Review – Horizon Forbidden West
I came to play Horizon Zero Dawn long after it had become a huge success. It was one of those games that I had been excited for, but didn’t get around to playing for a while. Once I finally picked it up, I couldn’t put it down. One of the benefits to finally playing it so long after its initial release was that the sequel was already in the works by the time I started seeing what all the fuss was about. Horizon Forbidden West couldn’t get here soon enough, so that I could continue Aloy’s adventure.
The story in Horizon Forbidden West picks up shortly after where Horizon Zero Dawn left off. Several months after defeating HADES, the world is not prospering like Aloy had hoped. A deadly blight is contaminating the land and killing everything it touches. This sends Aloy on a quest to find a backup for GAIA, so that she might restore the broken biosphere. Aloy will have to fight her way past deadly machines, harsh storms, and warring clans in order to ensure humanity’s survival.
Honestly, the story was really hit and miss for me. Horizon Forbidden West takes a while to really get going. Somehow the beginning is a bit of a slog by rehashing a lot of what transpired in Horizon Zero Dawn, while simultaneously feeling rushed and underdeveloped. Aloy spends a good amount of time in the opening section with her friend and fellow Nora, Varl, but this is mainly due to having him be the vessel through which the tutorial mission is delivered.
Shortly after the intro section is over, Aloy runs into several of her significant companions and comrades from the previous game. Unfortunately, these encounters are relegated to little more than long-winded conversations that serve no real purpose other than to once again briefly touch upon events from Horizon Zero Dawn. For the most part, none of these relationships have any relevance to the rest of the story. It was a shame that so many of these people that Aloy endured so much with in the previous game, didn’t really seem to matter in Horizon Forbidden West. There are a couple exceptions, such as Varl and Erend, but that’s about it.
In fact, Aloy seems to not care much for the people she helped in Horizon Zero Dawn at all. This is odd considering just how much she went through to save everyone from the life-threatening events of that game, and how close she became to several of them. Aloy’s entire character arc in Horizon Zero Dawn was going from an outcast and loner, to a revered hero. She gains numerous friends and wins the respect of just about everyone. They even all band together at the end to stave off the evil forces and claim victory. She struggles, tries, fails, learns, and eventually succeeds, giving her a worthwhile character arc.
However, the Aloy in Horizon Forbidden West seems to have forgotten about all of that. Right off the bat, Aloy is abrasive, prideful, and condescending. Not really the characteristics you want in your main protagonist. Granted, several of the people she encounters give her a hard time and underestimate her abilities. In those instances, it makes sense for her to push back and shut them down. After all, she did learn to stand up for herself in the last game.
The problem is that she doesn’t stop there. Aloy acts this way even with the people she’s suppose to like. All of her former friends and acquaintances offer to help her on her quest, and she immediately brushes them off. She treats her friends as though they are annoyances and and not worthy of her time. She struts around with a braggadocious air about her, treating everyone else like they’re inferior. The whole point of the Horizon Zero Dawn was that Aloy had to learn to work with people in order to succeed, and it’s frustrating that she goes through the same arc again in Horizon Forbidden West. Thankfully, after a while she does finally become less insufferable, but that’s honestly a terrible way to have to view your main protagonist.
Eventually, Aloy comes to terms with the fact that she does need help in order to complete her mission. She forges several new relationships through Horizon Forbidden West, some of which join her as permanent companions. Part of the way through the game you’ll unlock a base, which is used as your central hub for Aloy and her comrades. With each new companion you get to join your cause, the more help Aloy will get in unlocking the secrets of the Old Ones. Various rooms around the base will unlock as you bring more people in as well, as will the look of it once they start getting settled. I enjoyed this aspect; it kept the base interesting as everyone brought their own cultural flavors to their rooms and there was more to explore.
The gameplay in Horizon Forbidden West is mostly the same as before, mixing combat, stealth, and setting traps. Everything has been tightened up and polished quite a bit though, eliminating many of the annoyances found in Horizon Zero Dawn. Warrior Bows, Sharpshot Bows, Hunter Bows, Ropecasters, Tripcasters, Blast Slings, and your Champion Spear are still present in Horizon Forbidden West, and play basically the same as before. Although, there are several new weapons to have fun with this time around.
The Spike Thrower is a powerful new addition to Aloy’s arsenal. It’s basically a javelin that Aloy can hurl at enemies to inflict massive damage. They can be devastating, but they’re also tough to throw accurately and use up a ton of resources when crafting ammo. Using them is often a gamble, especially early in the game. The Boltblaster plays similarly to the Rattler from Horizon Zero Dawn, and is essentially a weighty crossbow. It’s extremely powerful, but also incredibly heavy, making Aloy move slowly while wielding it. Then there’s my personal favorite, the Shredder Gauntlet. This weapon shoots out serrated discs that strike the enemy and return like a boomerang. The Shredder discs tear off armor and components better than anything else. Each subsequent shot inflicts more damage and finishes with an explosive shot, so long as each shot lands properly. Is it overpowered? Maybe. Probably. Definitely. But it’s so much fun to use that it doesn’t matter.
Weapons aren’t the only new additions in Horizon Forbidden West either. Early in the game Aloy will craft a grappling hook styled weapon called the Pullcaster. It can be used to access hard to reach areas, open vents, destroy breakable walls, and traverse climbing sections quicker. Aloy will also be able to glide from tall heights, thanks to her new Shieldwing Glider.
There’s also an Igniter, which attaches to Aloy’s Spear and destroys a new combustive substance called Firegleam. Igniting Firegleam is akin to setting off a small bomb, and is often used to open up new paths. The Vinecutter also attaches to Aloy’s Spear, and is used to remove durable vines that are usually blocking secret paths and valuable collectibles. Last is the Rebreather, or Diving Mask, which allows Aloy to swim underwater without needing to resurface for air.
Which brings me to another new feature in Horizon Forbidden West: underwater exploration. I’ll be honest, I was nervous about this addition at first, because so many games seem to do it poorly. Every once in a great while you’ll find a game that knows how to deliver favorable swimming mechanics and a rich underwater world, Subnautica and Call of the Sea come to mind, but the majority of swimming sections in games are frustrating at best.
Thankfully, that is not the case with Horizon Forbidden West. In fact, underwater exploration turned out to be one of my favorite things in the game. I was genuinely shocked by just how much was laid hidden beneath the waves and lakes. Some of the best loot and resources can be found in underwater caverns. My favorite level in the entire game took place in an underwater version of Las Vegas. Having that twist on the setting of something so iconic was mind-blowing.
The gameplay is different when underwater as well. Since Aloy can’t use any of weapons when she’s submerged, underwater sections become entirely about stealth and strategy. Instead of having tall red grass to hide in like on land, Aloy will have to look for Stealth Kelp to keep her hidden in the water. Not the most inventive of solutions, granted, but it suffices. Knowing that I couldn’t use any weapons or run if an enemy saw me, made the underwater sections far more tense than any other.
Not only can Aloy explore the land and sea, but also the sky now as well. Horizon Forbidden West finally gives Aloy the power of flight, due to her being able to override and mount the flying machines, Sunwings. I will say that this mechanic was disappointing for several reasons. First, you don’t get this ability until very late in the the game. By that I mean you unlock this in the second to the last main mission of the game. There’s barely any reason to use this aside from resource and rare item collecting in the late game stage. True, some of the best items and resources are hidden atop very high structures that are only accessible via flying, but it’s disappointing to not see this feature utilized in more missions.
Also, Aloy can’t fight while atop her Sunwing, which is shocking. Since she can shoot her bow while riding a mount on land, I’m surprised that there wasn’t an option for aerial combat. Once nice feature is that Aloy can use her Pullcaster to hook onto her Sunwing and zip up quickly to mount it. This trick can prove useful if she’s being overwhelmed by enemies or falling from a great height. That still doesn’t make up for the lack of meaningful aerial gameplay though.
In addition to the Sunwing, there are several new machines to encounter in Horizon Forbidden West. There are the more commonly found machines, such as Burrowers, Bristlebacks, Clamberjaws, and Clawstriders, which are typically a little easier to handle. Then there are the more challenging machines, such as the Shellsnapper, Tremortusk, and Slitherfang. There are plenty of others to run into, but discovering them is part of the fun.
Exploration in general is much more fun in Horizon Forbidden West. The map is massive and has tons of regions to visit, many with vastly different climates and environments. The whole world feels rich and alive in Horizon Forbidden West, and this is largely due to its stellar graphics. I found myself constantly being blown away by just how gorgeous it is. Horizon Forbidden West does feature a Photo Mode (like most AAA games do these days) and for the most part it’s pretty decent.
You can control the angle of the camera, change the time of day, adjust the aperture and exposure, and even put Aloy in a variety of fun poses. It’s nowhere near as remarkable as Ghost of Tsushima‘s Photo Mode, but then again none are. Still, there’s plenty of fun to be had with it, especially when taking in a stunning vista or marveling over the beauty of the different tribes.
The character models and animations, even for lesser NPCs, are absolutely stunning. Skin has wrinkles, fine hair, and sweat, none of which I’ve ever seen rendered so convincingly in a video game before. Character movements and facial animations are natural and seamless. Even the details found in the aesthetics of the various tribes are impressive. Everything, from the textures of their clothing, to the materials of their homes, to the paint on their faces, looks real. You can actually see where the paint is globbed on thicker in spots. There were several times while watching cutscenes that I forgot the characters weren’t live actors.
That could also be partly because of the sound design as well. Like the visuals, the sound design is superb. Every vocal performance is fantastic and fits the characters perfectly. The soundtrack is equally wonderful, with each area having its own distinct theme. The sounds of Horizon Forbidden West are so well done and so genuine that you feel like you’re in that world. Sound plays a big part in Horizon Forbidden West, especially when hunting and listening for enemies. I was able to avoid walking straight into a Stalker Site once only because I was able to hear their traps and movements as they crept through the bushes fully camouflaged. Having the sound design successfully play that important of a role in a game is truly an impressive feat.
Horizon Forbidden West took so much of what made Horizon Zero Dawn great and made it even better. The only areas where I truly felt it was lacking was with the early parts of the story, Aloy’s giant step backward in character development from the first game, and its overall pacing. Each mission begins and ends with long exposition dumps that definitely could have been broken up better and presented more organically. Horizon Forbidden West also has a slow start and it takes a few hours to really get going. Although, once it finally kicks off it doesn’t slow down. Unfortunately, I’m sure that will be a deterrent for some people. Even though I can understand that, it saddens me that they’ll miss out on such a great game.
That being said, even taking those issues into consideration, there is still a lot to love about Horizon Forbidden West. It’s absolutely gorgeous, the controls are tight and responsive, and the new weapons are a blast to play around with. The addition of the Pullcaster and underwater exploration were huge improvements to enhancing the gameplay. It’s a rich world that easy to get lost in. Even after beating the main story, I still want to go back and see what secrets I can discover. If you didn’t like Horizon Zero Dawn, then there’s not much here that will change your mind. It’s still very much the same game as before, only enhanced. However, if you, like me, are a fan of Horizon Zero Dawn, then you’ll definitely love Horizon Forbidden West.
This is, without a doubt, one of the most gorgeous games I’ve ever seen.
It plays pretty much exactly like Horizon Zero Dawn, with only a few new elements, such as underwater exploration and aerial travel. The underwater aspects are a delight, while the aerial aspects are underwhelming and introduced very late in the game.
The voice acting is stellar throughout, as is every facet of the sound design.
If you liked Horizon Zero Dawn, then you’ll probably love Horizon Forbidden West. If you didn’t like it, then there’s probably nothing here that will change your mind. It’s a bit of a slog in the beginning, but once you get past a certain point it’s captivating.
Final Verdict: 9.0
Horizon Forbidden West is available now on PS4 and PS5.
Reviewed on PS5.