‘Horizon Call of the Mountain’ Review – A Visual Feast That Takes VR Climbing to New Heights
With Horizon Call of the Mountain, Sony is hoping to have an exclusive big-budget VR game to entice players to the new PSVR 2. Does the title succeed? Read on to find out.
Horizon Call of the Mountain Details:
Available On: PSVR 2
Release Date: February 22nd, 2023
Developer: Geurilla Games & Firesprite
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Editor’s Note: The clips in this review that were captured from PSVR 2 do not look correctly saturated due to incorrect HDR downmixing on our part. Rest assured, the world of Horizon Call of the Mountain is quite vibrant!
The first thing you should know about Horizon Call of the Mountain is that at its core, it’s a VR climbing game. While it’s obvious from the name that climbing would be part of the experience, I can’t say I realized that it would make up about 50-60% of the gameplay. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing; climbing in Call of the Mountain is well executed and creates perfect situations to showcase the game’s stunning environmental art.
The second thing you should know about Call of the Mountain is that it really is a full game and not just a collection of mini-games or one-off experiences. That includes a cast of characters with performances that developers Guerrilla and Firesprite clearly spent a lot of time on, with results that challenge the groundbreaking portrayal of virtual humans in Blood & Truth (2019).
Climbing is the central pillar of gameplay in Call of the Mountain; at first you’ll be using just your hands, but later you’ll find new tools that do a good job of mixing up the climbing gameplay just enough that it doesn’t overstay its welcome, though I wish the later equipment felt less redundant.
While the climbing systems work very well throughout, I found a near complete lack of challenge in the climbing gameplay; I don’t think I fell to my death a single time during the game. The only ‘challenge’ is occasionally needing to look around to find out where to make your next move, but there’s barely any real ‘threat’ during climbing segments, which would have served well to emphasize the game’s otherwise daring climbs.
The climbing may not throw any real challenges your way, but it certainly creates effective opportunities to see the beautiful world of Call of the Mountain. The environmental art and lighting direction in the game is seriously top notch and of a quality scarcely seen anywhere else in VR. You’ll come across vista after epic vista as you climb to new heights, and it always felt worth it to me to take a minute to soak in the views. From most vantage points you can make out other major landmarks in the game which helps make the whole thing feel like a cohesive world.
While climbing is a huge part of the game, you’ll also be doing a lot of bow shooting, which is also well executed in function and feeling. To that end, the combat is where the game really challenges players, and I was actually surprised just how difficult it can be. While I only died from a single encounter in the game, the combat definitely put my skills to the test in a way that I expect would be fairly difficult for inexperienced VR players. While there’s options to tweak the difficulty, unfortunately they’re somewhat hidden in the Accessibility menu which means some players might not find them given that they may be looking for a more common ‘difficulty selector’ as some games provide.
Instead of throwing enemy after enemy at you, combat in Call of the Mountain most often consists of very specific encounters with a set number and type of enemies. The game also takes on a totally unique form of locomotion when these fights start, where the player can swing their arms to quickly rotate around the outer edge of the combat space as they avoid attacks and look for new angles to attack from. While it might look strange from the outside, the overall concept works well, especially when you’re fighting some of the game’s biggest and baddest beasts.
Granted, I found it difficult to read and time the enemies’ melee attacks, and I didn’t feel like the ‘dodge’ mechanic (where you swing both your controllers to one side to do a quick strafe) worked particularly well. While I applaud the developers for building a unique and thoughtful combat system that’s specific to VR (and impressively comfortable, I should add), it could use a bit more refinement to really shine.
The same goes for the combat overall. While it’s definitely fun to fight the fascinating machine creatures from the world of Horizon—thanks to their excellent looks and sounds—combat never felt particularly strategic to me. For the most part you just need to keep lobbing arrows down range. That’s especially strange considering the game allows you to craft several different arrow types (like fire and ice), but all of them essentially just felt like extra damage rather than a strategic choice. That’s compounded by the fact that the game provides the player with more than enough resources to usually have their special arrows maxed out—which further meant that actually finding those resources didn’t feel very exciting.
While Call of the Mountain is a linear adventure, you’ll return to a hub area between missions where you’ll get to talk to the game’s small cast of characters. Although there’s unfortunately minimal character development and intrigue, the characters themselves are impressively rendered across the board, from the way they look to the way they move to the way they sound. It’s a shame they aren’t more involved in the game because they’re so technically compelling.
When you’re on the trail but not actively climbing or fighting, there’s usually loot to scavenge for. The game does a good job of leaving extra bits of loot for those that go looking, but since the only gameplay reward is ingredients for different arrows (which as we established, don’t really make the combat more unique) or a small upgrade to your health it can be a bit of a let down to keep finding the same stuff that you’ve already got plenty of.
Even if you’re full on arrows though, the game still peppers its pathways with little collectibles to find for those who are looking more closely at the world around them, as well as hidden targets for you to shoot (which I appreciate because this gives players another good reason to take in the environment at large). Some of the game’s levels also have optional (and sometimes hidden) ‘Legendary Climbs’, which are longer climbing segments that usually lead you to another awesome view, and these feel like a good reason to replay a level if you didn’t find them the first time around.
Call of the Mountain is a fun adventure with tons of VR native gameplay taking place inside one of the best looking virtual worlds seen in VR to date. I can’t say the story really grasped me—I completely missed why the protagonist and his brother are at odds with one another—but at least it’s all well delivered and ties the gameplay together. It took me about 7 hours and 30 minutes to complete the main campaign while finding roughly 60% of the extras like trophies, collectables, and Legendary Climbs.
While it isn’t particularly comprehensive, the game also has a small challenge area where you can test your bow and climbing skills with some timed challenges. And last but not least, there’s also the ‘Machine Safari’, which is an extended version of the opening sequence which shows off the game’s great looking creatures and animations in a non-interactive way (great as a short demo to show friends who aren’t gamers).
Call of the Mountain is definitely easy to get lost in thanks to its beautiful visuals and solid-feeling world. Yes, you’ll come across a bunch of epic vistas to soak in, but the game also does a great job with the smaller details too. You’ll see nice touches like moss growing between rocks, glints of crystal flecks in some of the rock faces, and a ton of foliage and environmental decoration, all backed up by great lighting and art direction.
While it was a bummer to find that only some of the foliage was interactive, it did make me smile when I could naturally use my hand to push a vine away from my face, see fuzzy moss bend under my hands, and watch leaves move realistically as I grazed them while looking for my next hand-hold.
Overall, Call of the Mountain might have the best visuals of any VR game I’ve seen to date. Though I’d say Half-Life: Alyx still has the more technically proficient graphics, those graphics are largely in service of realizing a dirty, broken, dystopic city. Call of the Mountain, on the other hand, offers up a rich world full of natural beauty that’s a delight to see.
Beyond the interactive foliage, the developers also scattered lots of interactive props throughout the environment. While they have nothing to do with gameplay, they’re certainly tempting to play with. Though I can’t even recall the name of the game’s main antagonist, I do recall playing a tambourine, drums, a pan flute, finding various hand-made dolls, smashing a table full of pots with a hammer, ringing huge gongs with a mallet, throwing snowballs, and shooting vases off a steep ledge with my bow. All of these various props are detailed with their own sound effects, physics, and generally tight hit-boxes.
While it was great to see that all of these items were physically interactive and could be pushed appropriately with your hands, the physics would sometimes freak out when items interacted with each other (ie: putting a stick in a mug).
Also relating to item interactions, I was a little disappointed to see that Call of the Mountain lacks a proficient force-grab system (which is essentially standard in VR games today). While you technically can grab things with a bit of range, it was really hard to see exactly which item you are targeting, which would sometimes mean grabbing something other than what you had intended. And then there’s the fact that when grabbing distant items, your floating hand in many cases would fly away to meet the object, which certainly doesn’t look right. And all of this sometimes makes picking things up from the ground an annoyance.
A more thoughtful force-grab system would have been welcomed; it’s easy to imagine emulating the gravity glove system from Half-Life: Alyx, and either explain it away by saying it’s advanced technology from the Old Ones (the futuristic lost civilization of the game), or by creating an (admittedly contrived) version of the gloves using string and pulleys. I also would have liked to put items over my shoulder to stash them in my inventory instead of having them magically teleport there after touching them once.
One place where Call of the Mountain really went above and beyond in the immersion department is with its characters. Yes, they look great, they’re well voiced, and the facial capture is very expressive, etc., but the thing that really impressed me is the way the developers dealt with players reaching out and touching the characters.
In many games if you reach out to touch a character nothing happens (maybe your hand even clips through them), which breaks immersion. Other games will just keep the characters 10 feet away from you, but that can also kill immersion because they’re outside of your ‘personal space’ (making you feel less connected with them).
Call of the Mountain keeps the characters in that personal space, but if you reach out to touch them they will lean away from your hand while sneering at you in a way that feels really natural. And when I say natural, I mean the expression on their face—and the way they first look at your hand and then back at you—very effectively conveys a sense of ‘what the hell is wrong with you, why are you touching me’ without using any words at all. It’s such a minor detail but it’s incredibly well done, especially considering that this system is fully dynamic so it can happen regardless of how they’re gesturing, looking, or speaking. Whoever worked on this system and the accompanying body language and animations, bravo, you’ve set a new bar for the ‘players touching characters in VR’ problem.
Though there’s plenty of motion in Call of the Mountain, the game is clearly designed to take comfort into consideration.
First and foremost, the game has a solid ‘arm swinger’ locomotion option which is the default for two of the three pre-configured comfort profiles. I found that it kept me more comfortable and felt more immersive than using pure stick movement—though it was just a little bit annoying that it slows you down so much when you come within a few feet of stationary objects like walls or rocks.
In addition to the arm swinger movement, the game has a dynamic blinder system that kicks in when there’s lots of motion, like when you’re jumping, climbing, ziplining, or falling, and I found that it did a great job of keeping me comfortable.
In addition to offering up three pre-configured comfort profiles ranging from lots of comfort accommodations to fewer accommodations, you can also go into the menu and fine-tune the settings to taste. The game also thoughtfully includes an ‘Arm Reach Multiplier’ option for anyone that needs it, either because you don’t feel like reaching as far, or because there’s a physical reason you’re unable to.
As with any VR game involving climbing, when you clasp a handhold you can effectively shake your own body around by waggling your arm; some of the very sensitive folks are likely to find this movement inherently uncomfortable, regardless of blinders. So if you are particularly sensitive to motion in VR, you might want to give this game a shot but be ready to take advantage of Sony’s PlayStation Store refund policy if you can’t handle the motion comfortably.
Below you can find the full list of comfort options in Horizon Call of the Mountain.
Horizon Call of the Mountain’ Comfort Settings – February 16th, 2023
Swappable movement hand
Two hands required
Real crouch required
Adjustable player height
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