Aloy’s debut adventure in 2017 captured the hearts and minds of many. Having once boldly exclaimed to my friend that Horizon Zero Dawn was an example of a “perfect and complete video game”, I think it’s fair to include myself as one of ‘many’.
I was drawn in by its likeable red-haired Huntress and her robot dinosaur-hunting escapades. Still, eventually, I stayed for the wonderfully crafted world, its unique take on sci-fi, and a young woman’s memorable journey to uncover the mysteries of an ancient world while actively seeking out her life purpose. No doubt the exquisite robot dinosaur-hunting certainly helped.
My fellow long-time PlayStation fans will remember that Horizon Zero Dawn effectively ushered in PlayStation’s modern era of crème de la crème single-player epics and started building, for what we now know as PlayStation Studios, its stellar reputation and widespread adulation. And now five years after its debut, we are continuing its story with Horizon Forbidden West.
Like a younger child with a wildly successful older sibling (20 million copies sold across PS4 and PC), Horizon Forbidden West had some big shoes to fill. Thankfully, Guerilla Games and PlayStation Studios have put on yet another dazzling game making masterclass with Aloy’s long-awaited sequel adventure.
Back to the Future
From the get-go, two things are immediately apparent. Firstly, Horizon Forbidden West is a direct sequel to the original in every sense of the term. Not only does the story pick up shortly after Zero Dawn’s epilogue, but the game also wastes no time in reacquainting players with Aloy, her abilities, and her companions. The opening mission has players diving straight back into familiar Nora Huntress territory with plenty of machine tracking, athletically scaling crumbling towering structures and another bombastic battle with killer machines. All without the tutorial meandering we’ve often come to expect in games of this ilk.
Secondly, the game is an epic of grand proportions – a statement of intent by Guerilla Games proudly proclaiming that it has no plans to take a backseat to other PlayStation powerhouses such as Naughty Dog (Uncharted, The Last of Us), Santa Monica Studio (God of War), Insomniac (Spider-man, Ratchet & Clank) or even Sucker Punch (Ghost of Tsushima).
From its opening hours, Horizon Forbidden West wows with its stunning environments and richly-detailed character designs, delights with its engrossing combat and gameplay, and delivers a level of polished storytelling and quest design that would put plenty of linear narrative adventures to shame.
Beauty in Diversity
I’m not hyperbolising when I tell you that this is one of the most beautiful games I’ve played to date. The Forbidden West is chock full of diverse locales, each giving players a full taste of their unique flavours.
One moment you’ll be trudging through a dank, murky swamp, the next you’re dodging dust tornadoes in a dry, barren desert wasteland. But, before long you’ll find yourself gliding off a frosty, snowy summit at noon (thanks to Aloy’s new paraglider, the Shieldwing), watching the blood orange sun melt into an expansive coastline at sunset, and finally pausing to stargaze amongst the sparkling constellations long into the dark of the night.
Each tribal settlement, ancient ruin, underground cavern, and machine cauldron you encounter on your journey feels handcrafted with incredible care. Constantly giving you something new to seek out and explore as you traverse across the vast open world.
Like the original, machine designs feel richly inspired with their armour patterns and lively movement animations articulating their function in this world and their threat to humans. Some of my favourites include the naughty but nasty monkey-inspired Clamberjaws, the ferocious Jurassic Park velociraptor-inspired Clawstriders, the colossal cobra-like Slitherfangs, and the monstrous stegosaurus-like Slaughterspines. The latter two in particular make Zero Dawn’s overpowering Thunderjaws (the big T-rexes) feel like children’s play toys which, in my book, is a feat all by itself.
Out in the Forbidden West, Aloy encounters plenty of new friends and foes from across a host of new and colourfully diverse tribes, including the tenacious warrior clans of the Tenakth, the spiritually-inclined farming settlements of the Utaru, and the East Asian-inspired sea-voyaging Quen.
With the introduction of each tribe, Guerilla continues to flesh out the lush world and lore of Horizon, drawing plenty of inspiration from the diversity and rich colour palette of our real world. In many ways, the more I saw of Horizon’s world, the more it felt like a celebration of the wonder and beauty of life on our very own pale blue dot.
To top it all off, the game pairs this artisanal masterclass with Naughty dog-calibre character animations that run in a buttery smooth 60fps throughout. As a result, listening to characters interact in both main and, more impressively, side quests feel akin to watching movie sequences. Yes, it looks THAT good. Everything from inflections in tone of voice, conversational hand and body gestures, and even facial micro-movements are painstakingly captured and stunningly animated to little speckle moments into a world teeming with life.
Of course, Forbidden West is a lot more than a pretty face. Built upon the solid foundations of Zero Dawn, the game brings back its engaging gameplay and combat mechanics in what is best described as a “2.0-style” update. While you’ll continue to stalk prey, set traps, and barrage enemies with volleys of arrows and Blast Sling explosives, new toys such as the Shredder Gauntlets (that shoot out boomeranging discs that power up after each successful catch) and javelin-tossing Spike Throwers provide some new, and welcome, ways to tackle foes.
More significant additions have been made in hand-to-hand combat, with Aloy now capable of learning and mastering a range of spear-based attack combos. In effect, providing sorely needed depth where the original fell flattest. Some of her moves will knock enemies out of defensive stances and others allow Aloy to leap off the torso of dazed enemies. Without getting too deep into the weeds, Aloy basically can move like water through a crowd of enemies before satisfyingly picking them off one at a time, by hand or by bow.
In addition, she can learn a variety of power surges (Valor Surges) that can temporarily enhance things like critical hit damage or elemental effects from ranged weapons, which have proven to be very handy in a pinch. And lastly, new weapon techniques like splitting shots (spreading arrows or javelins) and aerial volleys (shooting in an arched trajectory) provide a bonus ounce of combat creativity and much-needed flourish. If the combat in Zero Dawn was its greatest asset, then the evolution here has doubled in value and pays dividends on top of it.
Beyond combat, Aloy has finally learned how to rock climb since we last saw her, as most vertical surfaces (including cliffs) are now fully scalable – adding a lot more verticality throughout but especially to the game’s abundance of environmental puzzles.
This is worth noting because climbing and solving these puzzles now make up a lot more of your playtime than in Zero Dawn. As an Uncharted and Tomb Raider veteran though, I felt the climbing was serviceable but I would suggest moderating expectations in this particular facet. It’s not bad per se, but what you’re getting here is something more middle-of-the-road that’s neither the polish of Uncharted nor the freedom of Breath of the Wild and Genshin impact.
The key to crafting an epic is excellent storytelling and Forbidden West delivers this in droves. Thick and well-paced, going deeper than before into the lore of the universe, Forbidden West packs a post-post-apocalyptic sci-fi story of delectable proportions. On one hand, exploring a prophetic meta-story of mankind’s relationship with technology, on the other hand juggling a grounded human tale about filling big shoes, struggling with expectations, and learning to rely on loved ones and allies.
Fantastic as it may be already (filled with satisfying twists and turns), the mainline story experience is substantially enriched with a helpful serving of memorable side quests and unforgettable characters.
On several occasions, I saw Aloy’s personal growth exemplified with an all-new no-bullshit attitude when dealing with arrogant pricks, and at other times I witnessed demonstrations of great empathy to uplift and support disparaged individuals – out to prove themselves and daring to be different. Each narrative thread feels uniquely its own, and the game ultimately weaves together a beautiful tapestry of deeply human stories that are bound to stir up your insides or bring a smile to your face.
Lastly, Aloy’s companions are wonderful. Facing slimmer odds than ever before, she assembles a ragtag bunch of misfits this time around. Alongside returning favourites Varl and Erend are the fiercely loyal and stoic Kotallo and the ever-so infectiously inquisitive Alva (my personal favourite), among others. Intimately involved with key story beats, some also have, what feel like Mass Effect 2-style, loyalty missions. Indeed the gang even operates out of a secret hideout where they’ll be bantering with one another and can be engaged in dialogue-wheel conversations from time to time.
It’s an homage harkening back to my good ol’ adventures on the Normandy SR2, unfortunately sans the BioWare RPG depth. A little disappointing I must say, but since I wasn’t expecting anything, to begin with, it takes little away from an otherwise stellar experience.
Horizon Forbidden West is yet another Guerilla Games masterclass in amalgamative game design. Drawing on the very best elements and pieces from many other modern adventures and polishing them to a tee. The team has built yet another enthralling experience centred around a captivating living world, a tapestry of riveting stories, and bucketloads of machine hunting.
While Forbidden West is undoubtedly among the best-in-class and stands on the shoulders of many giants, it feels like every time Horizon shows up with the best of what we’ve seen in gaming so far, it is immediately overshadowed by genre-defining masterpieces. Notably, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild in 2017 (released in the same week as Zero Dawn), and now Elden Ring in 2022 (released in the same week as Forbidden West). Just can’t seem to catch a break.
One can only hope that perhaps like their bold, flame-haired heroine, the threequel will see the series finally emerge from the imposing shadows of the Old Ones and forge its very own path to greatness.
Screenshots were taken on a PlayStation 5. Additional visuals courtesy of Sony Interactive Entertainment.