From the very first moment I see a little stray puppy in To The Rescue!, it's not long before I find myself getting fully invested in trying to help this pup find an owner. The upcoming management sim from publisher Freedom Games and developer Little Rock Games sees you run your very own dog shelter, and your main goal is to try to find all of your canine residents a forever home. The tiny stray puppy I immediately fall in love with at the start of To the Rescue is the reason behind your initial visit to a local shelter, which just so happens to be too full and understaffed to take on any more dogs. So, with no hope of dropping off your new-found fluffy friend, you decide to take matters into your own hands and start up your own shelter.
As studio co-founder Olivia Dunlap tells me, the opening of the game was actually inspired by something that happened to her and fellow lead developer Tanner Marshall in real-life. "We were staying up late playing video games," Dunlap begins, "and there was a dog that came to our front porch and started crying, and it was snowing - it was super dramatic. We brought him inside and looked for his owner for about a month, and we couldn't find them. So we ended up just keeping him, and we decided to put this little homage to him as the hook of the game."
Match made in heaven
The original idea behind To The Rescue also came from real-life experiences. As well as being self-confessed "dog people", the team's friends were fostering dogs at the time of the game's conception, and it soon dawned on them that a lot of the the work that goes on at dog shelters could make a good fit for mechanics in a management sim style game. "We were engaging with a lot of these systems and these people, and we were just surprised a game like that didn't already exist," Dunlap explains. "And so just because we were really interested in it, and because it seemed like a really great game for a management sim and there's just lots of interesting mechanics that we could use there, we just decided to do it."
While you start out running a small shelter in your garage, you'll soon be able to work at a larger shelter that offers more space and bigger facilities. In the demo, I get the chance to check out the bigger place and try running it for an in-game week. You begin by building kennels, which can be bought and placed from your computer where you can purchase a variety of upgrades. When stray dogs appear, you have to leash them and take them to a kennel in order to give them the essential care they need, such as food and water.
Each dog has a profile you can look at to see their traits, needs, food preference, and a star adoptability rating. Feeding them the right kind of food and making sure they're hydrated and clean will increase the likelihood that they'll be adopted. Throughout each game day, potential adoptive owners will visit the shelter and tell you if they're after a certain type of dog, such a quiet or playful pup. Paying attention to each dog's rating and traits is the key to being successful when it comes to convincing someone to adopt. Every visitor will have a red resistance meter with a set requirement that needs to be met in order for them to take a canine companion off your hands. The first visitor I meet is looking for a playful four-legged friend to take home, and as luck would have it, a little playful puppy is housed at the shelter who would make a perfect match for this would-be owner.
After selecting all of the dogs that have high ratings or playful traits, I place them in the show area and the visitor heads over to rate each dog individually based on what they're after. All of the dogs steadily break down the resistance meter in turn, and the visitor sets their heart on taking home Harmony, the playful puppy I just knew would suit them. With an element of matchmaking to the adoptive process, the outcome when you're successful is very rewarding. After all, you've helped find the right dog for the right person, and now they have a forever home where they'll be looked after and loved.
The team really wanted to capture the joyous moment when a new owner meets the right dog for them. "One thing that was really important for us when designing this game was to emphasize that moment when the adopter sees a dog, and then they'd realize that's the one," Dunlap explains. "That's the really big motivator. I think that what people really enjoy when they're playing this game is how satisfying it is to actually get that adoption to be successful."
When a new game day starts, it can feel quite hectic as you try to juggle looking after all of your dogs, deal with various visitors, and handle new dogs that arrive at the shelter in need of care. As a management sim, there's a lot more to it than attending to the dogs' needs and trying to match them to the right owner, though. There's a deep sense of progression, with skill points that can be earned for new abilities depending on your performance, and a shelter reputation rating that will increase when your dogs are successfully adopted. Alongside special events, you can take part in such as fundraisers, and a fostering network system that allows you to send dogs to foster homes every so often. There's also an in-game achievement system that works in a similar way to the Nook Miles program in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. When you meet set milestone objectives, you can earn more money towards your shelter to help you cover expenses and keep the place running.
With these satisfying feedback loops, plenty of features to juggle, and a fulfilling sense of accomplishment when you successfully help a dog find a home, To The Rescue has an undeniable appeal. The adorable art style and look of the game by lead artist Byron Buzlig only adds to its charm, bringing to life all manner of loveable four-legged friends you can't help but fall in love with. And as if you needed any more motivation to jump in and help these virtual dogs find a home, a percentage of the profits for the game will be donated to the Petfinder Foundation charity.
"From the very beginning, we wanted to donate 20%. From our first conversation about working on this game, that was the idea." Dunlap says. "To make a game that was fun, that was cute, and that raised awareness for some of the harsher things that happened in real-world shelters, like how hard it can be, but also just let people live vicariously and enjoy that experience. We really felt like if we were trying to raise awareness for this, it was also important for us to try and make a real-world difference if we could.
"Our publisher actually helped us hook up with the Petfinder Foundation, and their mission is really incredible. They essentially just want to make sure that no dogs get euthanized just because there are no homes available. They send lots of grants and different programs to shelters all across North America. And so they were really a perfect match for what we believe in and what we are trying to do."
The decision to donate to charity, as Dunlap tells me, is also a way of letting players know they're literally helping real dogs in some small way by purchasing the game, with the added bonus of getting to enjoy the experience of helping virtual dogs. Dunlap also hopes that players will resonate with the idea, and maybe even feel inspired to adopt a dog from a shelter in reality. "Hopefully, this may be a bit ambitious, but it'd be great if some players were inspired to adopt a dog from a shelter or join the foster network of their local shelter or something like that," Dunlap says. "That would be really awesome."
To The Rescue is set to release in early access on PC later this year, with a planned console release in the future.