It’s been five years since Horizon Zero Dawn? It doesn’t feel like it! But within the context of the Horizon series as a whole, it does feel like Guerrilla Games has made a lot of strides in that time: and we all get to experience those efforts with Horizon Forbidden West.
[This review contains broad spoilers for the first Horizon. No story spoilers for Horizon Forbidden West are present.]
Horizon Forbidden West (PS4, PS5 [reviewed])
Developer: Guerrilla Games
Released: February 18, 2022
Let’s make this clear: if you liked Horizon Zero Dawn, you will in all likelihood dig Forbidden West. It’s a generally bigger, bolder sequel, without giving up what made the original game resonate with so many people.
Since it’s been a while, it’s probably best if we recap the story just a bit. So Aloy is now aware of her role in the world, and how this Horizon universe came to be. We can dispense with the pageantry and most of the upfront mystery boxes. The sequel gets down to business, letting us know the stakes — the world is being corrupted unless Aloy can reenact preventative measures — and it kicks off immediately with that quest. The end of the first game presented a potential continuation of the narrative, with teases in tow, and Horizon Forbidden West delivers on that promise.
I love that we’re presented with a clear sense of urgency immediately. “People are suffering” due to the terraforming, and Aloy has a plan to stop it (which is naturally going to have some twists and turns in there): easy hook! It also goes a little further with the technological angle now that the cat is out of the bag (especially when juxtaposed to less advanced societies), and we get to see more of her personal struggle with being a messiah figure now that she’s famous. How people react to that throws a wrench in the mix beyond the macro scope of the story.
The technological/worldbuilding aspect of the narrative is not perfect, since it has to go bigger with what we already knew from the first game’s lighter touch and gradual reveal. It can get jargony and MacGuffin-ey — and there’s some cheesy dialogue choices — but it tethers all that with good character moments. It was very common for me to groan and light up in surprise in the same scene.
This is fundamentally a different Aloy, and I prefer her journey in Horizon Forbidden West. We know her well at this point, and we get to see her fully unchained, on a practical and emotional level. While the dialogue is questionable at times (mostly from an expository standpoint), this world is still worth caring about. And for all of you continuity folks out there, we also get a reason for why she doesn’t have her upgraded gear (she “ran into trouble” before the events of the game).
One thing that drew me in quickly beyond the renewed stakes was the world itself. It looks absolutely gorgeous on a PS5, and that’s due in part to the sequel’s brighter and more varied environments; the titular “west” of this universe. It all comes down to personal preference, but I found it really easy to get invested in this sequel’s aesthetic shift. It’s tough to talk about a few of the bigger areas without spoiling them, but suffice to say that a photo mode (which is included, to be clear) is a prerequisite. I’m also surprised at how well the team handled the underwater portions, which are usually a death knell in modern open-world games.
I found it easier to get more invested in Horizon Forbidden West in general, actually, as there are more things to do as a whole. And I don’t mean “more pins in the map,” in a gamification/content dump sense. But tactically and mechanically, there are more options to approach how you play the game. More traps, extra weapons and items (and status effects), it all adds up. That sense of “setting the scene” for a big confrontation, then pulling the trigger and feeling satisfied in the ruin of your enemies, it’s all back.
Gliding with the Shieldwing item (which makes open-world traversal so much better in tandem with the returning fast travel) and diving underwater with more expansive aquatic zones are huge parts of it. But there’s also more organic climbing opportunities thanks to a concerted effort to add more footholds, which make platforming that much more enjoyable from the smallest dungeon to the largest vista. Speaking of the former, underground areas tend to blend together less, as bunkers are more than just the same few types of layouts in Forbidden West.
More enemies to fight is a huge plus, as the team generally goes bigger (literally), while putting a lot of love and care into the little guys, too. Machine and human-integrated fights add a wrinkle to a ton of marquee battles, and there are a few genuine “whoa” action game moments with story fights. All of this adds up to form a more dynamic, expansive game. Horizon Forbidden West is adopting some tried and true classic open-world design philosophies, too. Crafting and gathering are back, and it’s still just as serviceable as it was before. The crafting wheel keeps things efficient, and the detective vision (Focus) still justifies itself more than a lot of other projects.
The visual feedback for the combat system makes fights a lot less frustrating, as you’ll be able to tell at a glance if something is plinking off armor, or digging into a soft spot with red and green arrows respectively; it’s not so busy that you lose track of everything. And when you get skill points like candy for trees with abilities that matter, you know you’re in for a good feedback loop. Cram in more accessibility options and you have a stew going.
That expansiveness doesn’t come at a great cost, at least in my experience. I didn’t encounter very many bugs at all: just one instance where I had to refresh an area (leave and fast travel back) to talk to an NPC to trigger a quest. But given that Horizon Forbidden West — unlike another recent open-world game involving the undead — provides tons of auto-saves by default (and the option to manually save in whatever slots you want), it’s going to be hard to get into a truly game-breaking situation.
I was worried about Horizon Forbidden West, but a few hours in a lot of my fears were eliminated. Guerrilla Games has a great handle on the open-world genre at this point, and knows how to cater to people who do like certain broader comfort-food elements without going overboard. It’s a shame that we have to wait so long between projects, but if it ensures this level of quality, I can deal.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]