PS4, PC, Nintendo Switch, PS5
November 17, 2022
Let’s be honest. We’re long past the day where being a horse girl is in. Australian television series The Saddle Club hasn’t graced our screens for a long time. The Barbie Horse Adventures series hasn’t had a release since 2008. Equestrian games have undoubtedly died out, much like licensed video games. So I was excited when I learnt of Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch, an ambitious game looking to blend an equestrian adventure with a tinge of Breath of the Wild-esque exploration and a lot of town management sim. Now completing my time with it, I am sad to report that this is not the well-polished horse riding affair we’ve so desperately needed.
Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch follows a player character that arrives at their Aunt’s Ranch. Hearing whispers about how majestic and vibrant this very ranch and its surrounding lands are, they can’t help but go for themselves. However, when they get there, the place is in entire disarray. The mission becomes clear quickly. Rebuild your ranch and explore outwards, meeting many friends to help along the way.
The ‘campaign’ on offer in Horse Tales is quite light in beats. Largely, it serves as a means to familiarise yourself with the game’s mechanics and world. Some of your adventures include engaging in time trial races, seeking out and taming an elusive wild horse (my favourite event of the bunch) and finding friendly competition in the local rich girl who is prim and proper, and living on a gigantic estate. You’ll eventually come to her aid and locate her and her missing horse deep within a forest. All in all, it’s a brief and relatively dissatisfying campaign that I didn’t even realise was over until no more main quests could be found in my mission log.
The big highlight that came from doing all of these, no matter how many are basic fetch quests, is the joy in moving from point A to B. Galloping away with your house and picking up speed, the exploration is joyous. Emerald Valley Ranch and its surrounding areas are interconnected in nice ways. Sometimes you’ll make your way through a cave only to give way to an open clearing, with green as far as the eye can see. Other times you’ll snake between bushes on a mountainside to reach a lookout point of the vista below. Transitioning and moving between all of these areas is seamless and without loading screens. I just wish it looked better.
You see Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch is one of the roughest games I’ve played on the Nintendo Switch in quite some time. Visuals are incredibly blurry and low resolution as you move about, whether it’s your own character model or the surrounding environments. This took the wind out of those proposed zen moments when I found an environment intended to impress. That aforementioned lookout point? Grainy nothing lies below. It’s even more evident how much the visuals are trying to keep up as you’ll experience many a slow texture pop-in and significant frame drops. Of course, Horse Tales isn’t the fastest-paced game ever where every input matters. However, it’s still an annoyance that sucks the joy out of exploration.
There’s also a plethora of bugs. Buildings built will randomly disappear. On many occasions, I have quests soft lock and bug out for reasons I’m still unsure of. I had to soft restart the game a handful of times just to get the ball rolling again for progression.
I wish I could say the flaws were just technical issues, but there are also just weird design decisions throughout. Tutorialisation is very lacking and when it’s existent it’s poor, hurting its proposed younger audience. Horse Tales is very animation-lite when it comes to gathering. Wood, stone, and everything used for building you just pick up by running over it. Certain interactable objects like chests found in the world play an animation that appears mismatched to that of opening a chest. You’re in this weird loop of forever being stuck in the daytime as there’s no day and night cycle. Customisation options whether for yourself or your horse appear way too late in-game, something many who drop off early will likely miss entirely. You also scarcely get to know the very limited cast. Something that’s sorely lacking in the type of community-building game this is.
“…Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch is one of the roughest games I’ve played on the Nintendo Switch in quite some time.”
So much of Horse Tales: Emerald Valley feels like a missed opportunity and wasted potential. Imagine a world where this was a game that also adopted the Stardew Valley style of bonding and relationships, getting to know and care about the surrounding cast and world thanks to intimate and warm cutscenes. That’s not what we got here. The game needed much more time in development to release in a better and more thought-out state.
Horse bonding is deep but can be confusing. You can learn a lot about your horse’s comforts and what foods they like, along with what type of environments they wish to steer clear of more often. Then you can take your companion back to the stables for brushing and cleaning, developing that bond further. However, on the other end, the game attempts to keep you on your toes by periodically assigning traits to your horse such as ‘scared,’ restricting the ability to sprint.
The sad part is that we could have had that ultimate experience. Horse riding and accompanying races feel really good and even challenging at times as you have to navigate not only dodging, ducking, and leaping over obstacles on a track but not exerting your horse too much. There’s some engaging building and restoration on offer, creating stables, training grounds, buildings used for breeding and more. Then you can pepper flowerbeds or fountains in designated places. Or even build bridges to access new areas and upgrade your house. The bones are there but not extrapolated enough.
- The world is interconnected in clever and engaging ways
- Horse gameplay and movement is done quite well
- Good foundation of town management
- Endless amount of bugs and weird design choices
- Incredibly blurry and low resolution visuals
- No day/night cycle and limited interaction with cast means less immersion
- Sincere lack of ample tutorials
- Customisation options arrive way too late
Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch is a sad tale for the much-needed resurgence of equestrian-focused video games. Littered with poor design choices and endless amounts of bugs, every attempt to seep some joy out of the game was hindered. This comes as a shame. The bones of a good game are in there from the exploration of an interconnected world to a good start in both horse gameplay and town management and restoration. Boiling down to more than just a game released too early, Horse Tales also is a game too ambitious for its own good and not what was expected or needed. Take this one out to the pasture, they’re done.