The Saddle Club: Willowbrook Stables

Developer/Publisher:  Infogrames (Atari)
Year Released:  2003

Review by Steve Ramsey with Clare (August, 2003)

Our extended family had a horse a while back called Stormy, the Saddle Club TV show has graced our lounge room screen, and the occasional book has found its way home in a library bag. So it was with some familiarity that I set off with my daughter, Clare, to visit Willowbrook Stables.

The Stables are on Coventry Island, and are under threat from developers. Unless some money can be found quick smart, Agnes will be forced to sell up. Can the Saddle Club help?

Well, no, but one third of them might be able to. Only one can visit the island, so you must choose whether to play as Stevie, Carol or Lisa. Then you must choose your horse, deciding its colour and markings. Then away you go.

Clare chose to play as Stevie, and our horse was called Belle. Once we arrived on the island, we were pretty soon engulfed in a hunt for treasure to save the stables.

Not surprisingly, your horse is an integral part of the game. You will be able to get around much quicker on horseback, and will even be able to "jump" between locations using your map. Walk if you want, but it's a very big island. But before you can ride you will need to saddle your horse properly, and find your riding hat. Plus you will from time to time have to feed and groom your horse, and muck out the stables. You lose points if you don't. Little pop-up images will indicate when this is needed.

The treasure consists of 4 golden horseshoes, and the search for each is a self-contained chapter of the bigger story. You find one at a time, and the tasks involved are somewhat different for each. For example, for one shoe you simply go back and forth questioning people and exploring the island, each person telling you where to go next or what to do. For another you need to find 7 markers on the island, then walk a number of specified paces in a certain direction from each in order to find the 7 parts of a map that will indicate the location of the horseshoe. Ultimately, there is a maze-like mine search for the last one. Their difference stops the game from being the same from beginning to end.

There is a fair bit of sameness about it though. You will visit and revisit places, talking to people and acting upon what is said. You will search for and find all manner of objects. You will also do it step by step.

In order to find the treasure you must do as you are told. That is, every step of the way is directed by a person on the island, and each step must be completed. You can't do anything out of order. You might for instance, as a result of your ordinary explorations of the island, have found the second marker, but until you visit the person who will tell you where it might be, you cannot find the second piece of the map whatever you do. Each little piece of the quest must be completed to trigger the next piece. The fact that you need to do something new is indicated by the diary popping onto the lower right of the screen. What to do is recorded there.

The conundrums solve themselves in this way too. You might have to look around a spot to find something, but if there was a code describing where to look, the right person will (and must) solve it for you. You will eventually be told who the right person is.

You will find objects but you don't use them in the ordinary way. Simply finding them is good enough.

So it is all straightforward, but as getting stuck is near impossible it makes the game suitable for all ages. And it is a game for children. You could make it harder by not looking at what to do next in the diary, but this would make progression far too random.

Despite the directed path through the game, you can gallop all over the island right from the start, so exploring is an open book. There are also a number of tasks and mini games to do as you go. You can take pictures which you can review in your diary, plus catch butterflies which are worth points. There are a number of pony games at the riding club, where fast times will get you more points. Just jumping a fence or a tree stump as you ride gets you a point.

The points you have scored are all kept in your diary, indicating why you received (or lost) them, and the total is displayed in the top left of your screen. So too are the number of pieces you have been awarded towards your surprise picture (also in your diary). You get 3 picture pieces for each 1000 points, and there are 12 pieces in all. Each horseshoe is worth 1000 points, so they alone will complete your picture, provided of course you didn't forget to clean the stables or feed your horse.

Your diary contains other useful stuff as well. A synopsis of the story as you go, details of all the characters (which are important in order to be able to find them), and horseshoes indicating your progress through the game. Clippings and notes that you find are stored there also. Plus the map of the island enabling you to jump to locations.

The game plays full screen and uses the keyboard to navigate your character and horse, and the mouse to flick through your diary. It's third person, and camera angles can be slightly jittery and disorienting in confined spaces. You can toggle a map (complete with compass) on and off in the top right corner which will indicate where you are, and where your horse is if you happen to be separated. Sign posts are also indicated, useful for helping you find where to go.

Saving is easy, although you have to exit and then reload to do so. The game, though, autosaves for you whenever you learn something new.

The graphics are not bad, if a little ragged, and the characters a bit plain at the lowest settings. However, you can fiddle with these to a large degree in the menu screen, increasing the level of detail, the smoothness of the terrain, and the features of characters and horses. You can also adjust how far you can see in the distance; objects far away will only appear as you get close, presumably to conserve processing power. Your settings may slow the game down though, depending upon your computer specs.

What is impressive is that night falls, and it can rain, and clouds move across the sky. Animals and birds scuttle about, and the sounds of the island can be heard all over.

Everything is subtitled and the story is a long one. There is a lot of dialogue, and on the whole the voice acting is excellent. The island is also a cosmopolitan place, complete with an Aussie called Bruce who calls everyone "mate" and "cobber".

There were some graphic quirks involving the third person "camera". It generally stays a certain distance behind you, and turns as you turn so that you "see" in the direction your character is looking. However if you were facing a house for instance, and turned round, the camera simply passed through the building to remain behind you. This meant you lost sight of yourself and instead were staring at the inside of the house. You had to either keep turning, or move forward away from the house which forces the camera to follow, eventually causing it to come outside again.

There were also some glitches whereby an event did not trigger what it was supposed to. Stevie at one stage received a letter, but did not, as usual, automatically read it. The next trigger therefore would not occur. We restored an earlier save and this time she read the letter as she was supposed to. This happened about 3 or 4 separate times. The end game too suffered from a glitch whereby the final locked room was open, but as we hadn't done what was necessary to open it, we couldn't trigger the end. Again, a reload got round it.

Plus there was no pdf manual on the CD, as there was supposed to be, but it is easy to work out so we got started without it, and it was eventually e-mailed to us.

All in all though I thought Willowbrook Stables offered reasonable shared entertainment with Clare. Children are its audience, and some of what I said above will therefore not matter. I think someone about 8 years old with a fanaticism about horsey things will get the most out of it, but as noted, its straightforward game play will make it accessible to horse fans of all ages and gaming experience.

What did Clare think?
"I liked the in-game pony club events best. Getting points was fun. The camera angle changes were a bit annoying, and I kept crashing into walls. I didn't like the number of times you had to go in the mine, even with a map. But it was fun, and I am going to see if I can beat my times on some of the races".

See the Saddle Club: Willowbrook Stables walkthrough. rating:  

Copyright © Steve Ramsey with Clare 2003. All rights reserved.

System Requirements
Windows 98/Me/2000/XP. Pentium III 550 MHz (700 recommended), 128 MB RAM (256 recommended), 900 MB disc space, 8x CD ROM, 16 MB 3D video card (32 MB recommended), DirectX 8 (on disc)