(WARNING: This review may contain minor story spoilers)
I’ll be the first to admit that I was not an early adopter of Horizon Zero Dawn. An enthusiastic adopter, yes. Early, no. There were other games I wanted to play at the time, and I played them, and then I got around to Guerrilla Games’ new hotness. But with Horizon Forbidden West, there was no question I would be grabbing it. Granted, there’s always a possibility Guerrilla Games might have let success go to their head and basically phone in the sequel, but those fears have thankfully proved groundless. Aloy is back, and all the great stuff of the first game is better than ever.
Players return to the “Horizonverse” as Aloy, once outcast of the Nora tribe in post-apocalyptic Colorado, now revered as “The Savior of Meridian” by the Carja and Oseram people, as well as her other title of “Seeker” granted by the Nora. We learn that in the immediate aftermath of the Battle of Alight around the Spire of Meridian, Aloy slipped away from her comrades without so much as a word. We know she tracked down Elizabet Sobeck’s remains and recovered a globe shaped pendant (as seen in an epilogue cutscene from the first game), but six months later, Aloy’s running herself hither and yon to hunt down a backup copy of the GAIA terraforming AI in order to stave off the impending collapse of the biosphere. Saving the world isn’t a singular event, it seems, but an ongoing process of crisis resolution.
After investigating a ruined spaceport once run by the other great humanity survival project, Far Zenith, Aloy returns empty handed to Meridian, frustrated and desperate. Between the unexpected discovery of a message from the enigmatic Sylens hidden in the Spire and a personal request from Sun King Avad to oversee a delicate political event, Aloy journeys to the titular Forbidden West, so named by the Carja because of the Tenakth tribal confederation. Like the Nora and Oseram, the Tenakth were hit hard by the Red Raids and fought back with tremendous ferocity, blocking Carja expansion beyond what would be today eastern Utah. With Avad on the throne, peace overtures and reparations have been made in the hope of normalized relations and the return of Carja prisoners. Unfortunately, some of the Tenakth aren’t interested in peace, and under the leadership of a rebellious general named Regalla, the diplomatic mission ends in a massacre of both Carja and Tenakth loyalist forces. And, as you would expect, Aloy is right in the middle of the action.
The Decima engine returns to power Horizon Forbidden West, and with a PS5 behind it, the results are no less impressive than Horizon Zero Dawn was for the PS4. Everything from the environments to the character and creature models has the same visual style as the first game, but looks subtly refined, polished to a higher gloss than before. Weather and lighting effects are more varied, the skyboxes looking even more detailed, everything is iteratively improved. And that’s really kind of a good thing. It speaks to a “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it” mindset and it serves Horizon Forbidden West well. There are graphical glitches, of course, weird little texture tears and the occasional bit of pop-in from terrain and foliage geometry. And while one will undoubtedly spend ridiculous amounts of time trying to compose the perfect shot in Photo Mode, one may be a little disappointed about the misalignment of props in characters’ hands if they’re trying to get a good action shot. Additionally, the geometry in the game seems to be a little shaky in spots, and it’s far too easy for enemies, NPCs, wild game, and even Aloy to get stuck inside a bit of terrain, never to escape. For all of that, though, you’re still getting one of the most visually impressive games out there.
While a lot of the same creatures, biological and mechanical, from the first game reappear in Horizon Forbidden West, there are all new ones to appreciate and hunt for parts. And it’s clear Guerrilla Games did their homework to make those creatures look as lifelike as possible. Players in the American Southwest might be thrown off a little bit seeing javelinas referred to peccaries and Gila monsters as chuckwallas, but the fact they’re recognizable helps smooth over any little nomenclature quibbles. And with the broad array of new machines to hunt, players will certainly be “oohhing” and “ahhhing” (along with running and screaming). Like the biological creatures, it’s fun to see what inspired the robot designs, even as old favorites like the Thunderjaw and Stormbird make return appearances. And, as with the creatures, painstaking visual detail is taken with the cultures which Aloy will be interacting with, and the gear obtained from them. There’s a sense of utility in each and every armor set, an underlying story of how each weapon was made and the purposes they’re intended to serve, with each of the different tribal cultures having distinctive elements to help tell you a piece’s origins even without reading the flavor text. It’s not just random hides, animal bones, feathers, and metal bits. You know, at a glance, which part of the Tenakth confederation the artisan came out of. When people talk about “environmental storytelling,” Horizon Forbidden West should be the pre-eminent example of how to do it right.
When it comes to the audio portions of Horizon Forbidden West, there doesn’t seem to have been quite as much iteration there. It’s certainly high quality in general terms, but spotting the improvements between this game and its predecessor is probably best left to audiophiles with better gear than myself. That being said, a number of musical themes from Horizon Zero Dawn seem return here, with some small variations for the new environments. Sound effects are still incredibly well done, and the relationship between sound and environment is still just as crucial, even if some of the environments are brand new. Believe me, this is one game where you really don’t want to be playing with the sound off. It will get you killed in short order. If there’s any quibbles, it has to do with the spoken lines. Bear in mind, I’m not complaining about the cast. Ashly Burch comes back to portray Aloy just as well as in the first game, Lance Reddick is somehow even more of a smug snake as Sylens than before, and the absolutely massive voice cast is highlighted by the likes of T.J. Thyne (Bones), Carrie-Ann Moss (The Matrix series), Tim Russ (Star Trek: Voyager), and even Angela Bassett (9-1-1). All of them deliver exceptional performances. However, some of those performances get muddied periodically. It’s unclear at this point if it has to do with some sort of recording issue or (more likely) a problem with something like the positional audio, but it does occasionally detract from the game, as well as making it difficult to get contextual information about the current quest.
The gameplay in Horizon Forbidden West is, to an extent, just as iterative as the visuals. Weapon selection is still just like it was in the first game, the cycle of hunting machines and animals for parts to improve your gear in order hunt more dangerous machines is still there, and the challenge pit stops of the Hunting Grounds are back for another go-round. What’s changed is more along the lines of expansion and the necessary refinement to make that expansion manageable. Play styles are now more quantified, and with that quantification comes a more structured method of character advancement. The skill trees make it absolutely clear what abilities and weapon types fall within its purvue, which in turn helps players come up with how they want to proceed. It’s entirely likely that, just as with Horizon Zero Dawn, one can eventually fill up all the skill trees since side quests and jobs are not shy about giving you skill points as quest rewards. But the fact you can focus your efforts on a single skill tree to start and really master it before getting into other areas makes for a more even handed experience than the first game. By the same token, however, the fact you will inevitably fill up the skill tree makes the inability to respec a bit of a pain point. The good news is that it never feels like the end of the world. If there’s any complaint about gameplay, it can be found in the sometimes finicky control scheme and responsiveness, where you can’t seem to hit the right spot around campfires to save or fast travel and end up doing a forward roll or weapon swing. That, and the odd fact we’re effectively helpless swimming in the water, when one would think we’d be able to at least use our Silent Strike when hiding in kelp.
As the skills have been quantified, so too has the gear. Since skill trees include special abilities for certain weapon types, it makes sense to carry those weapons primarily, which reinforces the desired play style. Certain armor sets and weapons are best for fighting machines or humans head-on, just as certain weapons and armor sets are meant for more stealthy stalking and hunting of prey. And the gear, in turn, helps improve those skills you’ve unlocked. It’s possible to radically buff a given skill with the right gear combination of weapons, armor, and gear coils/weaves. This leads to a highly granular experience when it comes to play style, though it may take a while to truly develop it to its fullest potential. Gear follows an MMO-style quality progression of green (uncommon), blue (rare), purple (very rare), and orange/gold (legendary). The first game had a similar progression, but purple was the top end. The legendary gear is not only vanishingly rare, it requires a lot of high end machine parts to improve it to its fullest potential, and some players may not be game for going into that amount of work when they’re going to end up being ridiculously overleveled by the time they’re actually done with the upgrade chains. That said, once you get a piece up to its max level, it can be a reliable tool out in the field which you’ll be loathe to give up for a better quality replacement.
Just as there are new machines out there to hunt, there are new weapons to hunt them with. The shredder gauntlet uses a cesta-like structure to throw a disc shaped projectile at a target before it returns. Meanwhile, the spike thrower uses an atlatl-style launcher to throw various javelins at machines. As with bows, slingshots, and tripcasters, these weapons have both physical and elemental damage characteristics depending on the circumstances. They have a decidedly different and more involved mechanic than the bow or tripcaster, particularly the shredder gauntlets. At the very least, you’ll have a passing familiarity with them when using them in Hunting Grounds challenges.
There’s no denying that the map in Horizon Forbidden West feels a lot bigger than the first game, and it seems to have a considerable amount of things to do, from the return of Tallnecks to open up the map to rebel camps and outposts providing you with safe spots to camp out in once you’ve eliminated the rebels. On Normal difficulty, even after 60+ hours, the game’s progress counter told me I hadn’t even reached the halfway point in terms of completion, though how it calculates that is a bit of a mystery. Yet at that pace, I was closing in on level 50 at the start of this writing. Even accounting for the occasional nasty boss fight, one’s likely to hit the level cap well before they’ve finished the main storyline unless they’re trying to speedrun it.
There’s an unconscious langour in the world design which is at odds with the seeming urgency laid out in the main story, a subtle form of ludonarrative dissonance. It’s not unpleasant as such, but it creates a problem in the respect that you’re wanting to explore the map and when you run into barriers imposed by elements of the main story, you’re not moved to keep following the main story beyond the point where you get the tools to overcome those earlier barriers. In this, Guerrilla Games may have wrought a little too well when they built their world map. Put simply, the sort of slow burn desire to unravel the great mystery which powered Zero Dawn feels strangely absent in Forbidden West.
This is not to say that the story work is somehow lacking or badly executed. If anything, Horizon Forbidden West seems to be more character focused than the first game, particularly as the story progresses and Aloy gathers her allies for the impending final showdown. We get to see Aloy trying to cope with a number of changes in her life even as the world continues to shamble towards apocalypse, changes which are not simply a case of visting exotic places, meeting interesting locals, and occasionally killing them. Canonically, it’s been only half a year since the Battle of Meridian, likely around a year since her foster father Rost died, and being the person who “saved” the world hasn’t left her with a lot of time to process her grief. For the longest time, she’s kind of been a tribe of one, whatever official affiliations may have been observed. In Forbidden West, we see her beginning her own tribe of sorts, collected from the odds and sods of other cultures. The misfits who are her equal in being outsiders even if they’re still officially a part of their “home” tribe. Like a lot of the storytelling, it’s languidly paced, punctuated by moments of sheer howling terror now and again.
There’s still some awkward moments early on when it seems like every dude in the Sundom turns into a drooling idiot around Aloy, but this fades away as she ventures deeper west. If there’s anything missing, it’s the feeling of a truly monstrous villain. Regalla’s a perfectly serviceable zealot, which makes it easy to oppose her. But compared to the likes of Ted Faro or the Zeniths, she’s basically a spoiled child, lashing out and throwing a tantrum because she didn’t get her way. Even the immortal Zeniths, part of the original crew of the sleeper ship Odyessy who left Sirius after a planetary cataclysm to return to Earth, don’t seem quite so menacing. The “Diet Coke” of villainy, so to speak. But for all that, the dialog and writing in Forbidden West is still engaging and really helps the player feel a connection to the characters, great and small, as well as the overall. We see the world much like Aloy does, knowing there’s a map which outlines the lands beyond, but always wondering what’s over there and delighting when we find something new.
Players expected Horizon Forbidden West to be a great game, something like the first one but better. And in a number of areas, it does hit that mark. There are spots where it feels like growth should have happened and didn’t, but these are minor quibbles in the context of the larger game. There are new mechanics which are enjoyable, and spots where you feel like Guerrilla Games could have done more. Perfection is impossible, but Horizon Forbidden West is a worthy sequel, and hopefully leads to more adventures beyond the confines of post-apocalypse America.
This review was based off a copy of the game purchased by the writer.