Horizon Forbidden West Review
Horizon Forbidden West, the long-awaited sequel to Horizon Zero Dawn is nearly upon us. After 5 years and an unfortunate delay that saw the title get pushed back to this year, Aloy is finally back and ready to take players on a perilous journey to the Forbidden West.
One thing that weighs on our minds is how exactly do you follow up on something as successful as Horizon Zero Dawn, recently revealed to have sold over 20 million copies over its lifetime. What does Guerrilla Games add to such a triumph that can equal or surpass its scale and gameplay that will make Horizon Forbidden West worthy of a nod as one of the best games of this year?
A lot, it seems.
Horizon Forbidden West dares to elevate the experience to heights that are reserved for Sunwings, and it does, for the most part.
New Friends, New Foes
Six months have passed since the events of Horizon Zero Dawn, and Aloy is now on a race against time to reconstruct GAIA, the AI responsible for terraforming the Earth, as the planet borders on the point of no return to extinction. All her answers lie in the Forbidden West, a dangerous terrain ruled by the warring and bloodthirsty Tenakth Tribe.
A number of familiar faces join Aloy on her quest, as we get reintroduced to Varl, Erend, and more early on in the game. A lot of moments will feel very familiar (more on that later), but despite that, one significant improvement that will delight fans is Aloy’s overall mobility.
Harnessing all of the techniques learned from her first adventure, Aloy is a much fiercer and more knowledgeable heroine this time around, able to transition in and out of combat situations with ease. Her motions, much more fluid here in Horizon Forbidden West, translate very well on-screen as she adds a whole new dimension to her arsenal of moves thanks to two new tools in the Pullcaster and the Shieldwing.
It would be easy to dismiss the addition of these items as something minor, but the sense of verticality and the myriad of gameplay possibilities that they present are what make Horizon Forbidden West special. One minute you’re gliding in for the kill from a mountaintop and the next, you’re zipping to and from platforms while evading plasma and shock blasts, the sense of adrenaline from chaining these moves together is exhilarating and downright impressive to behold.
Melee combat has been greatly enhanced, with various combos and moves for when the situation calls for them. In the hands of a skilled player, melee combat now becomes a viable option in battling not just humans but also machines, a stark contrast from the previous outing.
Horizon Forbidden West sees the return of familiar weapons but also introduces new ones like the Spike Thrower and the Shredder Gauntlet to make things more interesting. These tools offer the player multiple ways to skin a machine, all while expanding preferred playstyles thanks to the addition of unlockable weapon-specific techniques that require weapon stamina.
The Shredder Gauntlet, in particular, is intriguing because it requires a slightly higher level of concentration and skill to maximize its potential. The weapon excels in tearing components, but you’ll have to recover the returning projectile (think of it like a boomerang) to further charge up the weapon for max effectiveness. Horizon Forbidden West is filled with these little tweaks and additions, making gameplay more dynamic and upping the skill ceiling for those wanting more.
Tying everything together are the expansive skill trees divided into specializations like Survivor, Hunter, Infiltrator, and others. Each skill tree is deep enough to boost your preferred playstyle but doesn’t necessarily restrict you to playing a certain way, giving players the freedom to choose how to go about their business in Horizon Forbidden West.
At some point, depending on how good you are, some of these skills aren’t even necessary at all, and while they help speed up the hunting process, players are not weighed down by the requirement to unlock everything.
These tools and techniques are essential to your survival in Horizon Forbidden West, but right from the start, you’ll need to understand that this is not quite the same game as before despite familiarities.
One of the biggest improvements lies in the generous addition of new machines to overcome. These beasts encompass a greater range of animals unlike the previous outing – from mammoths to giant bears, kangaroos, giant bats, and a tortoise. All of the machines in Horizon Forbidden West pose a threat that requires strategy and planning.
Aloy’s focus will now be able to extract more information from them, determining which parts are needed for key upgrades and even showing what parts get destroyed when the machine is killed, another small yet fantastic improvement in Horizon Forbidden West. Higher tiered weapon and armor upgrades will require a lot of these valuable parts and represents a sort of endgame component that will persist long after the main questline is beaten.
West Is The Way To Go
The opening hours of Horizon Forbidden West will serve as a warm-up to what awaits as you cross the border. Familiar machines like the Charger will greet you, but all-new threats like the Burrower will also give you a rude welcome. Throughout Horizon Forbidden West, there’s always this contrast of new and old, seamlessly meshing with each other that will give veteran players much to look forward to while easing in newbies to Aloy’s world.
Warming up to Horizon Forbidden West isn’t instant, taking around 5-8 hours of gameplay for things to really get going and open up. It almost gave me the wrong impression that Horizon Forbidden West would ultimately be a carbon copy of the first game, something that’s been a topic of discussion.
Upon crossing over to the Forbidden West, the game suddenly feels new, filling you with so much wonder at how the game and the world are now such a step up from Zero Dawn. The diversity of biomes in Horizon Forbidden West is staggering, showcasing multiple extremes – from a barren desert world in the morning to a neon-lit oasis at night, even from snow-capped peaks to humid swamps and even watery depths.
Horizon Forbidden West paints the dense world in beautiful detail – a land devastated by the blight but also somehow teeming with both organic and mechanical wildlife. The world is packed with flora and fauna spaced out enough to give the player room to breathe but at the same time have the next point of interest be within close striking distance, highly incentivizing straying from the beaten path.
Exploring the lands in Horizon Forbidden West is its own reward, but there are some missed opportunities with regard to aquatic traversal, or the lack thereof. Apart from swimming through and navigating the depths, there isn’t much else that Aloy can do here, and may probably be reserved for a future installment. For now, if you’re expecting grand underwater skirmishes, you have been warned.
The Journey Continues
Horizon Forbidden West is heavily reliant on its highly engaging narrative to push things forward, building upon what was foretold in Horizon Zero Dawn. The secrets and lore of Aloy’s predecessor Elisabet Sobeck is front and center, with the main quest and even up to the numerous side-quests weaving a tale that is paced well from start to finish.
Horizon Forbidden West‘s best narrative feature is how Guerrilla Games keeps the story grounded in the present. There is a clear and present danger that feels more pressing compared to Horizon Zero Dawn, where your interest was mostly focused on what befell the Old World.
Despite the looming blight, the world that Horizon Forbidden West builds is very rich in culture and lore, with enough backstory and exposition to complete the picture of the tribes that inhabit the West. Side quests serve well to supplement this, which don’t feel like they’ve been put there just to give Aloy more activities to cross off the list.
These side quests in Horizon Forbidden West are well-written and are woven so tightly into the world that every NPC encountered has a stake in the grand scheme of things. It feels like a disservice to skip these as they open up the world and the stories of every individual living in each settlement. You get the usual loot upon completion, but the story is the greater reward.
Conversations feel natural and the dialogue is excellently written – snappy and believable. Some dialogue may seem awkward no thanks to weird instances of the characters avoiding eye contact, but it doesn’t happen too often to really ruin the experience.
The supporting cast of Horizon Forbidden West is well written and is portrayed with excellent performances. Zo, Kotallo, and even Alva are charming, working well with Aloy along with legacy characters like Varl and Erend.
Horizon Forbidden West also excels in supporting the world with fantastic audio – soothing, intense, but also menacing when needed. My introduction to Plainsong with the village in chorus was just downright awe-inspiring and probably some of the best background sequences in the game. On the other hand, one of the more intimidating Tenkath villages in the Bulwark exudes a sense of foreboding, all achieved by the excellent sound design spinning in harmony with its music.
Playing in tandem with the audio is the excellent DualSense implementation found in Horizon Forbidden West. The haptic feedback during stealth sequences or wading through water feels refreshing, but more than that, the adaptive triggers are the star of the show
Guerrilla Games has seemingly improved on the usual trigger resistance implementation by adding a snap back to L2 once you fire your bow or similar weapons with “pull back” actions. Paired with haptics throughout the whole firing process, Horizon Forbidden West is one of the rare instances where the adaptive triggers may be at par or even better than haptics, and is something that really adds value to the overall experience.
The End Of The Line
Horizon Forbidden West is roughly twice as long compared to Zero Dawn in terms of the mainline story. It took us 35-40 hours to finish a standard playthrough, wrapping up the story and cleaning up a number of side quests and activities. The Platinum trophy can be achieved in about 45-50 hours, but maximizing the breadth of content may take upwards of 100 hours.
Horizon Forbidden West stumbles in some very important areas, and I felt that the revelations and payoffs to certain characters didn’t exactly land as hard as the first game, with some even feeling very anti-climactic. When you do reach the climactic portions of the first game, the shock and awe presented took the experience to a higher level, and some character reveals landed really strong that made players want to look forward to the sequel.
The same cannot be fully said of Horizon Forbidden West, as some of the later portions of the game felt too convenient and safe, not taking advantage of the build-up that led to it. In turn, the game falls a bit flat and doesn’t stick the landing as much as expected.
Horizon Forbidden West players looking for a completely new experience may be slightly disappointed, as the game runs back a majority of the side activities from the first game. The hunting grounds are back, along with uncovering parts of the map using Tallnecks, and even Cauldrons. Each of these activities are optional, but somewhat worth pursuing for the additional storylines and useful skill point rewards.
There are new activities, and players will particularly find themselves busy with the Arena and the Gauntlet Runs. The Arena gives players a chance to show off their machine hunting skills as they compete for medals to exchange for extremely powerful gear, but also to compete against hunters from around the world via global leaderboards. The gauntlet run is a racing mini-game that ties itself to another optional storyline that’s pretty fun to do for quick thrills.
Picking up valuable resources from around the world is an integral aspect that makes a return, and this may be a sore point for some because of the limits from the first game. Thankfully, Guerrilla Games made a few adjustments by adding a stash so that you can just pick up resources and gather to your heart’s content.
Playing a pre-release build of Horizon Forbidden West exposed us to some technical issues that affected the game in big ways, particularly with how the game handles loading. Pre-patch, textures would sometimes take time to load, and moving too quickly around the map can cause a quick black screen to appear which indicates a loading issue on both the PS4 and PS5.
Some animations also have clipping issues with items in the environment, often noticeable when using ladders. Aloy’s wonderful hair sometimes goes wild during cutscenes, taking on a life of its own. There’s a day one patch that addresses some items and based on our playthrough, Guerrilla seems to have hammered out the issues.
On the other hand, performance is rock-solid. Players opting to go for performance mode on the PS5 will experience a slightly noticeable loss in visual fidelity to compensate for a satisfying 60fps. Resolution mode will see almost equal use in the game, upping the visual quality to a richness that is extremely breathtaking.
What We Liked:
- Engaging narrative that builds upon the massive world set up by Horizon Zero Dawn.
- A world that truly looks alive with its massive vistas and photo-realistic character designs.
- Side quests feel like they’re part of the bigger world and are well worth your time.
- Music and sound draws you into the world and doesn’t let go.
- Improved mobility and combat that makes the action and traversal more dynamic.
- Meaningful changes and additions to where it counts the most.
What We Didn’t Like:
- It takes 5-8 hours to really get into the narrative and the world in general.
- Technical issues like texture pop in and loading hiccups (due for day one patch).
- The revelations and payoffs in Forbidden West doesn’t quite match the emotional journey of Zero Dawn.
- Some new activities like the vista points are hugely unnecessary.
- The game doesn’t quite stick the landing.
Verdict: Buy it!
Horizon Forbidden West successfully builds on the lore and story of Horizon Zero Dawn, bringing to life a world that offers exploration as a reward of its own. The vast lands are breathtaking, paired with photo-realistic designs and an epic soundtrack to boot, Aloy’s continued adventures are dazzling, to say the least.
The sequel doesn’t deviate too much from Zero Dawn’s formula, bringing back a lot of activities and features. Guerrilla Games simply expands on this, adding small tweaks and meaningful changes to where it counts the most – melee combat, traversal, machine variety, and much more. Side quests are more relevant, weaving an interconnected story that opens up your understanding of the world at large and the fictional culture of the tribes encountered.
While some parts of the sequel fall flat compared to the reveals and revelations of the first game, the sequel still provides a satisfying, albeit safe and convenient, payoff as you wrap things up. There’s more than enough here for everyone, whether first-time players or returning hunters.
There is a magnificence to Horizon Forbidden West, and despite being bogged down by some questionable choices and decisions, the game is another masterful display of talent from Guerrilla Games and quite possibly, a strong contender for Game of the Year.
*Horizon Forbidden West was reviewed on a PS5 with a review code provided by the publisher.