In a way, it's somewhat of a surprise that it took Sony this long to bring one of their well known series to VR. The first PSVR lacked the star power of these to help bring people to the platform. Maybe that's what Sony has realised, since PS VR2 is launching alongside a brand new side adventure in the Horizon universe. No, we're not talking about a 30+ hour open world monster (do you really want to play those in VR?), and it's not one of those infamous "VR experiences" that were a bit too frequent in PSVR's early years either.
But what is it then, the curious reader will probably ask. Well, like many other high budget (maybe even AAA) narrative VR games, Horizon Call of the Mountain has a length and scope similar to that of the PS2 generation's biggest blockbusters. In other words it is linear, clocks in at under 10 hours and it keeps its systems relatively simple so it can instead focus on introducing new tools and scenarios to keep the experience fresh. It's a VR buffet and the biggest classics are on the menu: Bow and arrow based combat, light exploration and gathering of materials, crafting and, as implied by the title, death defying mountain climbing.
There is also a story, of course. It's centred around former Shadow Carja Ryas who, in exchange for a pardon, is sent on a mission to find his brother who is missing after tracking a mysterious signal. It's a decent starting point, but the story never evolves into something truly exciting. Partly because Ryas never evolves into a compelling character, and the late introduction of a fairly generic villain, whose master plan doesn't truly strike terror the way the game intends it to, doesn't do the story any favours either. Being centred around the Carjas doesn't help either. Yes, we've spent a fair amount of time with them in the main games, but the tribes of Horizon and the internal and external conflicts have never been the compelling part of Horizon's story and here it shows.
Ryas' search primarily takes us through an incredibly picturesque valley and its surrounding mountains inviting you to engage in the aforementioned climbing. Even so, I was surprised at how big a part of the game climbing is. You definitely spend more time hanging from a ledge than you do with your feet on the ground. Luckily, Firesprite and Guerrilla season the regular VR climbing with a handful of tools that you assemble manually and then can use freely. For instance, the solid and satisfying pickaxe is great for scaling ice walls, and the grappling hook inspired Grab Caster lets you cross wide gaps. Not all tools are equally fun to use, though. For instance, the Grab Caster has an input delay when throwing it, which spoils its potential, but the frequent introduction of new tools almost keeps the climbing fresh throughout the game's eight hour length. But only almost, because in the end things do get a little stale even if the system works really well.
The fantastic vistas, however, are something I did not grow tired of. With each climb conquered, a new fantastic view of the valley is revealed. Horizon Call of the Mountain is without a doubt one of the best-looking VR games - even if the excellent introduction, where your only way of interacting is looking around, has a visual quality unmatched by the "real game". As mentioned before most of the game is set in a single valley from where you can see the different points of interest making up the levels. The enormous metal devil strikes a particularly imposing sight from its position at the top of a snow covered peak, and placing the locations in view of each has the effect of making the world feel more cohesive.
If the surroundings are one highlight, the machines, of course, are another. From the first jaw dropping encounter with a Tallneck majestically crossing your path without taking notice of nearly crushing your canoe, to the imposing roar of a Thunderjaw making the headset shake, the machines are even more impressive in VR than on the flat screen. And just like in the main games they are not all hostile, so relax and watch a herd of Grazers. It is a sight to behold.
It can't all be peace, love and harmony, though. Sometimes Ryas has to fight the more aggressive machines to the death. Combat isn't a huge part of the game, but it is still one of the key elements. When engaging in combat, you can't move freely but only left or right in a circle. On one hand it feels somewhat restrictive, but the system has the advantage of enabling you to take proper aim with your bow or sling and dodge enemy attacks. This results in some entertaining encounters where you frequently change between arrow types in order to turn the tide. Against particularly challenging enemies such as the Thunderjaw my strategy was to freeze it in place using the sling's ice bombs and then swap to precision arrows in order to do maximum damage to the incapacitated machine's weak parts. Firing your bow and sling engages the adaptive triggers and haptic feedback, making the simple act of pulling out an arrow from your back and firing it a true pleasure. The dodging mechanic works as intended (I used the novel and well-functioning gesture based system where button presses in combination with different gestures is required, but a traditional control scheme is available and works fine as well), but it lacks finesse. As long as you keep moving, it's relatively easy to dodge incoming attacks, and I would have liked more enemies like the Scrapper using attacks you have to crouch under in order to dodge, since constantly moving left or right gets a little repetitive.
There are also sequences - both on foot and when climbing - where sneaking past the machines is the best option. In a well-executed sequence early in the game you're hiding behind dangling carts in an abandoned mine while waiting for the right time to climb to the next hiding spot. More of those sequences would have been a welcome addition, particularly on foot as this aspect of the game is its weakest. The moments on foot where Ryas is not engaging in combat is typically about transporting you to the next climb or combat scenario. To be fair, there is some light exploration which sees you searching for lore collectibles, armour pieces and items to craft special arrows, but this part of the game could have received a bit more care.
In general, Horizon Call of the Mountain lacks that extra layer of polish typically associated with Sony's first party titles. Ryas sometimes get stuck on the vegetation, and textures close to him sometimes load too slow. Worse, the editing between levels feels clumsily handled with a sudden fade to black, and the way the camera resets when entering a combat section is equally jarring. It makes the different parts feel somewhat disjointed, which unfortunately breaks the otherwise excellent immersion created by the lush environments and the compelling score.
In that way, the whole ends up being less than the sum of its parts. I have a lot of good things to say about the visuals, sound, climbing and combat, but they are betrayed by a generic story, undercooked on foot sections, and a package that doesn't quite come together in a cohesive way. Horizon Call of the Mountain showcases Sony's shiny new hardware very well taking you on an entertaining and varied romp through the lesser known parts of the Horizon universe, but it isn't a system seller.