You’ve got to admire Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch for everything it tries to do. The problem is, much of it just isn’t done very well.
For many, the premise of Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch will be an absolute dream. This is an open world adventure, free of combat and pressure, where you’re able to explore at your own pace, meet new people, expand your home and, primarily, take care of horses. If you’re a horse lover, there are a lot of appealing mechanics here. Not only can you ride your horse, but you can pet and groom them, engaging in adorable minigames as you do so. Put enough time into Horse Tales and you can even breed horses, housing them on your very own estate.
Horse Tales kicks off as many of these games do: you’ve been summoned by your aunt to help her manage things on her ranch estate. Except… when you get there, your aunt is nowhere to be seen. And all that’s left of the estate is ruins. That’s your ultimate goal here, then: to fix up the estate to its former glory. There’s other stuff to do along the way, of course: meet the townsfolk who can help you, gather materials, and partake in a bit of horse racing.
On paper, then, this all sounds rather wonderful. There’s a joy in the freedom that Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch gives to players. Exploring its world is appealing thanks to its beautiful, watercolour-effect art style. At times, it evokes feelings of Breath of the Wild, and we reckon that’s probably the developer, Aesir Interactive’s intention. The same sort of open world that begs to be explored, but without any of the threats that bokoblins and blood moons bring.
Except – and it pains us to say it, because there’s so much of Horse Tales that we really want to love – its gameplay is let down by generally poor design and programming. This is a perfect example of a game with some wonderful ideas, but rather poor execution.
For example, controlling your character, whether they’re on foot or horseback, isn’t much fun. The controls are heavy and clunky, even when you adjust the sensitivity in the options. In an open space, running in a straight line, it’s fine. But find yourself in a tight corridor with bends and corners to navigate, and you’ll soon have a nightmare of a time. On horseback, manoeuvring is laborious. We’re not sure if this is partially intentional, representative of the fact that horses are temperamental and require focus and skill to successfully ride. It could be, sure, but it’s more than likely just bad controls, hampered further by an often unruly camera.
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The poor controls feed into just about everything you do in Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch. You’ll need to take part in several races, where you’ll no doubt come far down the leaderboard as you fail jumps, get stuck on scenery, or fail to successfully turn around a tight corner. Even lining yourself up correctly out in the open world to pick up some resources proves tricky. Dismounting feels more laboured than it should, too, making performing certain actions on foot rather tiresome.
It doesn’t help, either, that the map you’ll constantly need to trek back and forth on is huge and often labyrinthine. There’s no fast travel option to be found anywhere, and so you’ve no choice but to gallop north and south and back again, more than likely getting lost on the way. With no minimap available on your screen, only a pointer to the general direction you need to head in, keeping your bearings is difficult. There may be no combat here in Horse Tales, but orienteering becomes your number one enemy.
We understand the lack of fast travel: this is a game about horse riding, after all. And being able to skip that element would mean skipping over a key facet of the game. But traversal is rarely fun, and when you’re constantly needing to travel over hills and valleys and through caverns and more, you’ll very quickly get bored of it.
And that’s a shame. Because, despite all our negativity, there are some elements of Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch we genuinely enjoy. Seeing our ruined estate slowly but surely take shape is a joy, for example, as is having some choice over what elements go where. You don’t have full creative control, but most construction plots give you a choice of buildings or decorations, giving you some say on how your ranch comes together. It gives the game a nice sense of progression, and seeing it completely finished would be such a delight – if only getting there wasn’t so laborious.
Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch is a lovely-looking game. Its art style and open world freedom engaged us right from the off, like a horse-centric, combat-free Breath of the Wild. Except it doesn’t take long for its design flaws to rear their ugly head. It’s such a shame that the act of playing isn’t anywhere near as fun as it should be, thanks to poor controls and bad design choices. Still, if you really love horses, some of its flaws may be easier to overlook. The fact is that it’s still better than many other horse games out there.