Horizon Forbidden West is a notably more confident sequel. It hits the ground running, picking up directly after the events of the last game, and expands the world in fascinating new directions. It takes the fundamental elements of its predecessor and improves upon them, broadening the scope and scale of the stories and relationships of its core cast of characters, all while moving the narrative forward. But there is a prevailing sense that some of its fundamental elements could use a bit more polish and attention.
Secrets of the Past
Horizon Forbidden West takes place a few days after the events of Horizon Zero Dawn. Main protagonist Aloy is on the hunt for the remains of an AI that holds the secrets to preventing the complete environmental collapse of the planet Earth. As these investigations come up with nothing, Aloy discovers that Sylens, the manipulative antagonist from the last game, had taken off with crucial information in secret into the Forbidden West, the now unrecognizable remains of the American west coast. With precious little time left, Aloy makes her way towards this region, navigating the local tribal politics of the various factions she meets along the way in order to unravel the mysteries found within.
As mentioned before, Horizon Forbidden West does a great job of getting you up to speed immediately. If you don't remember (or didn't play) the events of Horizon Zero Dawn, there is a recap video that plays at the start of a new game and is available to re-watch in the Extras menu.
This continues into a genuinely brilliant opening prologue. Not only does it bring you up to speed with Aloy's goals and motivation, but introduces you to the core mechanics and systems in a truly seamless manner. It helps give the kind of forward momentum one likes to see in a sequel.
Go West, Brave Nora
As for how you experience the new vistas of Horizon Forbidden West, Guerilla Games doesn't really innovate so much as iterate. You will still be sneaking around and occasionally fighting both robotic monstrosities and tribal warriors with spears, bows, and hastily made traps. The devil is in the details however, or in this case six separate skill trees. These include unlocking special attacks for the different weapon types to emphasizing different playstyles such as stealth and strategically picking weapon parts off machines. Filling out certain sections of these trees also unlocks a Valor ability, which gives Aloy a temporary boost to her abilities or lets her use a special attack for a limited amount of time. While these skill trees do have a lot of variety packed in, they don't really expand how you interact with the world.
That doesn't mean that Horizon Forbidden West doesn't introduce some new navigation tools. As you progress through the story, Aloy will craft brand-new tools to get around the environment. These include a paraglider so you can glide from high ground, the pullcaster which acts like a grapnel belt/hookshot combo, and a rebreather so you can explore the underwater depths. Most of these tools are used to great effect and help emphasize the many different biomes and location types that this sequel provides.
In fact, it must be mentioned just how beautiful Horizon Forbidden West looks. While the last game had a mostly flat look of mountain ranges and abandoned lab facilities, this new installment is just brimming with vibrant color and the kind of holistic texture that can only come from a truly fleshed-out world. From snowy mountaintops to long stretches of desert to dense jungles to lush and tropical islands dotted alongside the crumbling ruins of the old world, all of it comes to life thanks to the skilled command of the audiovisual power the PlayStation consoles have to offer and Guerilla Games' excellent art direction.
This impressive visual fidelity extends to character interactions and character performances. Ashly Burch returns as Aloy and she manages to bring some enthusiasm and compassion to an otherwise conventional role as a strong warrior with a noble soul. Thankfully, Aloy is supported by a fantastic supporting cast which includes returning characters like the brash Arend and the endearing Varl to newcomers such as the diplomatic Alva and the genuine sweetness of Gravesinger Zo. All of their performances manage to be vibrant and feel real and lived in thanks to some stellar performance capture.
Well Worn Roads
But despite all of the visual polish on display and the grand heights the central narrative takes, Horizon Forbidden West is hampered by some game design shortcomings and a few odd structural and progression choices.
First, there is a certain misalignment of expectations that must be addressed. Since Horizon Zero Dawn came out so close to another open-world experience about exploring a world ravaged by an ancient calamity, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, players were expecting this sequel to follow more in the footsteps of that adventure. The promotional material seemed to suggest this with a larger map, more diverse locations, and even Aloy's paraglider bearing some similar looks to the one Link used.
But despite all of the majesty and wonder that the PlayStation 5 can produce on an audiovisual level, Horizon Forbidden West is not a systemic playground of interlocking elements. If you want to climb up somewhere, you need to scan and look for the contextual grip holds and ledges that you can climb. If you want to sneak past a group of enemies, the only means of cover you have are patches of tall red grass. Finally, barring a few dynamic fights between rival tribes and roaming machines, once you've figured out the best strategies to take down your enemies, you're not exactly going to experiment.
Yet, despite the good performances on display, some softly observed character beats, and a critical path story clocking in around twenty hours, the entire narrative feels muted from the lack of conclusion that comes from being the middle chapter of a story
What keeps this from turning stale is the variety and pure visceral reward of taking down any of these machine foes. This is still a hunting game at its core where the focus is more on precise shots at body parts in order to cripple or disorient your target. It is with these fundamentals that the game delivers some genuinely spectacular boss battle setpieces. The personal highlight for me was against a large robotic aquatic creature deep within the sunken remains of Las Vegas.
But what stuck out to me during my experience with Horizon Forbidden West was despite the attention to detail and various forms of refinement, I wasn't completely engaged with the central narrative. Part of this comes down to how the game's overall pacing and structure. As mentioned before, the opening prologue is great putting Aloy in the middle of her journey and getting you up to speed. As a direct hour and a half stretch of game time, it is one of the most seamless and painless tutorials I have played in a very long time. The problem is that stretch is then coupled with about four additional hours of dreary setup before Aloy even makes it to the opening credits and into the titular Forbidden West.
It is this push and pull between cinematic storytelling and flow of play that keeps things from completely coming together. On one end, you have a brilliantly designed open-world map filled with side activities and optional content. Specifically, it is the kind of refined and meticulously crafted kind of content that doesn't just feel like mind-numbing busywork. Sidequests full of interesting one-off characters and interesting dilemmas are discovered. Challenging mini-dungeon and environmental puzzles can be stumbled upon that continue to give the world texture. There is even a competitive board game you can invest time into if that is your thing. There is a history to this place, and you can feel it in every single polygon.
This is in contrast to the actual central narrative. Much like the first game, Aloy unearths hidden truths about the history of the world, including the ultimate cause of the robot uprising, leading to some massive twists and an expansion of scope from beyond the confines of Earth itself. No spoilers here, but the story began to engage with big sci-fi ideas regarding the nature of AI and how it interacts with basic human nature, invoking everything from utopian optimistic highs to destructive nihilistic lows.
Yet, despite the good performances on display, some softly observed character beats, and a critical path story clocking in around twenty hours, the entire narrative feels muted from the lack of conclusion that comes from being the middle chapter of a story (yes, there's a tease for a third installment) and of a fully explored theme. There are a handful of scenes that are so close to being excellent if they were built around something (the aggressive anti-capitalist satire of The Outer Worlds, the messy self-destructive nostalgia of Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy, etc.) but instead feel more like loosely connected interludes. It falls into the modern Hollywood blockbuster pitfall of observing themes, but never fully interrogating or commenting upon them.
Horizon Forbidden West | Final Thoughts
If you loved Horizon Zero Dawn, then Horizon Forbidden West is the sequel you've been waiting for. It is a bigger and bolder experience than its predecessor in every way. It continues Guerilla Games' talent for making believable and interesting environments as well as continuing Aloy's adventures. While the core gameplay and story don't exactly push the envelope, the world in which it all takes place is packed with challenge and delight. Check this out if you can.
TechRaptor reviewed Horizon Forbidden West of PlayStation 5 with a copy provided by the publisher. The game is also available on PlayStation 4.
- Impressive, Imaginative Open World Design
- Well-Designed, Thoughtfully Placed Quests and Activities
- Exciting Machine Combat
- Stale Traversal and Stealth
- Minor Story and Pacing Issues