Horizon Forbidden West Review
Developer: Guerilla Games | Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment | Genre: Action, Adventure | Platform: PlayStation 4/5, Microsoft Windows | Reviewed on: PlayStation 5
Five years after Aloy became one of PlayStation’s modern icons, Guerilla Games is ready to show audiences that their hero’s thrilling hunt still has more to offer. Even in the face of a lack of innovation, Horizon Forbidden West properly articulates a fantastic open-world sequel that accommodates the response of its predecessor. While it may contain some of the same problems as its PlayStation 4 hit predecessor, Forbidden West builds upon Zero Dawn’s foundation by offering a true next-generation experience with a refined follow-up to Aloy’s original story. The Nora Tribe hero’s endeavors into the west beautifully go off without a hitch as Horizon’s second entry suffers only minor setbacks under a manipulable journey.
Between balancing a heavy narrative, further exploring its deep combat system, and establishing a fresh open world blooming with sheer beauty and opportunity, Horizon Forbidden West never falls flat when catering to everything it wants to be. While it may not be the most groundbreaking experience for Sony’s newest console generation, it truly is the action-packed refined sequel that fans of Zero Dawn and its DLC expansion have been anticipating. Guerilla Games is ushering itself into the next generation of PlayStation with what they know best; big setpieces, heartfelt characters, incredible designs, and more than enough to keep players busy as they gawk at one of gaming’s most visually immersive atmospheres yet.
An Even Bigger Bow
Without giving away any details, set after Aloy’s confrontation with the destructive sub-function known as HADES, Horizon Forbidden West picks up with our hero a few months into her latest endeavors to save all life on earth from another potential extinction. However, little does Aloy know that her world is about to catapult in scale as she discovers the truth behind the planet’s apocalyptic history when a group of mysterious invaders arrives in the Forbidden West. By traveling to the gloomy western landscape of America, Aloy must seek out her newest threat while solving the problems of her seemingly primitive allies and enemies who harken back to the ancient ways of tribal history.
Like Horizon Zero Dawn, the narrative does come with its share of negatives depending on how players engage with its optional scenarios, however, no viewer can discount how well articulated the core story of Forbidden West is. Those who are looking for a deep mythology will be exhilarated by Forbidden West’s excess amount of dialogue and optional conversations. As to be expected with a game upholding the structure of optional conversations, the one main problem with the storytelling in Forbidden West that has been carried over from Zero Dawn is how intricate things can get. If you have not completed Zero Dawn, odds are you will barely be able to pick up everything going on in Forbidden West or feel any appreciation for its story–even if it may take place months later, the game really is a direct sequel that heavily coincides with the first title’s finale full of revelations.
Horizon Forbidden West takes plenty of risks as it yearns to differentiate itself from its predecessor by building upon Zero Dawn’s shocking ending. From ancient and intergalactic threats to new ways of tribalism and grounded politics, Forbidden West has its head constantly within Horizon’s growingly complicated universe. It digs into a goldmine of science fiction elements above and below primitive human groups. Whereas last time the narrative took a heavy focus on the idea of an outcast and the effects of tribalism and ritualistic beliefs on a community, Forbidden West jumps into moral and political topics to focus on a larger picture. The whole story is ultimately built upon the foundation of Aloy and Sylen’s relationship, yet it never goes for generic ideas as it quickly manages to deceive the audience with bizarre solutions that are executed well thanks to proper build-ups.
In contrast to the story that has been all-around altered in terms of scale and subject though, the gameplay of Horizon Forbidden West is more or less a refined version of Zero Dawn that accommodates for many of its criticisms and the genre’s recent developments. Offering more weapons, versatility, and combat depth, the sequel aims to fix many of the problems audiences had with the series’ debut entry. For anyone who fell in love with Aloy’s previous adventures across a handful of midwestern states and the frozen wilds, the Nora outcast’s latest journey to the west coast will feel fulfilling, familiar, and yet oddly fresh. For as strong as the story can be at its height, nothing will ever outclass the intense fights against robot animals in the Horizon series.
A Breath of Fresh Familiarity
In the vein of many other open-world games released in the last five years, the impact of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild has resonated through the games industry and is written all over Forbidden West’s early story structure and gameplay. Unlike other titles of the genre that have slapped in elements from Breath of the Wild for the sake of trying to be on par with Nintendo’s star-studded title, Forbidden West carefully utilizes its inspiration as a source to further expand upon its own gameplay loop. By incorporating and redesigning ideas that worked with Breath of the Wild, Forbidden West is able to flesh out the distinct style that Zero Dawn flaunted.
The game’s approach of being able to take on a multitude of tasks before the game’s final boss and more versatile movement gives players an open sense of freedom and challenge, even if Forbidden West is not razor-tight on decimating the player’s shackles. Unlike the hero of the wild who can defeat Ganon a million different ways, Aloy cannot climb everything–but she is able to scale far more structures than ever before. Horizon Forbidden West sticks to having players explore paths and stay within specific parameters so they are bound to encounter specific machines and characters, yet it also wants its audience to make their own decisions by deciding how they will decimate enemies, travel to an objective, and cherry-pick from an arsenal of tools and abilities.
Guerilla Games has impressively improved upon their already brilliant third-person action role-playing structure by streamlining and refining Zero Dawn’s core gameplay elements. This time around, players get far more versatility and options to tinker with as Horizon Forbidden West challenges its audience to make their own adventure–even if everyone shares the same outcome. Like Zero Dawn, combat and exploration rise above all else to become Forbidden West’s most notable element.
Aloy still has access to her bow with a slew of arrow types, different forms of traps, and the rest of Zero Dawn’s arsenal. Once again, Horizon’s action never stops from being nothing short of thrilling, intense, and flat-out entertaining as it adds more to love about its already impressive weapon combat. Between the new weapons and Valor Skills, players are given a goldmine of strategies to experiment with as they find their own rhythms and most enjoyable weapon types. On the topic of Valor Skills, there are so many upgrades and techniques to unlock via skill points, but perhaps many of them could have been incorporated into Aloy’s base moveset.
Horizon Forbidden West does a significant job of not attempting to overwhelm players with its huge skill tree system, but figuring out when and when not to unlock abilities and upgrades can be absolutely daunting–although the same can be said still for the first game and when discussing the subject of buying and selling weapons with traders for better gear. While there are plenty of new Valor Skills and weapons to write home about, it’s a shame how few players will probably get to use these features in the grand scheme of things unless they dedicate their time to grinding out sidequests and miscellaneous tasks outside the main story.
On a side note (and as a minor nitpick and compliment to the game designers), there are also notably quite a few areas of the game that contain destructible environments–the none scripted destructive aspects of boss battles will seriously have all players wishing that some of their smaller-scale battles were as engaging. For a game that utilizes this feature on all of its enemies, it is a shame that the player can not constantly disturb the environment by destroying specific structures–what is here though will certainly satisfy.
In terms of explanation, the game’s pacing feels leagues faster than its predecessor despite being infinitely more complicated in terms of technicalities. Aloy’s new gadgets such as the grapple hook and glider are immensely satisfying to use and can rapidly speed up the pacing of scaling obstacles or traversing across the Forbidden West. However, some of Zero Dawn’s mid-gameplay slowdowns are still oddly present. Picking up materials still cannot be done with a passing action and crafting materials can take quite a bit of time. For as fast as traversing is, resource gathering can still hinder the gameplay’s flow as players constantly have to stop to pick up needed items that will help replenish ammunition and health.
The one aspect of Horizon Forbidden West’s gameplay that can feel shy about taking risks and refining its formula is when the title tackles puzzle design–something that has never exactly been the strong suite of Guerilla Games but is neither a priority for the Horizon series. None of the puzzles are inherently bad or mindless, but completionists and adventurers looking for a challenge when diving into the game’s mainline missions, optional sidequests, and smaller tasks might find themselves disappointed as to how little critical thinking plays outside of the high-octane fast-footed action.
That’s Two Gorgeous Horizons For Guerilla Games
On top of it all, what Horizon Forbidden West wants to be is another critical technical showcase for Sony. Guerilla Games has done wonders with their first PlayStation 5 title (that still looks gorgeous on PlayStation 4 too) as they continue to build upon the Decima engine that spearheaded beautiful-looking last-generation titles like Horizon Zero Dawn and Kojima Productions’ Death Stranding. Saying that Horizon Forbidden West is a technical marvel would be a disservice to the sheer beauty it offers in every direction of its post-apocalyptic landscape. Even if its subject might be all doom and gloom, Aloy’s world being overrun by machines never backs down from showing anything but simultaneous peace and dread.
The graphical upgrade can even be seen in the character models and facial animation work that makes Zero Dawn look more than a half-decade old. Unlike its predecessor, few characters feel stiffly inserted into Forbidden West’s world. While the dialogue may not always be written perfectly for every character, the facial animation and motion capture often feels right at home. It never feels as if Guerilla Games was sloppily stapling together extra characters for the purpose of more sidequests to distract players. The only complaint to be had about Horizon Forbidden West’s cast is that less could have obviously been included to flesh out more of what is established–either way, the immense care for all of the developer’s characters is being shown here.
A small gripe players will have with Forbidden West’s world itself can be its ever so often shortcoming of landmarks and notable locations. Even though many of the open fields are ruled by herds of mechanical beasts, it is hard not to feel as if a future post-apocalyptic western North America could contain more distinct areas. Forbidden West’s world never feels dead and empty, but a couple more interesting structures spread out across the land certainly would not have hurt some of the game’s flatter areas–especially towards the snow-covered mountains and sand-drowned Las Vegas.
A noticeable issue all players will have with Forbidden West can be some of the technical problems that persist upon playing the game for a long period of time. Sometimes the game’s overwhelming technical scope can strangely be a hindrance to its long-term performance. Upon playing the game for multiple hours straight (with a few rest mode breaks that could have caused the issue), a noticeable framerate drop became a constant that had my PlayStation 5’s fan turning on and off. The occasional pop-in and character glitches are excusable in a game this large, but the odd playtime slowdown issue needs to be fixed as soon as Guerilla Games can solve it.
Refined, Reframed, and Revitalized, The West Has it All
Horizon Forbidden West will be a guaranteed knockout for returning fans of Guerilla Games’ original entry and a spectacular–albeit slightly confusing story-focused open world adventure for those unaware of Aloy’s prior adventure and wanting to jump in on the action. Even if it may only aim to build upon the foundation that Horizon Zero Dawn surprised critics and audiences with five years ago, Forbidden West manages to spark a revolution of its own without needing to reinvent what its predecessor accomplished. 2022 is just getting started, but PlayStation is already flaunting jaw-dropping material as they open their year with a massive bang.
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