Horizon, Call of the Mountain review: PSVR2 at its peak

(PSVR2) ***** Age: 15+

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Ronan Price

EVERY new gaming system needs a tentpole release to sell its charms. From Halo on Xbox to Legend of Zelda: Breath of The Wild on Switch, most generations of hardware have had a standout title to highlight the unique proposition.

For better or worse, Horizon, Call of the Mountain serves that purpose for PSVR2 by illustrating the visual splendour and physical interactions possible on Sony’s new VR headset. Strangely, it is the only title to do so. While PSVR2 has a creditable line-up of more than 30 games ready for launch day tomorrow, this spin-off from the intense Horizon Zero Dawn series stands alone as the only totally new AAA experience. The rest are transplants from VR platforms such as Quest, upgrades to existing PSVR1 efforts, add-ons to existing non-VR releases or lower-ambition indie titles.

So the Sony-made HCOTM (as we’ll call it for brevity) has to function as both a tech demo and a fully fledged system seller. It comfortably achieves both, though it’s not without its compromises that leave you wondering when Sony will produce a truly great VR game.

Set in the Horizon universe of hostile robot dinosaurs and breathtaking scenery, HCOTM takes the unusual step of pivoting to become a climbing simulator, with much less focus on combating the machines. The narrative does a poor job of explaining anything, throwing a heap of lore and jargon at you that will be baffling to series newcomers. In short, you’re a newcomer called Ryas helping a tribe of survivors by scaling mountainous cliffs, shooting dinos with a bow and arrow … and something something something.

Never mind the confusing characters, just revel in the optical spectacle that starts with a riverboat safari bringing you scarily close to the machine wildlife. Next, you’ll learn to climb hand over hand up vertiginous rocky outcrops until you reach a magnificent vista. Sadly, there’s no real challenge to the ascents thanks to clearly marked paths, and the disembodied hands look decidedly weird in their isolation. But you do get a true sense of being hundreds of metres up a cliff, which may be unsettling for anyone with a fear of heights.

A far more satisfying challenge arrives when the dinos crash the party. In most cases, you’ll be trapped in an arena and merely strafing in circles while targeting the glowing weak points. But you’ll be performing the motions of reaching for arrows, notching them to the bow and letting fly, all the while dodging incoming attacks. It’s both heartpounding and draining.

Remember too the VR effect puts you in close proximity to all this chaos, making HCOTM a sweaty thrill ride. After several failures, it was only by digging into the accessibility menus that I discovered the difficulty modifiers that allowed me progress.

The game’s action divides roughly between two-thirds climbing and one-third combat, which feels right given the physical demands of the latter. Occasional stealth sequences also allow for a cautious approach.

HCOTM’s developers smartly add a few interactive moments of downtime, such as cave painting and drum-beating, to round out the world. Mostly, though, you’ll remember the times you crested a climb and drank in another incredible vista or breathed a sigh of relief as your arrow finally brought a giant beast crashing down.

As in the mainline Horizon series, the storyline suffers from convoluted plotting and an overly chatty protagonist. You’ll barely have a minute to consider a minor puzzle before Ryas blurts a hint at you.

For all its flaws and the fact it’s carrying the weight of PSVR2’s hopes on its shoulders, HCOTM deserves to be played, if only to glimpse what might be possible if Sony were to make a true classic in the mould of, say, Breath of the Wild.