Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch - Saddle Up, But Rein In Your Expectations
Before we get started on this review, I need us all to agree that review scores are garbage, and that you should never judge whether a game is for you or not based on a score. Surely, we should just spend our time enjoying the things we love with no regard for where they can be placed on an abstract sliding scale of quality, and while asking vague and defensive questions like “well what even is objective quality anyway?” I understand that this is a confusing first paragraph to read in a game review that is going to ultimately judge a game and give it a score. But I need you, the reader, to understand that in trying to write this review of Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch, I am attempting to ascribe a single value to a game that is both deeply, deeply broken and by many accounts should score badly due to really just not working properly, but which I also stayed up one night playing until almost 5am without realising because I was so engrossed in my broken horse adventures. I think this game might be really bad, but I also think my ten year old self would have defended it to the death and ripped apart anyone who dared to question the value in just spending hours galloping across the countryside, no matter how flawed and frustrating that experience might be.
In case you hadn’t figured it out by now, I was a horse girl as a kid. I never owned a horse because horses are extremely expensive and also I was told I wasn’t allowed to keep one in our mostly concrete backyard, but I was obsessed. I wanted to be Stevie from The Saddle Club (but to ride Starlight like Carol, because Starlight was objectively the best horse). I played games like G1 Jockey despite having deep ethical qualms about the racing industry even as a child, because I just wanted horse content and would take whatever I could get – which wasn’t much. Yes, there was the holy grail, Barbie Race and Ride, and yes, obviously, it’s always fun to just jump on Epona in Ocarina of Time and just gallop nonstop across Hyrule Field (I’m aging myself here, I know). But there weren’t many horse games. Even now, when there are games for everything, the closest we can often get to a horse game is Red Dead Redemption 2, or those hours spent during Breath of the Wild having a crisis over which five horses you were going to keep in your stable and what you were going to name them (that was a universal experience, right?).
But y’all, Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch is a horse game. A game centred on the experience of owning and caring for horses, made by people who care deeply about those things. It’s an ‘equestrian adventure in an open-world’, with all other mechanics feeling secondary to the idea that you just want to spend time befriending and hanging out with your horses. There’s a story to follow, at least for a while – you’re arriving on an island at the invitation of your aunt, who called you to come and hang out on her sweet horse ranch, when you quickly realise that the horse ranch isn’t sweet, it’s in complete ruins, and so is most of the island. You call your aunt to complain about this, she gaslights you, and then it’s up to you to put everything back together and turn the property into a thriving horse farm. There are also people on the island to help you, but it’s mostly on you.
From the start, it’s clear what this game wants to be, and the vision of what it could be makes that little ten year old horse girl version of me want to weep with joy, even if it never quite hits its goals. Each horse you can find on the island has its own personality, with each one coming with a like and a dislike and occasionally unique environmental traits. Some horses love the beach and will run faster on sand, and some hate it and it will slow them down. Some of them go so far as to have fears of certain areas that you’ll need to try and train them to handle by showering them with affection at appropriate times. While these personalities often end up making little difference to how you play the game (besides the need to stop and calm your horse in high places if they’re afraid of heights), they made a difference to how I felt about each horse. The horses also have traits like stamina, agility, and charisma, but when it came to catching new horses to have in my stable I never cared as much about that as I did about what their name was (you can theoretically change it, but that function is currently broken on the Switch version), their likes/dislikes, and how pretty they were.
The actual campaign of the game is pretty short, and mostly acts as a tutorial to teach you about all the things you’ll be able to do in the post-campaign world. You’ll run between NPCs, learning how to craft and collect the items you’ll need to construct new buildings at your ranch, then learning how to use those buildings, and then eventually, learning how to breed horses, which you can do using either two of your own horses or one of yours matched with one belonging to one of the island’s other residents. To breed new horses you’ll need to have space in your barn and food to sustain them, but otherwise you have pretty free rein (ha) to experiment with different combinations of horses to see what new features you can breed into the lineage. The game also eventually teaches you how to customise your outfit and your horse’s tack, but this quest glitched out for me and to do this day is refusing to progress, so I’m not sure whether or not there’s more to it.
I feel so torn, writing about this game. The version I played on the Switch feels almost too powerful for the console, and I had constant issues with textures not loading in or buildings straight up disappearing from my ranch, which meant that I couldn’t do things like wash or brush my horse (which you need to do constantly, because they get dirty every time you run into something, and you’ll run into things a lot). The campaign was short, and seemed to end kind of abruptly, and I did have some issues with quests not functioning properly and getting stuck in my task list. But despite all that, I still enjoyed all the time I spent with this game. I found myself wanting to push past the glitches because the writing was fun (and a little sassy), the game is pretty when it loads properly, and I also it’s just nice to gallop around with your equine bestie, occasionally participating in races and finding new horses to tame and add to your stable.
So no, the score I’m giving this game isn’t high, but if you look at this game and think it’s something you’re going to have fun with, or that you (like me) wish you’d had something like it as a hopeful horse girl, then you should give it a go – I just can’t recommend the Switch version. I spent a bit of time with the PC version and it seemed far more stable (ha) and I think the same can be said for the game on PS5. If you don’t think the idea of becoming best friends with horses and just hanging out with them on an island sounds fun, you won’t enjoy this game. But if it’s going to tap into that same part of childlike wonder that I felt from the moment I loaded it up and chose my first horse, then it could be for you.
Player 2 reviewed Horse Tales: Emerald Valley Ranch on the Nintendo Switch with a code kindly provided by the publisher.