Big open world games have a unique opportunity not afforded to titles that are smaller in scope. The number of moving parts allows developers to miss with one or two things and still provide an incredible experience. The key is to create mechanics fun and engaging enough to drown out the weaker ones. Horizon Forbidden West falls directly into this category, shining brightly in ways that make its few misses seem not so bad.
Here we go again
Horizon Forbidden West is a post-apocalyptic open world game that continues Aloy’s journey. A huntress of the Nora tribe, Aloy earned the title of Brave by completing the Proving in Horizon Zero Dawn, a tournament held to test the skills of Nora adolescents. The events of the Proving became the catalyst for the story of Horizon Zero Dawn, with the High Matriarchs of the Nora tribe declaring Aloy a Seeker, someone who is allowed to explore beyond the borders of Nora land. That exploration and the events that unfolded made up the entirety of Horizon Zero Dawn, so we’ll stop there to avoid spoilers. Thankfully, Guerrilla Games has provided a handy recap tucked into the Extras menu before Horizon Forbidden West begins, so even those who didn’t partake in Aloy’s initial adventures can get caught up in short order.
Horizon Forbidden West begins with Aloy searching for GAIA, a powerful AI that was responsible for the governance of the Zero Dawn Project that predates any events found in the games. This project was a terraforming system that was designed to restore life on Earth after rogue machines began eating biological matter. When things went sideways (massive understatement), GAIA sacrificed herself for humanity. Now, Aloy and her allies must search for GAIA to stop a blight that is threatening civilization. If that sounds like a lot for one person, it is, and Aloy’s personal journey running parallel to the overarching narrative includes grappling with that weight and the lofty expectations she puts on herself simultaneously.
Once players set foot in the world, those that played Horizon Zero Dawn will feel a familiar gameplay loop in Horizon Forbidden West. This is not a reset of the systems, but rather an evolution. Aloy can still hide in tall grass to evade enemies or confront them head on with her spear, but both combat and exploration take steps forward thanks to gadgets like the Diving Mask or Gliderwing, and weapons like the Spike Thrower and Shredder Gauntlet. The Spike Thrower became a personal favorite because it's essentially a spear you throw that can do massive damage. It's a great way to get out to an early lead in a boss fight. These additions are all a success, delivering a fantastic experience that persists through the entirety of Horizon Forbidden West.
Rip and tear
From new gadgets that make exploration and combat more unique, to the skill tree expansion and introduction of Valor Surges, Horizon Forbidden West's gameplay is its greatest strength. I was heavily invested in hunting down machines for parts to upgrade my gear or skill points to unlock new abilities. The more I experimented, the more I realized that Horizon Forbidden West had considerable depth to its combat. At first, it feels like you’re just whacking machines with a stick until they topple, but soon you’re chaining attacks together and overwhelming your foes with speed and damage.
It all starts with a skill tree that includes six branches: Warrior, Trapper, Hunter, Survivor, Infiltrator, and Machine Master. You can lean into one or two heavily or split your skill points by picking and choosing bits and pieces of each. If you invest in the right skills in a specific branch, you’ll unlock a Valor Surge that reflects that branch’s theme. Being a stealth player who enjoys the Hunter Bow and Spike Thrower, I dug into Hunter and Infiltrator. My go-to Valor Surge was called Stealth Stalker, allowing me to cloak and navigate tricky areas without being seen. These Valor Surges can be swapped in and out as required, so I’d swap the Stealth Stalker for Ranged Master to do massive damage with ranged weapons ahead of boss fights.
This is how Horizon Forbidden West builds a satisfying gameplay loop. As you learn how different weapons and skills can be effective against various machines, you begin chasing those items. Any time I saw a vendor who sells weapons, I was dropping everything to browse their stock. When I found an item I wanted, I’d either buy it or create a Job (a self-created quest to locate needed resources to purchase or upgrade an item) to find the parts to buy it. This pushed me into the world to get those components, and along the path I’d inevitably discover a Cauldron to clear, Relic Ruin to explore, or Tallneck to climb. I’d run into new machines that pose different challenges, encouraging me to unlock new skills and buy more gear to deal with these new threats. It’s a rewarding cycle that never felt like a grind, but the one thing I wanted was a way to reset the skill tree. If it’s in the game, I haven’t found it, and there are certainly some skills I’d pass on in favor of others a second time around. Thankfully, you're swimming in skill points, so resetting the tree isn't crucial.
This core gameplay loop is reinforced by some nifty additions, like Food Boosts obtained by purchasing meals from chefs found at various settlements throughout the world, or environmental traps capable of dealing big damage to big foes. Most of these can be ignored on lower difficulties if you just want to hit the big machine with the big stick, but the payoff is fantastic if you properly prepare for a fight and execute your strategy. I particularly enjoyed the moments before fighting a Cauldron boss, studying the machine and going through my inventory to find the right weapons and elements. Cauldron's are dungeon-like locations that Aloy can unseal. You'll typically work your way through a jumping puzzle of sorts, then fight a boss at the end. The reward is not only machine components, but also the ability to override a new machine and possibly mount it.
Riding a machine makes traversal of the world much easier, and there is a lot of world to see and many things to do. You'll find yourself grabbing all sorts of collectibles, playing the new Strike mini game, and even partaking in races. There are activities around every corner, but none are forced on you. Feel free to dive into the things you enjoy and pass on the ones you don't. Horizon Forbidden West offers a plethora of content, but lets you pick and choose between it. If you are someone looking to see and do everything, expect to spend north of 70 hours in Horizon Forbidden West, and that's probably on the low end of estimates.
A noble pursuit
Where I’m hot and cold with Horizon Forbidden West is its narrative. I was heavily invested in the main story and Aloy’s internal struggles. It was rewarding to watch her grow with the help of friends, though seeing Aloy struggle to live up to expectations she created for herself was at times difficult. Many will relate to the way she puts personal wellbeing and growth aside because there are more important matters at hand. Many of us ignore our own needs for what we perceive as the greater good, and in Aloy’s case the greater good is the survival of humanity. Point for Aloy.
Where I fell off with my narrative interest was with random quest givers in the world. I thought Aloy’s immediate group of friends and allies all had interesting motives and asks, but once you get into the random population and tribes, the motive is mostly pure survival. Look, it’s as basic as it gets. It’s literally the core motive of every species that’s ever existed. It’s also not very interesting from one character to the next. In Horizon Forbidden West, I played main story missions because they were interesting, but I completed side quests for skill points and gear. The redeeming detail is that side quests include combat with machines comprised of components you want. They reward skill points that further your build and reward XP to level up. The tasks themselves are often interesting, I just didn’t really care about most of the characters asking for help.
My hope is that everyone gets a chance to play Horizon Forbidden West on a PS5 with a 4K display. Guerrilla Games has created a breathtaking world. Whether it’s a quiet moment looking at the clear night sky, or a trek through snowy mountains, Horizon Forbidden West is a shining example of what the PS5 can accomplish with graphics, not unlike 2021's Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart. My experience was smoother when set to Performance (high frame rate) instead of Resolution (consistent resolution), so take note in case that setting matters to you. I didn’t notice dips in resolution when I was set to Performance.
The one visual downfall of Horizon Forbidden West is that it does not include color blind settings, which is a major oversight for a game that uses color to differentiate between components on machines that can be individually targeted. It’s perplexing given the effort put into accessibility, as Horizon Forbidden West includes custom difficulty options, co-pilot mode, button mapping, and settings to tweak the experience to very specific needs. I don’t know how many times I didn’t target a component vulnerable to chain reaction because I couldn’t tell which part it was. I would often opt for tear damage on larger components that I could see. Some of this was alleviated with combat experience, but color blind options are needed here.
Being color blind meant that I often had to get very close to machines to differentiate their components, but there was a silver lining to this. The closer I was to machines, the more I found myself admiring the subtle beep and boop sounds they make as they go about their business. It almost gives a peaceful personality to machines that can turn violent in an instant. It’s also helpful to hear their telltale sounds over the crest of a hill, giving you the advantage over what lies ahead.
Horizon Forbidden West does a masterful job with its sound across the board, including wonderful performances by its actors. Ashly Burch is fantastic, but so is a supporting cast that includes Angela Bassett, Lance Reddick, Carrie-Anne-Moss, Noshir Dalal, and more. Their performances are backed up by music that complements gameplay, building tension as you explore a Cauldron, only to fade after you defeat its boss. It’s not a new mechanic by any means, but I still love how tense music fades when the battle is over, letting you know that you can exhale.
Until next time
Horizon Forbidden West is an ambitious game that builds off the strengths of its predecessor in almost every way. The world is a more interesting place to spend time, the combat has evolved, and the visuals have taken leaps that exceeded my expectations even with the generation jump in hardware. It’s a shame that outside of the core cast there is a depth lacking for most of the characters, and leaving color blind options out of a game that uses color in its mechanics is a miss on otherwise great accessibility options. What I can’t let go of, though, is just how good Horizon Forbidden West is everywhere else. I need to find all the weapons. I must unlock all the skills. I’ve got to know what’s in those Relic Ruins or solve the puzzle and defeat the boss in the Cauldron. Horizon Forbidden West is absurdly good in so many ways that it borders on must-play for open world aficionados.
This review is based on a PS5 digital download code provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment. Horizon Forbidden West is set to release on PS4 and PS5 on February 18, 2022.
Horizon Forbidden West
- Gorgeous on the PS5 in 4K
- Satisfying gameplay loop
- Fantastic acting by the game's cast
- New weapons and gadgets are fun
- World is begging to be explored
- Valor Surges are a cool addition
- Can't reset the skill tree
- Some quest givers are boring
- No color blind settings
Bill Lavoy posted a new article, Horizon Forbidden West review: Big machine
LFG BAYBEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE. Sadly I’ll be at work when it unlocks, but I’ve got a meal prepped for when I get home so it’s gonna be:
Microwave my dinner > hop in the shower > dress, eat, do my homework and make some tea > Go Time.
I wish I didn't have to wait until Friday to play! :)
Why did this have to come out so close to Eldin Ring
yup, I’m skipping this until I’m done with the Ring
Fantastic review, I can't wait to check this game out on the 18th!
This game drops again during another monster title's release. Last time it was against BOTW. Sorry, gotta go Elden ring.
No color blind mode is just bad.