breeds, skills, faults, adjustment to league ladders, multiplayer race options, mod-support, and even a breeding option. There’s a lot of debate at the moment over whether or not to support an Early Access title, and while some have seen great success, it’s certainly true that there’s been some high-profile failures. That’s the nature of the beast, however; Dog Sled Saga may not have enough content to draw the big crowd just yet, but if the team focuses on refining the racing and adding more depth the management side, they might just have a sleeper hit on their hands.