There is a dark side of gaming of which you may be unaware of: horse games. There are tonnes of them and certain sections of the internet take great delight in playing them, not because they are fun, but because they are universally awful. Often built out of assets from the Unity Store, featuring “voice acting” created by a computer voice library, and with minimal animation, plot, graphics or indeed anything else, these games are the dictionary definition of asset flip shovelware. They are also full of bugs resulting in unintentional hilarity when you horse pings off in to the sky like a rocket.
That brings us to Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch, a game that’s disappointing for all the wrong reasons. Here I am, someone who loves terrible horse games, playing a horse game that is in fact… actually rather good!
I’m going to caveat with a “rather good for a horse game” – it’s not going to bother God of War Ragnarök at an awards ceremony – but in a sea of utterly terrible equine titles, this is the Uncharted of horse games.
The plot is the same as every other horse game: a relative has left you a massive ranch which is in total disrepair and it’s your job to build up a thriving stable, to then race and breed horses. Right from the offset you can see the developers wanted to do something different. Most other horse games have you inheriting a ranch from a deceased Aunt and you spend the rest of the game looking suspiciously at the badly animated characters wondering which of them locked your Aunt in a horsebox and pushed it in a lake. In Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch, a phone call reveals your Aunt Josephine is actually on holiday and really can’t be bothered to come back as she’s having far too much fun getting drunk and chasing boys.
So our quest begins and it’s across a surprisingly large open world area. It’s also rather gorgeous with graphics only a few steps away from games like Breath of the Wild, so it’s rather lovely just a galloping around the map while listening to the gentle music. There are new areas to discover, bridges to build, characters to talk to and loads of crafting materials dotted around almost every corner so you won’t have to worry too much about scavenging building supplies.
Quests are pretty standard fetch quests, but where most horse games have that emotionless computer speech, quest givers and other NPCs babble in a made up language with subtitles. It takes a good while before you even get to the main game with around an hour’s worth of trotting around before you can even start racing.
These races, along with other tasks, gain you XP which levels up your popularity and unlocks further quests. There’s not quite Assassin’s Creed levels of map clutter, but you do have plenty of variety and some quite challenging races. A nice touch is that the leaderboards for the races change frequently, so even if you were the top racer on one day, you might be lower down the rankings on the next.
Away from the main quests there are mini tasks such as petting your horse, feeding and cleaning them, unlocking costumes, and many smaller constructions jobs away from your main ranch. You can also breed horses and check their stats, with endurance, agility, luck, and charisma all affecting how fast they can run and how high they can jump. Each horse also comes with a set of almost RPG-style traits, so they may run faster in forests, for example.
The controls take a while to get used to and some may find them frustrating, but as someone who used to ride horses in real life, they actually seemed quite natural to me. The main issue is that the default camera is a little wonky and can sometimes spin off during a race, giving you a really bad view. While there’s no real graphical issues on PS5, it’s also fair to say that this game is barely optimised – you can see shadows drawing in just a few metres ahead of you.