I should have learned by now not to judge a game by its cover, but I am guilty of writing Horse Life off after one look at it. I assumed it would be the kind of game that relied on easily impressed kids to overlook cheap game play or graphics. But I was surprised to find that it has a decent supply of innovation, care and quality: traits hard to come by in a kid's game.
Horse Life is in the same vein as Nintendogs, Catz and any of the other simulated pet game for the DS. A nameless old man guides you through the process of raising and training your horse, but first you have to tell him your name and if you're a boy or girl (guess his eyes are going in his old age). You can then choose from three breeds and customize some minor details like its “colour” and stockings. There is no functional difference between the options, only aesthetic. After all that, you will get to see your horse as a newly born foal. Skip ahead two years, and the horse is old enough to be trained and ridden.
At the start of each day you can choose what kind of food to give your horse. Normally you're stuck with boring old hay. But if you can afford it, there is a variety of oats, corn and barley mixtures that enhance your equine friend's happiness and fitness. Then you have free reign to choose five things to do for the day. You can train, compete, play with your horse, take it for a joy ride in the forest, groom it or clean out the stables (Hey kids! Wanna shovel crap?). Every action has positive and negative effects on the health, happiness and fitness of the horse. For example, if you take your horse out for a ride, you can increase its fitness, but it gets dirty in the process.
At the stables, you learn how to execute maneuvers with the horse. How maneuvers are carried out is part Elite Beat Agents, part Dragon's Lair. Dots appear on the screen that you either tap or follow across the screen. The dots are large, and as long as you know which maneuver is coming next (Hey, there's a turn coming up), it's easy to execute them without a hitch. You are basically following a script and have to hit the dots fast enough, or you lose points. The animations don't change unless you totally fail. If you master all the maneuvers of a particular difficulty, you will earn a diploma that unlocks competitions and new areas of the forest to ride in.
The game makes the forest sound like a place where you can free roam with your animal, but I was disappointed to find that you simply follow a path. The only extra control you have here is in the speed of your horse. Tapping your horse's flanks or speaking into the microphone prods it faster, while patting your character's head slows it down. Just remember to turn the microphone option off before you play in a noisy place, as any stray sound could sent your mare into a gallop. Along the way, you encounter obstacles, such as fallen trees or streams, and you simply react to them by tapping the dots. The faster and more accurate your reactions are, the better stat boost you earn for your horse. Even the hardest paths are well within the capabilities of a young kid. The only time I missed a move was when the camera wouldn't give me a clear view of the road ahead.
If your horse is feeling lonely or it needs a reward, you can visit it at the corral. Just whistle to call the horse over to you (or tap the whistle icon), then you can stroke its mane and feed it a snack. Fruits and veggies can be bought at the Gear Shop, some of which can even revitalize strength. You can also buy new gear for your horse and yourself, including saddles and clothes, respectively.
When your horse's “cleanliness” stat drops too low, you can clean it up with a quick groomin' or shampooin' if you have the cash to buy some shampoo. These work as mini-game where you have to scrub the horse quickly without hitting its sensitive bits. You can also clean out the stable by shoveling out the mucky old hay and replacing it with new stuff. These are the only different mechanics in the whole game, which is a sign of the lazy work put into it. They don't have to be more complicated, but a greater variety of activities would have spiced this stable up a few points.
The Competition Hall is where you strive for fame and money. All the maneuvers you've practiced will come into play during competitions. There are four events: Dressage Trial, Steeplechase, Cross-Country, and Eventing. There is practically no difference between the competitions and what you do at the forest or stables, just you'll be scored on it, and if you score high enough, you'll a trophy and prize money. You can also unlock more events, or access to new training programs at the stable.
The game advances at a steady pace as you train, compete and care for your horse. The process can get a little monotonous. The game tries to add a plot, with rival rider, Melonie, trying to best you at the competitions. Eventually, Gramps even starts talking about unicorns (We knew we should have put him out to pasture long ago).
For a game of this type, the graphics are pretty well done. Except for a few glitchy moment, the horses move realistically. All the different outfits you can wear are distinct, though there isn't a tremendous variety. Backgrounds are too static. Everything is prerendered, so you won't notice the trees blowing in the wind, or even the people in the stands applauding.
The music and sound effects are passable. You can buy new tunes from the Gear Shop, but they are all the same hokey country music that you either find mildly soothing or just don't notice.
Horse Life has basically taken Nintendogs and removed the best parts – the ones that required the most work to make. The lack of any interaction between different player's horses is a big hole in this game, as well as the limited gameplay. Still, there are a lot of simulated pet games out there, and Horse Life is one of the better ones.