Horse Life Review (DS)

Horse Life! Everybody needs a thrill. Horse Life! We all got a space to fill. Horse Life! Everybody can’t be on top. But life it ain’t real funky, unless it’s got that…erhm…horse.

This is the moment that will make you say, “Wow”
But don’t forget to muck out the stables

Is dressage possibly the most boring sport on the face of the earth? I mean, no disrespect to the people involved with it, but I’m having a hard time actually thinking of something more uninteresting. Curling, at least, has the novelty of being played by generally fat men with brooms. Lawn bowls comes close, but again, that’s played by fat men – fat old men, even – and there’s a reasonable level of amusement that can be derived just from that. Dressage’s polite, upper middle class riders really can’t offer anything in that respect. Jokes about plums being in one’s oral cavity stopped being funny around the end of the 19th century, after all.

Yes, it clearly takes a lot of time, effort and talent to be able to control and train a horse to the degree that a dressage master does, but watching it is akin to watching paint dry for the average person. It’s great that your horse can go from a canter to a trot and turn at exactly 90 degrees before performing a piaffe, but when you’ve got 20 or so competitors doing it over a three hour period its enough to send an audience member into some kind of near catatonic sleep.

There’s a reason why the footage of dressage at the Olympics is pretty regularly not even televised: what advertiser would want to be involved with something that has a viewer ship of people who are asleep?

Of the events associated with three day equestrian competition, fortunately, the others are much more interesting. Steeplechase – in which horses jump over ditches, fences and so forth – isn’t quite as amazing when it’s not in the structure of a race, but rather a judgement of form, but cross country is a great watch, even for those who don’t understand the intricacies of it. A lot of the time, that’s as much to do with the countryside as anything else, but nonetheless: it’s like the Terminator 2 to dressage’s English Patient; the Led Zeppelin to dressage’s Enya.

With that out of the way, it should be easy to understand why there was a degree of trepidation going into Horse Life, a game that is, more or less, a three day equestrian event simulator, with a few added dressing up/taking care of the horse moments. What’s somewhat less easy to explain is why this unease was immediately quelled upon getting past the first menu of the game.

Because here’s the thing: despite the obvious issues I have with dressage, and my mild reservations about formal steeplechase, I enjoyed Horse Life. I enjoyed it a lot, actually. And that enjoyment began the first second I saw my chosen horse – Dumpy, for those taking notes – rise up as a foal and stumble around its pen. Neko Entertainment’s animation on the equine characters in the game is nothing short of stunning. It’s amongst the best 3D animation I’ve seen on the DS, and while that may be hard to believe, and while that might sound like hyperbole, it’s absolutely true. Check out the video if you don’t believe me.

Trace the arrows upwards to jump…
Or hit the circles to perform more complex moves, like river crossings

The game itself begins a few years after you first see that horse; once it’s grown and able to enter competitions. Before you can do that, though, you’ll need to get the horse to trust you, and then go through training with it.

While the sections that see you taking care of the horse are fun enough – though you’ll probably be sick of washing your little equine buddy after the first week of in-game time – it’s the training and eventing that prove the real drawcard. Performing moves, like cornering, or the passage, is done by hitting circles as they appear on screen; kind of like a rhythm game, but without the music.

It can even get a little hectic by the end of the game. More complex moves, like the levade – which sees your horse standing on its hind legs at an angle of 35 degrees - involve multiple tracings and taps, and getting a score of above 90 in the regional or national dressage championships can be fairly challenging. A lot of that is to do with the fact that circles will disappear relatively quickly for the more complex moves, leaving you faulting in the middle of the arena – it’s a pity that there’s no mode to learn your routine before you perform it. Fortunately, there’s nothing stopping you entering an event more than once to improve your ranking.

Oddly enough, dressage really provides the game’s most interesting moments, since steeplechase and cross country are comprised entirely of jumping and cornering. Same with the fitness sections, in which you can take your horse through the forest and outlying areas to keep it healthy. These sections aren’t boring – especially those in the forest, which look impressive – but it feels a little too much like you’re waiting for the next corner or jump to come up part of the time.

The biggest problem with the eventing is actually the setup around it – your trainer grandfather says mostly the same things before each event, and your in-game nemesis Michelle taunts you in the same way each time you lose. Or, if you win, accuses you of cheating. You’d assume that there are only so many times someone can cry wolf and get away with it, but she never seems to get kicked out of the league. Forgiving folks, those horse judging officials.

So, at some point, you’ll come to a realisation. The dressing your horse up and making sure it’s happy is kind of enjoyable, if a little repetitive. Making sure you have nice clothing – there’s plenty to unlock – is also nice. Going for rides in the country to keep your horse’s fitness levels can get a little boring once you’ve gone through all the tracks available, but that should take a while. And the steeplechase and cross country events provide a genuinely fun challenge.

But here’s the kicker: the dressage is why you’ll keep playing. Somehow, Neko Entertainment has managed to make dressage not only entertaining, but actually rather gripping. It’s like some kind of weird bizarre universe.

There’s some question about how long you could reasonably keep playing the game, however. Once you’ve made your way through the leagues to the nationals and won, the game comes to an abrupt halt; albeit a halt that brings a slightly out-of-character unlockable to the proceedings. Without spoiling too much, let’s just say that a game that takes so much pride in technical movement and terminology could maybe have done without the inclusion of mythical creatures. You’ll begin to question the sanity of your otherwise staid trainer grandfather when he starts spouting bizarre dialogue about strange creatures in the depths of the forest, or at least wondering whether a certain someone might have been hitting the brandy a little hard that morning.

Shopping’s not the most fun, but looking sharp is important, kids
Your repetitive and bizarre nemesis Michelle is ready to taunt you when you lose, and accuse you of cheating when you don’t. Nice girl

Obviously, it’s not for the hardcore gamers, but those with an interest in horses should be really happy with Horse Life. It’s hard to imagine any other horse riding title beating this in the foreseeable future, if only because of its stunning graphics. A truly welcome surprise.

Top Gaming Moment:
First see your horse stumbling around its stable as a foal and realising the level of competency in the game’s animation is hard to beat.