Horses are clearly like buses. We haven’t had a horse-riding game in ages, yet the past few months have given us three in quick succession: the surprisingly horse-y Animal Doctor, Horse Club Adventures and DreamWorks Spirit Lucky’s Big Adventure. Parents will be eager to know which stays the course, and having had the occasional pleasure of playing all three, we can say that Horse Club Adventures wins by a nose.
It’s certainly the most attractive to look at. It’s gone a toy-box route, where everything is chunky and tactile, with characters that look like Barbies, and a rustic backdrop that’s in all the primary colours. This is a cheery place, where the greatest tragedies are fly-tipping on a beach and a hotel being built without planning permission.
Coming from the overly realistic Animal Doctor and the poorly animated Lucky’s Big Adventure, it’s a sturdy, well-made world that’s largely free of graphical glitches. There’s the odd juddering horse animation, and some oddness when you butt up against obstacles on a horse, but that’s it: this is a well-made little game.
You start out by choosing a character and horse, which is an early disappointment. Horse Club Adventures has decided to hold back customisation options as rewards, dishing them out as you play, but it means that the initial choices are slim to say the least. Our six-year old is enthusiastic about everything, and spends yonks on character creation, but she was disappointed. Heaven knows why there are no male options.
Then it’s onto Lakeside Horse Stables, where you’re going to spend two weeks of vacation. A bubbly troupe of girls welcome you and start planning picnics and smoothies, getting on the over-familiar side. You’re given your horse and taught how to do the basics like sprinting and jumping, as well as how to care for your horse, which turns out to be vital: putting out hay and water each day will mean a horse has more stamina the next day. Then it’s into bed for the next day and the next, with three or four main missions each day and a couple of side missions.
The missions are harmless enough. They might be friendly get-togethers at a cafe or beach, with each of the girls getting a couple of days to get to know you, culminating in membership of their club, a pyjama party and achievements per girl. Or they can be more like errands, as you gather ingredients for meals or deliver parcels. Considering you’re meant to be on vacation, the locals will take advantage of you, and for nothing like a minimum wage.
After a couple of hours, the missions start grinding your gears. They take you thousands of metres around a large game world, which is initially fine: the pace is laidback, the world is pretty, and the controls are great. You cruise about without a care in the world. But you soon realise that the world of Horse Club Adventures is sparse, with only ten or so landmarks separated by hefty distances. You’ll get bored of visiting the Mill, Quarry and Cafe, and the same routes between all of them. Even the patience of younger ones will be tested.
The missions make this problem worse by sending you to and fro between them. Delivered a parcel? Go back to the person who gave you it, only to find that they have something they forgot to put in the parcel. They’re a bunch of incompetents, and you’ll be tutting at them for making you repeat tasks. Horse Club Adventures is a bit of an epic, more than a dozen hours long to complete, even without all the hidden bits and completionism, so those ten locations get well-worn.
The missions are prone to some awkwardness, particularly when you’ve got another character in tow. The girls will get feisty and challenge you to races, but your map waypoint will be the girl rather than your destination. How on earth can you race someone when you don’t know where you’re going? It’s such a weird oversight. On reaching destinations, you often have to wait for your AI partner to catch up, and they can take minutes if you took shortcuts. You’re punished for getting somewhere quickly.
Probably the best way to experience Horse Club Adventures is to ignore its story. When the repetition and grind is real, ignore the chattering main character, Hannah, and go wandering. There are collectibles to find in the form of costumes and photogenic locations, and you can come across noticeboards that indicate a race is available. These can be played at three difficulty levels, with more jumps and less time to complete them as the difficulty goes up. The main quests could have benefited from this variation: the races are a nice challenge and the difficulty options mean that it can be calibrated to age groups.
When you’ve got the wind in your plasticky hair, enjoying the game at your own speed, you realise just how competent the controls are. Sure, there are invisible walls everywhere, which can be a tad frustrating, but controlling your horse is issue-free and a world away from Animal Doctor and Lucky’s Big Adventure. Our six-year old had no issues moving about the world, even when winding up some of the more convoluted mountain tracks.
The other side of the coin is that, by offering such a big sandbox to trot around in, navigation is more of an issue. If your budding horse-rider is younger than eight, we’d say that the compass, complicated map and large distances between everything will veer towards overwhelming. You might need to act as a navigator, as objective markers overlap on each other and some of the more intricate areas like the forest and quarry become a maze. They’re not dealbreakers, but they’re tripwires on an experience that might not have needed you to help at all.
An adult looking to get something from Horse Club Adventures should probably knock a half-mark or two off the score. This is too repetitive and tedious to hold the attention for long stretches, and you will audibly sigh when a Barbie-a-like asks you to pop to the cafe for the twentieth time.
But Horse Club Adventures has its eyes on a younger audience, and our little ones loved it. They will stomach its repetition and focus on making friends with a bunch of affable ladies, all while enjoying some intuitive horse riding. It’s just a big, colourful sandbox to gallop around in, and the yawnsome makework won’t stop them from enjoying their vacation here.
You can buy Horse Club Adventures for £24.99 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S