Pillbox

Bella Sara is surprisingly enjoyable

Credit: Katie Chironis/Copy Manager Credit: Katie Chironis/Copy Manager

I’m going to be honest here. When I fished Bella Sara out of what was essentially a Gamestop rubbish bin for $5, I laughed. A lot. It’s a horse riding role-playing PC game, in the vein of Barbie Horse Adventures or whatever other shovelware the game industry thinks young girls between the ages of seven and 13 want to play. Worse, it’s not even its own title: The game is based off a popular horse-themed trading card game.

The cover, emblazoned with a white prancing pony amid a background of rainbows and purple sparkle clouds, leaves very little to the imagination regarding the game’s content. I took it home fully expecting to at least be entertained by its terrible-ness, because — let’s not kid ourselves — we’re in that dry spell before Skyrim’s and Skyward Sword’s releases, and the gaming scene is pretty uneventful at the moment. My intentions were to ride some digital ponies, mock the horrible graphics, and call it a day.

What I found surprised me in a way that I’ve very rarely been surprised by a game before: The title was actually passably good. Not only that, but it’s been a week now and I’m still coming back for more. That old adage about “not judging a book by its cover” applies equally well to games as it does to any other form of media.

Bella Sara begins by asking the player to create an equestrian avatar (female only) to represent him or herself within the game. With positive messages in the sidebar such as “Feel free to be whomever you want to be!” during character customization, it’s hard not to feel like the game is setting up to be a hokey girl-power experience. During the following scenes, however, the player is introduced to the farm; the center of the game, the farm contains a quest board, which the player can use to embark on missions, challenges, and races. There’s also a paddock, where the player can tend to his or her horses in the form of simple grooming exercises. The brushing is therapeutic, and the challenges, while ultimately a very simple joy to complete, are surprisingly tough for a children’s game. The riding gameplay has a very smooth, almost Spyro-esque feel — the player glides over peaceful green scenery (albeit horribly rendered with near-neon green grass), moving past large and impossibly fantastical landmarks on either side of the trail. Players can deviate from the trail, too; given that the game is meant for a young and increasingly curious audience, there’s no lack of satisfying hidden pick-ups and bonuses — hidden behind trees, near the coastlines of rivers, and even within areas yet to be unlocked.

Given what it is, the gameplay is no Bioshock. The user interface is downright horrible, the environmental collision detection is laughably bad, and the graphics look like they took a time machine to the present day from 1992. Bella Sara is not a masterpiece of any genre. But there’s a surprising amount to offer here for such a low-budget game, and it caused me to think a little.

Gamers as a general rule tend to be a discerning population. Games aren’t cheap, and as consumers, we have every right to be picky. But how often do we dismiss at a first glance what might be a truly engaging piece of software because it doesn’t look up to standards? How often do we check Metacritic or Kotaku reviews before bothering to even take a look at Steam or the retail shelves? Judging by the $5 price tag on Bella Sara, I’d be willing to wager it happens pretty often. There are probably thousands of other games out there that no one’s playing, purely because the critics who did play didn’t enjoy them.

There may be more compelling gameplay to be had off the $5 rubbish bin than from the new Deus Ex — and for a cheaper price, too. Next time you’re browsing Steam, check the ‘Free to Play’ tab — it’s essentially a graveyard of poor-selling retail titles that have since gone the way of the freemium model, but there’s a lot of gold among the trash. The result may surprise you.