There is a small, quiet part in all of us that longs for a country escape. To feel the breeze against our backs, and become one with nature. The Sims 4 Cottage Living felt like a realisation of this dream; a virtual game pack where you could establish a running farm, and live out your desires of peace and solitude in a calming world. The Sims 4 Horse Ranch continues these themes, with a brand new aesthetic, and the inclusion of new pets: the humble horse, and baby goats and sheep.
From a gameplay standpoint, these animals don’t quite shake up the Cottage Living formula – and feel less essential to Sims gameplay as a result – but with a host of fresh activities, and a new, aesthetically-pleasing neighbourhood that transports the action of The Sims 4 to a desert landscape, Horse Ranch is still a worthwhile expansion pack.
Home on the ranch
The action of Horse Ranch takes place in Chestnut Ridge, a brand-new neighbourhood bursting with personality. The entire place is inspired by the aesthetics of the American ‘wild west’ with vast prairies, rustic homes, and saloon bars surrounding a shopping strip that looks straight out of Red Dead Redemption or Deadwood. Chestnut Ridge is a neighbourhood stuck in time – and it feels distinct.
As you explore, you’ll find craggy caverns, open fields, cacti and desert flora, and sandy stretches that hide secrets. It’s the perfect backdrop to harness idyllic cowboy dreams, and embody a free spirit learning how to live off the land, dress like a rootin’ tootin’ cowboy with denim and overalls, and make animal friends.
Horses are frankly great inclusion to The Sims 4 – and easily justify their place as cover stars. On entering Chestnut Ridge, you can bring in your own custom-created horse, decorated and coloured as you choose, and then set about establishing your own personal ranch.
You can create a barn, adopt goats (as many as you like, it seems) and then work on embracing your destiny as a champion horse racer. The road to victory – littered with medals – is not easy, however. Horses can have multiple temperaments and proclivities in this expansion, with each forcing you to adapt your rearing skills.
Sims are easily embarrassed, and in their opening relationship with their companion horse, they’ll be embarrassed a lot. It’s not just a simple matter of getting on your horse and riding into the sunset. Horse Ranch complicates this process in very satisfying fashion, with relationships being complex to foster.
You’ll need to spend time with your horse, and figure out how best to interact with them to ensure your bond is strong enough to thrive. Some horses like being hand-fed treats. Others don’t like being petted. You can customise your horse’s traits from Create-A-Sim to ensure the ride is easier, but any adopted horses will come with their own mystery challenges.
More often than not, a horse will prove stubborn – and if it bucks your Sim on a riding attempt, they’ll get a negative moodlet that impacts their ability to bond. There’s no easy, breezy way to get your horse on side – it’s all about biding your time, and working on your care language.
Fall off, get back up. Give your horse a treat to ease their anxiety. Eventually, the bonding process becomes easier – and it’s great to see your Sims’ relationship with their horse evolve, as rides become smoother and bucking disappears. Then, you can start working on skills – like agility, jumping, and racing.
Eventually, you’ll be able to send your chosen horse to the Chestnut Ridge equestrian centre, which houses a range of training tools and competitions. Here, you can put your horse riding skills to the test, with daily challenges allowing you to advance along a track, and make your way to championship glory.
The real catch here is that the equestrian centre is what’s known as a ‘rabbit hole’ – a location you can’t enter or view inside. Competitions take place solely behind closed doors, which is one of the major disappointments of Horse Ranch. You spend so long fostering a thoroughbred horse, and you can’t actually see the fruits of your labour.
Your Sim and your horse simply disappear, you stare at a blank screen for a few minutes, and then a win or lose announcement will pop up in your messages. While you can watch your horse training and learning new skills outside of competitions, there is no grand performance waiting on the other side.
It removes some of the joy of taking part in competitions, and makes a final ‘overall’ victory feel lacklustre. At the very least, it’s a missed opportunity – much like the game’s ‘unicorns’ being only cosmetic and not magical in nature.
Life moves on
Beyond these complaints – which have seemingly been echoed in the wider Sims community – the world of Horse Ranch remains a largely charming addition. When you’re not caring for your horses and baby animals on a rustic home ranch, there are plenty of other opportunities to occupy yourself. A trip to the centre of Chestnut Ridge reveals a thriving community that loves drinking (responsibly) and dancing, with a host of parties always going on.
There’s a brand new grill stove top in the game, where you can cook up a range of fresh ingredients for new meals, many of which are inspired by Native American culture. Hosting your own parties will gather your neighbours for beige-tinged bush-bashes where you can enjoy the idyllic scenery, and soak up the night-time atmosphere with a crackling fire.
You can also jump into strange, Dungeons & Dragons-style exploration in a hidden cavern in the higher reaches of Chestnut Ridge.
The Sims 4 is no stranger to surprise caves, with many expansion packs including adventure-based mini-games for Sims willing to explore the further reaches of each neighbourhood. In Horse Ranch, caves are slightly different, however – as the ‘Dreadhorse Caverns’ actually comprise a unique mini-game where Sims have health and exploration choices.
While these are still rabbit holes, it doesn’t matter so much – as the Dreadhorse Caverns operate as classic text-based adventures. Your Sim will get a health bar, and the option to explore or attack beasts as they journey further into the cave. It’s on you to decide when to attack and when to retreat, spicing up your options for exploring. Take the daring option, and you’ll wind up with special ingredients for cooking and nectar-making. You may tire out your Sim, but you can always take them home to recover, and try again the next day.
This mini-game is a rare delight, and helps to keep the offering of Horse Ranch feel fresh, if not essential.
Therein lies the rub of The Sims 4: Horse Ranch. With recent packs like Growing Together feeling genuinely essential to gameplay, and titles like Cottage Living already making up much of the ground that Horse Ranch covers, it doesn’t feel like an expansion pack that’s particularly necessary. The features it adds are mostly solid, and there’s plenty of mileage in adding a horse to your Sims family – but it’s fair to say its lack of meaningful innovation leaves it feeling like a second thought.
It’s a great escape to the ‘wild west’ countryside, but one without significant bells and whistles.
Three stars: ★★★
The PC version of The Sims 4: Horse Ranch was provided and played for the purposes of this review.