It’s rare to see a new IP debuting as confidently and successfully as Horizon Zero Dawn did in 2017, delivering a gorgeous open world with one of the most imaginative post-apocalyptic settings and engaging stories we’ve ever experienced in a game, all built around incredible combat in ever-thrilling fights against fearsome mechanical monstrosities. Guerrilla’s RPG quickly became a fan-favourite, and was instantly cemented as one of Sony’s best and biggest gaming properties.
Following up on that kind of success is no easy task, as we’ve seen in video games no few times over the years, and Guerrilla’s sequel Horizon Forbidden West has massive expectations to live up to. But the game doesn’t buckle under that pressure, nor does that pressure blunt the ambition and drive that its predecessor had. Instead, Horizon Forbidden West is the ideal sequel- one that goes bigger in every way. It improves upon Zero Dawn’s deficiencies, doubles down on its strengths, and while doing all this, it never forgets the one crucial thing that ambitious open world games so often forget- that even though going bigger is great, quality is always better than quantity.
"Horizon Forbidden West is the ideal sequel- one that goes bigger in every way. It improves upon Zero Dawn’s deficiencies, doubles down on its strengths, and while doing all this, it never forgets the one crucial thing that ambitious open world games so often forget- that even though going bigger is great, quality is always better than quantity."
Set several months after the events of the first game, Horizon Forbidden West sees Aloy continuing to travel through post-post-apocalyptic United States. Though the threat of HADES and the Eclipse has been dealt with, the former Nora outcast knows that the Zero Dawn terraforming system that once reshaped the world is running haywire, resulting in a blight that’s affecting everything from the flora and fauna to water bodies, and even causing dangerous and unexpected storms. Aloy’s quest to find out what’s going on and how it can be fixed takes her into the titular Forbidden West, and during the course of her journey, she continues to uncover startling revelations about the mysteries of the Old World while facing new threats.
Like Zero Dawn, Forbidden West’s story revolves heavily around raising tantalizing questions about that distant past, and the answers that the game delivers as it ramps up towards its climax feel suitably momentous, thanks in no small part to the way it delivers them. It builds on the first game’s story in exciting and often unexpected ways, and more importantly, sets up some really interesting things for the future. To say anything more about them would be treading a little too close to spoiler territory- but suffice it to say that if you loved Horizon Zero Dawn for how expertly it spun up a web of mysteries and shocking revelations about the world before it was destroyed by machines, you won’t be disappointed in its sequel.
Of course, in Horizon, the pre-apocalypse events are only one half of the experience- the story of Aloy, the characters she meets, the tribes that populate the world as it exists now, and the conflicts between them form the second pillar that this series stands on. And though in Zero Dawn the Old World side of things easily outshone the present-day story, things aren’t skewed quite as disproportionately in Forbidden West. In the Utaru and the Tenakth, Horizon Forbidden West introduces fascinating new tribes that take center stage in the story, and learning more about their cultures, histories, and conflicts quickly becomes a crucial part of the experience. All of this is driven through an excellent cast of characters, which consists of both familiar faces from Zero Dawn and new introductions who quickly cement themselves as memorable parts of Aloy’s story.
"In the Utaru and the Tenakth, Horizon Forbidden West introduces fascinating new tribes that take center stage in the story, and learning more about their cultures, histories, and conflicts quickly becomes a crucial part of the experience. All of this is driven through an excellent cast of characters, which consists of both familiar faces from Zero Dawn and new introductions who quickly cement themselves as memorable parts of Aloy’s story."
In fact, the narrative strength of the present-day tribal denizens of Horizon Forbidden West’s world props up other aspects of the game as well- such as its open world, which is another shining highlight of the experience. Pacing can be a tricky thing to get right in most games, open world games especially, but Guerrilla has paced this adventure perfectly. From beginning to end, Horizon Forbidden West masterfully takes Aloy from one scenic location to the next, and you get to see some stunning vistas throughout this adventure.
More than a few times, I caught myself marveling at the beautiful sights of the game’s world, and each time, I grew more excited about what it would show me next- a desert where red sandstorms kick up twisters of sand amidst tidal dunes, an old battlefield in an arid landscape with crumbling remains of civilization and ruined machines, a lone Tallneck roaming in the distance amidst a canopy of trees, a bustling settlement of bridges and gardens built in the remains of ancient satellite dishes, an ancient and sprawling underwater city that’s hauntingly frozen in time. Horizon Forbidden West’s world is littered with such breathtaking sights of sweeping beauty, each of them a testament to the peerless creativity and mastery that went into bringing them to life.
From snow-capped mountains to swampy marshlands to dense forests, the game’s world exhibits excellent variety in its design, and in spite of its impressive size, with the exception of a few settlements looking too similar to each other, every part of the map feels lovingly handcrafted, with its own unique vibe and story. And the pace at which the game takes you through all of this is hugely responsible for why it never overstays its welcome, even though it’s notably longer than its predecessor- because it always feels like it’s got more up its sleeve. That’s a lesson that more open world games could stand to heed.
"Horizon Forbidden West’s world is littered with breathtaking sights of sweeping beauty, each of them a testament to the peerless creativity and mastery that went into bringing them to life."
All of that is brought to life by Forbidden West’s gorgeous visuals, which combine stunning art, impressive tech, and an obsessive level of attention to detail to create one of the most beautiful games I’ve played in recent memory. There are a few superficial technical issues here and there – like pop-in, objects or textures taking a little too long to load, some weird facial animations during some conversations – and though they’re not awfully frequent, they do happen often enough to be noticeable. Even so, the overwhelming visual splendor of the game on both artistic and technical levels never fails to impress.
Exploring this world is constantly enjoyable as well, which is one of several ways Horizon Forbidden West feels like a marked improvement over Zero Dawn. For starters, movement is a lot faster and more fluid. In addition to riding on machine mounts, a few hours into the game, you also get access to the Shieldwing, a new tool that essentially functions as a paraglider, allowing you to jump from heights and soar across distances. Its usage is not nearly as emphasized as, say, the paraglider in Breath of the Wild, but it still feels like a valuable addition. Jumping from a great height and gliding across gorgeous landscapes never fails to impress.
In addition to the Shieldwing, climbing has been improved as well. Rather than the strictly defined and excessively linear handholds and footholds that made up Zero Dawn’s climbing, Forbidden West instead blows things wide open (at least compared to the first game) for climbing that feels much more similar to Assassin’s Creed, and offers far greater freedom of movement. Meanwhile, with the Pullcaster, Aloy also has a grappling hook that she can use to reach prescribed distant ledges, or pull apart blockages in her path.
"Simply moving through the world of Horizon Forbidden West is far more enjoyable than it was in Zero Dawn."
Collectively, these new tools and abilities certainly make for marked improvements. Simply moving through the world of Horizon Forbidden West is far more enjoyable than it was in Zero Dawn. Movement does still tend to be a little stuff at times though- like Aloy taking a bit too long to jump from handhold to handhold, not climbing in the direction you want her to, or coming to a dead stop while sprinting as soon as she touches a log on the ground. Little things like these are by no means major issues, but they happen frequently enough to become a recurring annoyance.
Thankfully, you’ll be more than happy to overlook those annoyances just so you can engage with the incredible content that Horizon Forbidden West is brimming with. I’ve already spoken about the captivating tale the game spins, but it’s not just the main quests that shine- the side quests and optional activities here are just as impressive. Some of the game’s best characters and storylines are found in its many side quests, offering insights into the cultures of the tribes, intimate stories centered around specific characters, interactions with memorable personalities, and more. More importantly, there’s an impressive variety in all the content the game has to offer, so that there’s always something interesting vying for your attention. It never feels like the game or its world are running out of steam.
What’s truly impressive about Forbidden West’s optional content, however, is that the overwhelming majority of it is more narratively rich than you’d expect. That’s to be expected from major side quests in a game such as this one, but even other activities that most open world games would repurpose and reuse ad nauseum to pad out the experience feel distinct and handcrafted in Forbidden West, each adding stakes and weight to the proceedings through storytelling to varying degrees. Yes, you’ll be clearing out a lot of enemy outposts, but a lot of them often come with their own little bits of story. Yes, there are collectible quests that span large swathes of the map, but each one of those collectibles comes with its own tale or unique reward. Horizon Forbidden West staves off the inherent repetition of these open world activities by rewarding you for engaging with them with something more than just the mechanical joy in progressing in a mission, and that extra step goes a long way. In that respect, it’s very much cut from the same cloth as something like The Witcher 3 or Red Dead Redemption 2.
"Horizon Forbidden West staves off the inherent repetition of these open world activities by rewarding you for engaging with them with something more than just the mechanical joy in progressing in a mission, and that extra step goes a long way."
Of course, it should come as no surprise that in addition to everything I’ve mentioned so far, Horizon Forbidden West’s combat is another one of its biggest strengths. As before, the machines are the stars of the show here, with a larger, more varied and deadlier roster than in the first game, which features a solid mix of new and old beasts. Many of the former have been revealed in the lead-up to the game’s launch, from the mammoth-like Tremortusk to the serpentine Slitherfang, while many still have remained under wraps- and each and every one of them is a thing of fearsome beauty.
The machines in Horizon Forbidden West are a sight to behold, and taking them on in combat is always a rush, and whether it’s a pack of small but vicious Burrowers, a Stormbird that swoops down from the sky, or a massive Tremortusk barreling in your direction, each fight is an absolute blast. There’s an excellent core loop at play here- analyze the machines, study their components, learn about their strengths and weaknesses, and then use your full arsenal of tools and weapons to take them down. Horizon Forbidden West strengthens this core even further by adding more to it every step of the way.
The Focus is more streamlined and conveys crucial information more efficiently, the machines never fail to put up a tough fight in combat situations, and there’s much greater variety in weapons, status effects, and how you can use it all to your advantage. Different enemies and different situations call for different strategies, and adapting to it all on the fly while scrambling to switch between your weapons and crafting different types of ammo works seamlessly even in the heat of the moment. Like Zero Dawn, the combat in Forbidden West is intricate and mechanically deep, and like Zero Dawn, it strikes the perfect battle between maintaining that complexity and ensuring that it’s always fast and dynamic.
"There’s an excellent core loop at play here- analyze the machines, study their components, learn about their strengths and weaknesses, and then use your full arsenal of tools and weapons to take them down. Horizon Forbidden West strengthens this core even further by adding more to it every step of the way."
Meanwhile, melee combat – which was one of Zero Dawn’s most prominent weaknesses – sees some improvements as well, with new mechanics such as Resonator Blasts, Valor Surges, and a greater emphasis on comboing light and heavy attacks. It’s not a massive improvement by any means, but at least melee combat doesn’t feel as shallow and clunky as it was in the previous game. Ranged combat is still the heart and soul of the experience, of course, and I still only resorted to melee when I was cornered and had no other option, but rather than feeling like a glaring flaw like it did in Zero Dawn, in Forbidden West, melee combat feels like a serviceable ancillary option.
Stealth, however, doesn’t see similar improvements. Enemies aren’t quite as braindead as they so often were in the first game, and they do a better job of communicating with each other as they look for you- but it quickly becomes clear that it’s still all too easy to cheese Forbidden West’s stealth systems and exploit their disappointing limitations. Thankfully, the game is aware that stealth is not where it’s at its strongest, so it does feel less emphasized than it was in Zero Dawn.
Progression, on the other hand, is an area where the game looks to improve things radically- and for the most part, it does. There are parts of Horizon Forbidden West’s progression that work, and parts that don’t. Some of the ones in the former category aren’t surprising, because they worked in the first game. Hunting down specific machines, and often in specific ways, to gather up the materials you require for weapon and armour upgrades is a compelling loop that doesn’t ever really get boring in the slightest, and Forbidden West makes it even easier to do that by allowing you to create jobs for the materials you need for a specific upgrade and then setting it as your active quest.
"Horizon Forbidden West is an impressive achievement that improves upon its predecessor in almost all the ways that it should have, and brings together all of its strengths in a sweeping, memorable adventure."
The skill tree, meanwhile, is less successful in its efforts to expand upon Zero Dawn. Mind you, it’s not unsuccessful- there are six different skill trees in Horizon Forbidden West, each allowing you to upgrade Aloy’s abilities in different ways, which means there is automatically a much wider range of options available, especially with Valor Surges thrown into the mix in each skill tree as well. That said, I did feel like the skill trees collectively started running out of steam at about the halfway point in the game. By that time, I’d come to realize that there were far too few unlocks that I felt could be truly useful in any meaningful way, and felt that I was spending my skill points on mostly incremental and unexciting upgrades. It doesn’t help that there’s an entire tree dedicated to melee combat- spending skill points in there just never seemed like it was worth it, given how little I used my melee, so that entire tree felt largely useless to me.
But even the progression issues are little more than a slight dip in an otherwise fantastic experience. A game needs to be truly special for it to be able to make issues such as these seem insignificant, or at least forgivable, in the grand scheme of things. Thankfully, Horizon Forbidden West is that special. I’ve spoken at length about so much of what makes this such a memorable and unique experience, but there’s still so much more than sets it apart from the crowd- so much that is best experienced first hand, and as such, is best left unspoiled. The gist, of course, remains the same- Horizon Forbidden West is an impressive achievement that improves upon its predecessor in almost all the ways that it should have, and brings together all of its strengths in a sweeping, memorable adventure.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 5.
Tells a captivating story that builds on the first game in surprising ways and sets up some exciting things for the future; Incredible world-building with the Utaru and the Tenakth; Strong cast of new and returning characters, brought to life by excellent writing and voice acting; A gorgeous, lovingly crafted open world that keeps offering up memorable new vistas; Incredible side quests and open world activities maintain an impressive level of variety and quality throughout the entirety of the experience; Movement is more enjoyable thanks to new tools and improvements; Combat remains as thrilling as ever; The Machines are as gorgeous to behold as they are fun to take on in combat; A fearsome and varied roster of machines; Melee combat has seen some improvements; Hunting machines to upgrade your weapons and armour never gets boring.
Some technical issues; Movement can be a little stiff at times; Lackluster stealth; Progression begins losing steam about 15-20 hours into the game.
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