We played Animal Shelter Simulator in a double-bill with My Fantastic Ranch, and there were more than a few similarities. They both began life on PC, they both left animals in our capable hands, and they’ve got their eyes set on the younger crowd. In essence, they are management sims, built for people who don’t play management sims.
It’s been fascinating to review them both at once – to see them both address the same audience in very different ways. Because one of them gets most of their decisions right, and the other one can’t help stepping onto every rake, hitting their head on every doorframe, and – finally – slipping on the dog mess. If you’ve read our review of My Fantastic Ranch, you can probably guess which one refers to Animal Shelter Simulator.
We’d love to know the backstory of our character in Animal Shelter Simulator. Because they begin with their very own animal shelter, no animals, and seemingly no idea of what they’re doing. We imagine a heartwarming Hallmark movie where a grumpy Scrooge inherits a sanctuary, and his heart is softened by pups. Hallmark, you can have that one for free.
Coming off the back of My Fantastic Ranch, which was so colourful that it felt like we were wearing Fruit Pastille spectacles, Animal Shelter Simulator can’t help but feel drab. It’s grey, brown and with the odd splash of green. We desperately wanted to put up some posters for the cats and dogs, to add some colour, or leave some paint cans out so they could do their own animal-prints.
It’s got the simulator ‘look’ to it, too. We should probably qualify that. When you buy any of those firefighting/police/fishing/airport/mechanic/etc sims, there’s an uncanny realism that can’t help feeling cheap and floppy, like the sets would fall over if we puffed them hard enough. They’re all sharp-lined buildings and dead-eyed characters. Having played the rather good-looking Horse Club Adventures 2: Hazelwood Stories recently, we can’t help but feel that there’s another path for these kinds of games.
So, when your amnesiac dude wakes up in his new Animal Shelter kingdom, their first job is to adopt an animal. You get your choice of dog or cat (don’t worry, you’ll get them both eventually), which you can order off the internet and have it arrive in the space of seconds. Take that Bezos! Then you’re making the animal as comfortable as possible, which – to start with – means feeding, watering, stroking and playing.
By this point, you will have been fully exposed to the two huge, great dane-sized issues that Animal Shelter Simulator has: its interfaces and its controls. If there are two things you don’t want to get wrong in a simulation, it’s them.
To do almost anything in Animal Shelter Simulator, you need to use the shelter’s PC. You need it when you’re shopping for dogs (which, by the way, never feels comfortable, since you’re often picking the nicest, least troublesome of dogs and cats, which feels back-to-front), setting up dating profiles for them (again, utterly bizarre: nobody actually turns up to shop for a four-legged partner, presumably because Ultimate Games didn’t fancy modelling human people), extending the shelter’s grounds, and purchasing the odd litter tray and syringe.
It’s a hellscape in UI form. Trying to navigate this knotty thicket is near enough impossible, and it’s a lesson in how not to design interfaces. We could rarely tell where our cursor was; button-mapping is almost wilfully obscure (backing out of a menu is a different button each time, and the Build menu expects you to realise – without telling you – that pushing in the analogue sticks will hide and unhide the things you want to build, with them hidden as default); and icons bear little relation to the things they hide. Forget the latest Hellraiser remake – this is the true cenobite puzzle box.
Get away from the PC and things aren’t much better. Your amnesiac animal shelter dude has the turning-circle of a concrete block. You can improve it in the Options, but it merely upgrades Amnesiac Man to a polystyrene block. Our seven-year old daughter who, we should add, played and loved this game inexplicably on PC, ditched it after five minutes because, and I quote, “he’s not moving right, Daddy”. It’s leaden to the point of being a constant infuriation.
It’s not only the feet that feel like they’re locked in concrete. Everything else is too. Try to pick up a pup or kitten and there’s a three-second delay before you actually pull it off. By that time, we’ve assumed that we failed, and pressed the button again, which cancelled it. Trying to drop bandages onto worktops, beds into kennels and many more is made improbably difficult by the slabs of rock around our hands. Animal Shelter Simulator is an ungainly game, about as graceful as some of the injured dogs that waddle into the shelter.
When the controls and interfaces are as bad as they are in Animal Shelter Simulator, then you’re in trouble. It’s an inauspicious start, and Animal Shelter Simulator can only make a small amount of headway in recovering things. A prolonged tutorial takes you through the various wash-houses, clinics and photography suites that allow you to take on more problematic pups, generating more wealth and reputation. This in turn gives you access to more buildings, expanded plots to build on, and other toys and decorative options.
On the positive side, the degree of customisation in Animal Shelter Simulator is surprisingly generous. You can place everything everywhere, as long as there’s enough room to access it. You’ll be shuffling a desk millimeter by millimeter in the effort to cram in some new filing cabinets, and managing the tiny space you’ve been given becomes an art. It feels a little like managing the Resident Evil item inventory.
And a lot can be said for how well Animal Shelter Simulator delivers on the fantasy of nursing a dog or cat. We’ve all seen those videos or photos of neglected animals that are brought to a shelter, before someone helps them out, puts fat on their bones, and re-homes them with people who truly care for them. Presumably, people buying Animal Shelter Simulator want that fantasy delivered on, and it does duly deliver. The dogs have ticks, fleas, unwashed coats and bloodied paws, and you can nurse them all to health once you have the buildings to do so.
But even then, there’s a caveat. Because the dogs all look roughly the same. If we’re being generous, they range from labrador to pitbull, and there’s certainly no chihuahuas, sausage dogs, mastiffs, pugs or great danes. They all fit into the same mid-range dog template, which damages the feeling that you’re making a difference to the dog’s life, since they all look like the same dog. And don’t get us started on the cats. We know that cats don’t look particularly different from each other, but we wanted more than varied coat patterns.
You don’t see the owner pick the dog off: you chuck the dog in a van, as if you had wandered into the midst of a kidnapping. You don’t get to see the new owner’s beaming faces, or children swinging their new puppy around. It’s clinical and emotionless, when a game called Animal Shelter Simulator should be anything but.
As the game slowly stumbles onward, the tutorial stabilisers come off, and you’re relying on the game’s loops to keep you going. But all that’s happened, from the game’s start to its end, is a greater number of spinning plates have been added to poles, since you can increase the number of pets in the Shelter at one time, and the plates require more effort to keep spinning. You’re carefully picking off ticks, or you’re lathering up a puppy and washing off dirt. The money stacks up, the shelter expands, but the plates stay the same.
We know that there’s a game in here somewhere. Our seven year-old loves it on the PC, disappearing upstairs so she can save some cat and dog lives. But that game is utterly smothered on console. The controls and UI are humanely put down, leaving an awkward mess in its place. The seven year-old who loved it on PC wouldn’t touch it on Xbox.
We didn’t have the background of playing it on PC, so came to it fresh. Sure, the controls and UI were a gargantuan problem for us, too, but what really did us in was the dullness. We expected to have our heartstrings tugged like we were playing a John Lewis advert. By the end of Animal Shelter Simulator, we were yawning in the destitute cats and dogs’ faces.
You can buy Animal Shelter Simulator from the Xbox Store