Thursday, June 15, 2023

Microreview [Video Game]: Horizon Call of the Mountain by Guerrilla Games and Firesprite Games

Worth the climb.

Using Guerrilla Games’ newer Horizon IP, Firesprite Games and Guerrilla have created a title to showcase Sony’s new PlayStation VR2 headset. While Call of the Mountain does its best to incorporate many of the elements of the main series, it’s a different adventure from those massive experiences provided by Guerrilla’s primary studio. Those expecting a huge open world may be disappointed, so go in with an open mind and enjoy the view. 

Call of the Mountain moves along at a significantly slower pace than one would expect of a Horizon game. A lot of it comes from the necessity of avoiding motion sickness from the VR player, but more importantly, it’s a different genre of game. Where the main games are open-world games with a heavy focus on combat, traversal, and lore, Call of the Mountain is a climbing simulator with some combat occasionally sprinkled in. And while the shift is significant for those who love the main games, know that care was given to ensure that the franchise’s aesthetic is respected.

You play Ryas, an ex-shadow Carja who has been recruited by Blameless Marad to discover the whereabouts of Urid—Ryas’s older and more accomplished brother. The story in Call of the Mountain is unfortunately trite, despite the main games’ focus on originality. The redemption story arc is predictable from the moment you find yourself trapped on a boat, bound at the wrists. And though I wished it would get better, it never does. It isn't bad, just uninspired. Easy to follow, but without depth. Though Forbidden West had some shortcomings in the story department (compared to Zero Dawn), it still had some depth and even a few surprises. Call of the Mountain sacrifices that to focus on gameplay and immersion…

And on that front, it mostly succeeds. The world is beautifully detailed, creating an engaging experience that frequently makes you pause to take in the views. It’s difficult to accurately paint a picture with the screenshots provided because this game is played in virtual reality, so every photo I took doesn't take into account my entire periphery. You may see a beautiful set of waterfalls in one of the pictures, but what you don’t see is that I’m hanging off the side of a mountain, or dangling hundreds of feet up in the air from a tree branch. All of these things work in tandem to ensure the player is constantly in the experience. Since the game needs to be rendered twice (once for each eye), and since each screen is close to the eye, it's easier to see the slight pixelation of the game leading to a bit of the classic VR screen door effect. Regardless, the game looks amazing and is lush and detailed. Every so often I would run into an imperfection in the geometry which seemed rather jarring. When in first person, these things stick out significantly, creating more of a hit to immersion than if in a regular video game. Thankfully these occurrences were few and didn’t hamper the entire experience.

The broad vistas in the photos I took are but a few examples of how much of a showcase this game is for the PSVR 2. The game pays respect to the lore and infrastructure of the series, but it also represents its famous machines with precision. Watchers, stormbirds, scrappers, bellowbacks, and thunderjaws all make an appearance and move pretty similar to what you would find in the main games. As Ryas, you will encounter these machines in arena-type settings. You can’t move freely as you could otherwise, but you fight in a circle on the rim around a battle spot as machines come at you. You fight with one of two weapons, one of which is the bow. To reach behind your shoulder, retrieve an arrow, nock, draw, aim, and shoot helps offset the simplification of the game’s combat. It is immensely satisfying to land critical shots with the bow, even if there is some aim assist present, it still feels like you're a bit of a professional hunter. Though sometimes it’s difficult to track enemies when seated (as that’s how I played most of the game), I imagine it’s easier when in a standing position. If you have the space/option, I would recommend playing the game with as much space as possible.

The main gameplay mechanic—climbing—is implemented incredibly well and creates a sense of accomplishment when conquering a legendary climb. I found myself frequently hanging hundreds to thousands of feet in the air, or clutching to the side of a metal devil only to look over and glimpse out at the world beyond, then I’d look back and continue my climb to the top. It was a refreshing experience that only worked because the climbing felt good. Make no mistake, it's not perfect, but it works well. Occasionally I would reach for my pickaxe behind my shoulder, and my avatar’s hands would grab a ledge instead, or sometimes my character would grab something I had no intention of holding on to, and it would shift my view and slightly disorient me. When these things happened most of the time, I realized it was because I was being hasty, but sometimes it was simply the geometry and gameplay that worked against me. That said, I was never barred from progression, these were just simple hiccups that I would figure out quickly and move forward.

For those curious about motion sickness, fear not! I can’t guarantee this game won't make you feel queasy, but Guerrilla and Firesprite implemented a lot of options to assuage any possible motion sickness. I originally had the “smooth movement” setting on, but found after an hour of gameplay that my stomach started feeling off (I tried twice for science, just to make sure it wasn’t what I had for dinner that made me feel weird). I switched the setting to have my character’s horizontal vision move in fifteen-percent increments and boom, my queasiness was gone. This made the entire experience not only more enjoyable but playable for longer periods.

One of the Playstation VR 2’s newer features is added in Call of the Mountain, even if it is only used to navigate menus; eye tracking. This feature works incredibly well, too well in fact. When in the main menu or navigating dialogue, whatever you look at becomes highlighted, then you can select what you wish with the “X" button. In one instance I was looking at the option to leave a conversation, and right before I was about to confirm, I looked to the left at a dialogue option (one I’d already listened to) and pressed the button. I had to listen to it again. This was my fault of course, but it was impressive the eye-tracking was so quick that it moved before I could press the button. I was more careful with the menus from then on. Also, as a side note, this feature can be turned off if you wish for traditional menu selection options.

Though it has no bearing on actual gameplay or story elements, being able to pick up random elects in the environment like a pair of calipers, a sledgehammer, or an ale tankard is extremely satisfying. Something about the tactile feel of picking something up and being able to move it around in a three-dimensional space adds a bit more immersion to the game.

Another fun addition is crafting (which can be turned off if you don’t enjoy that aspect of gameplay). It is implemented in only a few areas of the game, when you craft your arrows and when you craft climbing tools. Manually picking up parts of a tool and putting them together, then tying them with rope is satisfying. Likewise, placing an arrowhead, fuse canister, and feather together to craft arrows is a satisfying mechanic that I enjoyed throughout the game. I like the feel of doing these things with my hands, and considering the game isn’t very long, these things don’t overstay their welcome.

Horizon Call of the Mountain doesn’t quite live up to the main games, but it succeeds in the places where it needs to. The climbing is engaging, and at times, mesmerizing thanks to the gorgeous views. The combat is fun, and the tactile feel of the bow remains engaging throughout. Though the story and characters fall short of what I expect of a Horizon game the overall package is still worthwhile. And once you’ve finished the main quest, there is a fun challenge arena to complete that tests your ability with a bow and your ability to climb. If you buy a PSVR2, this game will complement your collection.

The Math

Objective Assessment: 7/10

Bonus: +1 for satisfying tactile gameplay. +1 for gorgeous vistas.

Penalties: -1 for bland story. -1 for some technical gameplay hiccups.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Posted by: Joe DelFranco - Fiction writer and lover of most things video games. On most days you can find him writing at his favorite spot in the little state of Rhode Island.