Management games are a particularly fascinating genre to me, because many of them play similarly, yet differ wildly in tone, presentation, and overall experience depending on their chosen subject matter. A game about managing a theme park will play out quite differently from a game about managing a hospital, even if at a core level the actions you perform in them are quite alike. So it goes with To The Rescue, a management game about running a dog shelter. Mechanically, there’s not a lot to distinguish it from other games in the genre, but that lack of novelty is very easy to ignore when these familiar actions are done in service to your role of Dog’s Best Friend.
To The Rescue‘s premise is pleasingly low-key. Shortly after moving into the small town of Yawning Falls, your character rescues a stray dog, taking it to the local dog shelter. One day and a brief tutorial sequence later, you’re put in charge of your very own shelter by the mayor herself. Your job is to make the shelter successful by taking care of the dogs within and ensuring that every dog gets a chance at moving into a “forever home” with a new owner. All of this is set against a relentlessly pleasant backdrop of pastel-colored graphics, upbeat music, and adorable pups.
Gameplay in To the Rescue unfolds mostly as it did when Siliconera previewed the game earlier this year. Players will report to the shelter at the beginning of each work day and clock out at its end. They work overtime to take care of undone tasks, but the game makes clear that working overtime has costs, that end up damaging the shelter’s budget.
Unlike that preview build of To The Rescue, a “story mode” tutorial is available in game and covers most of the basics. It’s a welcome addition, as after the tutorial, you’re more or less set free to build out your shelter and take care of the pups as best as you can. By way of adding a goal, your meetings with the mayor help set milestones and goals to target, such as improving the shelter’s reputation score, or adopting out certain breeds and numbers of dogs. The story mode also has an ending: An evaluation by the mayor’s office at the end of eight weeks from the start of the game. This kind of additional structure is welcome, as in my experience, many smaller-scale management games tend to err on the side of “endless mode” and result in an experience that can feel a bit aimless. That being said, one shouldn’t expect too much of a narrative arc: Your goal is to build up and maintain a successful dog shelter, not find love or make friends, for better or worse.
Each dog in To The Rescue is unique, assigned a procedurally generated name and various stats such as their breed, size, age, and other traits. Traits cover a wide range, including things like the dog’s disposition towards cats, whether they’re jumpy or yappy, or if they drool or have problems shedding. Keeping track of these via each dog’s dossier or the “Dog Log” in your in-game laptop is important. Would-be adopters often have various requirements, and it’s up to you to choose the dogs that might meet those criteria. Finding the right dog means moving it to the “show kennel” in the shelter and letting the adopter take a look. As they look, a bar representing their willingness to go home with a dog fills up, and filling up the bar results in a successful adoption. These mini-shows can be fun, although they take up a fair amount of time. I’d appreciate the ability to skip or accelerate this process to make dealing with multiple visitors easier.
You’ll also, of course, have to take care of the dogs themselves. The dogs need to be fed, watered, and bathed regularly, with their kennels cleaned out. They can get sick, which you’ll deal with by giving them various medicines and isolating them so disease doesn’t spread. They also need some play time, once your kennel is upgraded with a play space. Playing with dogs involves short minigames, that improve a dog’s “adoptability” rating. Dogs have food preferences, which can affect both the shelter’s budgeting, as well as the dogs’ health.
The game can be a lot to deal with, and To The Rescue quickly drives that point home. You can’t be everywhere at once, and even a small shelter of half-a-dozen pups becomes a real handful to keep maintained single-handedly. Luckily, dog shelters aren’t one-person operations. You can hire NPC buddies to take some of the load off, and they do a decent enough job handling the more menial aspects of shelter management. Of course, paying them cuts into the shelter’s finances, too, which adds more considerations on top of all the other costs.
The pleasant visuals of To The Rescue work pretty well for the subject matter. Taking care of all these dogs, as hectic as it can be, feels joyful when everything’s as cute as it is. It also helps that the art style abstracts some of the darker aspects of shelter care. Every dog looks good and cute when it comes into the holding kennel, for one. And for another, the game doesn’t shy away from the fact that from time to time a dog or two will need to be euthanized. Like most animal shelters, the one you run in To The Rescue! will come up on situations where a dog is beyond help, or if there’s simply no room to care for it, which may necessitate the tough decision. The cutesy visuals of the game help soften the blow somewhat, though it’s never exactly a happy situation. Thankfully, those who’d rather not confront that reality can opt out of the mechanic, replacing euthanasia with a more euphemistic “send away”. The developers are explicit about wanting to include euthanasia as a way of raising awareness about the unfortunate realities even the kindest shelters face.
One other unfortunate reality is more technical: To The Rescuestill has some rougher edges on it. The review build I played supported gamepad controls (a good thing, given the UI is more tuned to console-style interactions), but some prompts still required me to use the mouse to dismiss them. I also encountered a few bugs that outright broke my game, locking my character in a position where they weren’t able to perform any actions. Given that the game doesn’t use manual saves, it just so happened that the loan autosave slot also left me in that bugged-out situation, necessitating starting a fresh save. That said, these impressions are based on a pre-release review build of the game, so there’s a good chance such kinks may be smoothed out on release day. Regardless, To The Rescue! is an appealing and educational management sim experience.
To The Rescue is available for the PC and is due to come to the Nintendo Switch in 2022.