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Ellen Whitaker's Horse Life (DS)

Rated: 3+ but that's really just a warning that under-threes might try to eat the cartridge. There's plenty of text, so players will need to be able to read well.

Story: Your grandfather owns a stud farm and has given you a horse. Care for it, train it, earn riding diplomas and then compete in show jumping, dressage and cross-country events.

Gameplay: During each day of the game you can choose to perform a number of activities such as clean your horse, take it for a ride, stroke it or train it to do different manoeuvres and jumps. These activities all affect the horse's happiness, fitness and cleanliness. Do enough training and you can take a test to earn a riding diploma. Gaining diplomas unlocks competitions.

The game is controlled entirely with the stylus. Cleaning and brushing is handled in an obvious fashion by rubbing the stylus over your horse. Controlling the horse as it moves around uses a somewhat less obvious technique. You views events from a position behind the horse and slightly to the side. Tapping the horse's rear speeds it up and tapping its head slows it down as it follows a set path through the countryside or round an arena. The gameplay comes from pulling off jumps, turns and tricks. These involve tapping dots and tracing lines on the touchscreen at the correct speed as they appear.

It's like a sedate, equestrian version of Elite Beat Agents.

Winning competitions brings cash and the chance to buy new outfits, gear and better feed.

Save System: Autosave after every event.

Comments: There's no escaping that this is clearly a game aimed at ten-year-old girls who like ponies. I am not a ten-year-old girl nor have I ever been one. I don't have a ten-year-old daughter to fob this off on and have write the review for me. I don't even like ponies.

Given these issues and the post-traumatic stress I received from Baby Life, I wasn't entirely enthusiastic about the thought of playing Horse Life. I didn't feel there was much chance of it going well. Eventually, however, I slipped the cartridge into my DS and muddled my way through the pony creation process and some interminable text-based dialogue involving chats with old men and vets, before taking on the persona of a teenage girl and heading off into the woods on a horse.

Then the weirdest thing happened. Slowly, and against my better judgement, I started to enjoy myself...

Amazingly, Horse Life isn't merely tat cobbled together to throw onto the bandwagon of non-games, sims and casual titles for the DS. It's got gameplay to go with the horse-owning simulation. It has pretty graphics, a generally decent interface, plenty to do and there's even a bit of story involving teen rivalry and a spot of horse-nobbling. Quite honestly, this is probably more than ten-year-old girls who like ponies have grown to expect from DS games.

The mechanics of riding the horses is similar to the tried-and-tested controls used in recent rhythm action games. It's just as much fun but doesn't involve as much rhythm. Being unable to follow a beat, I like this twist a lot. Also, while there's quite a challenge to be had performing a perfect run, the game is pretty lenient when you mess up, cutting down on frustration.

On the downside, having to train and muck-out stables when you simply want to get on with show jumping can get tedious. This is possibly quite realistic, though, and actually a reason to give it to any offspring you have who want their own pony. If they complain it's dull, remind them that at least it's not risking injury or bankruptcy, and they're not having to get up at six in the morning to traipse to the stables in the rain.

Once they appreciate this, you might be able to bargain them down from the pony to a pet gerbil.

Conclusion: If you need to buy a gift for a girl who's around ten years old, likes ponies and has a DS, then this might be exactly what you're looking for. As a bonus, you can get her to do all the hard work training and cleaning a horse, then you can sneak a few goes at three-day-eventing without having to touch a virtual shovel full of horse poo.

Graphics: Surprisingly good. Many of the cross-country tracks are very pleasant to look at and the horse animation is excellent. Only Ellen Whitaker fans are liable to be disappointed, since she doesn't really feature and it appears suspiciously as if her name was added to the game at the last moment.

Length: Decent. There are plenty of competitions to unlock. High score tables for each event would have been good to increase longevity, though.

Rating: 4/5.


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