Parents, there are a few things to mention up front about Animal Doctor.
First of all, ‘Animal Doctor’, as a title, is pushing it. At no point do you play an animal doctor; instead, you’re playing a vet’s intern, which is very different. You’ll be doing errand jobs for a vet, and that means – slightly bizarrely – doing things like delivering milk and cheese, searching for wolf tracks and delivering bills to people. Very, very occasionally, you might come across a wounded animal, and Animal Doctor starts to look like it might live up to its name, but your role will be inserting thermometers and fetching syringes from a dispensary. Then, you hand them to a qualified vet NPC to do all the work. We suppose that ‘Vet’s Lackey’ doesn’t quite have the same ring.
Second of all, the cutesy logo and store graphic might imply that this is a title for all ages, like the My Universe series, or the ‘Imagine’ games, way back on the Wii, DS and 3DS. Animal Doctor, however, isn’t cutesy and accessible. To give you an example, the first mission is to bring a spoon and glass to a chicken farm, so you can check stools for histomonas: digestive parasites. Then you’re checking a hematoma on a horse, caused by a contusion. The vet hits you with a barrage of scientific terminology throughout. You wonder what a pre-teen will make of it, when they just want to cuddle and help some sick puppies.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly who Animal Doctor is for. A budding vet in their teens is going to be frustrated that they don’t get to actually heal animals, while a child who loves animals will wonder why they don’t see many, and instead deliver milk bottles to peoples’ houses. Older players are going to find the repetitive fetch-questing boring, while younger players will find the open world daunting. Honestly, we wouldn’t know who to recommend Animal Doctor to.
Which, in a way, is kind of a shame, as there is something here. There’s an ambition to Animal Doctor – misguided though it might be – and that comes from the open world, the attempt at realism and the RPG elements. It’s a far cry from games like My Universe: Pets Clinic, which tend to be minigames stitched together, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Animal Doctor is definitely not a good game, but it at least aims high and away from the norm.
You begin by choosing your character, and then get dropped into an alpine-looking village. Animal Doctor is first-person, and it will be immediately clear from the supplied map that this is an open world, and not necessarily a small one. You can run, jump and sneak as you make your way around the world.
You are being interned at the local vet for a few weeks, and that means following head veterinarian Dr Newman on various calls, and doing errands for the residents of the area. These missions can be lumped into two different categories: there are fetch quests, where you travel to nodes on the map to do a thing (wash a duck, feed a squirrel, find a herb), and these make up the majority of the missions. Then there are missions that are more process-like, where you have to go through a sequence of extremely simple tasks in the same area. For example, you need to find a wounded owl, carry it, open a cage, put the owl in the cage, close the cage, then pick up the cage. Each step is tutorialised and extremely simple, mapped to the single X button, and the most mundane tasks are chopped up in this way.
Completing missions gives you XP, and each mission generally rewards you with an achievement and a new level. These levels don’t do anything more than unlock campaign-related missions, and most missions can be replayed to grind a bit of XP. You won’t need too much of that particularly, as you can reach the level 30 cap with only a few mission replays.
There is a horse to unlock, which speeds up your traversal round the map, while a wolf in the neighbourhood acts something like a main storyline. You’ll be trying to confirm its existence, by spotting tracks, fur and scat. As you walk around the map, you will also find 40 jigsaw pieces that can be brought to a noticeboard, completing an illustration of the area’s animals.
That’s Animal Doctor in a nutshell. It’s not an unattractive game, as the environments – although repeated – are well-modelled. As a neighbourhood, it’s lovely and bucolic, but it does have a problem with feeling empty, and there are weird echoes of Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture as you navigate around a vehicle-less and person-less town.
Less successful are the characters and animals. Each mission tends to start with a needy human, and the conversations are hilarious. You’re new to the area, but over-familiar with everyone, and enthusiastic about helping them with the most inappropriate tasks. The writing is poor throughout, and voice actors must have been bemused about reading lines like “please, you must deliver my sheep milk cheese”. The character models are all mannequins with slightly different hairstyles, and there’s barely an animation to share between them.
The animals fare a little better, and are at least recognisable as owls, pigs and wolves, but they barely animate. When they are ill, they tend to be tipped sideways on to the floor and that’s it. As a result, you will probably chuckle rather sympathise with a dying owl and goose. More problematic is the horse you get to ride, which has a motion blur applied to its over-eager riding animation, and we got sick just looking at it.
Animal Doctor’s not averse to chucking in a bug or two either. We finished the game with four achievements outstanding, all for unavoidable story quests that we’d long completed. We restarted a few times after getting stuck on environment structures, and the vet must be all-seeing, as she would often talk to us while we were in the far corners of the map. There’s a special place in hell for inverted controls that can’t be flipped, and the interface that pops up with the same prompts after every mission.
It’s the missions, though, that will make or break Animal Doctor for you. They are never more than pressing X on a highlighted item or body part, which makes them extremely simplistic. They’re repetitive, and not afraid to send you to a far-flung farm, only to force you to backtrack to the hospital for some cotton wool. Younger players will probably forgive the make-work, but older players will likely get frustrated, particularly when there’s no real doctoring to be done.
There are twenty or so missions in Animal Doctor, and upwards of ten hours before you reach the level cap. While we were painfully aware of all its shortcomings, we wouldn’t go so far as say we disliked our time with it. As adults, wandering the open world on a horse was relaxing, and the missions didn’t demand much of us. It was a gentle massage to the brain, with the added bonus of being punctuated with some hilariously awful dialogue and animations. But these aren’t what younger players will have wanted from it, and it won’t necessarily be why they stay either.
Parents should be aware rather than beware, then: Animal Doctor on the Xbox is less about being a vet than it is helping one, and you’ll be fetching antibiotics from pharmacies more than you’ll be nursing sick puppies. It’s realistic rather than cute, educational rather than fun, and that’s not necessarily what your little doctors ordered. But if there’s still interest, even after those caveats, then Animal Doctor might actually work out. It’s a technically flawed little sandbox to ride a horse around, yet there are worse ways for your little helpers to spend their time.