Horizon Forbidden West Review: "Enraptured Me And Took Me For A Wild Ride"
As they say, there is no accounting for taste. I didn't really care for Horizon Zero Dawn, although it's tricky to define the reason. It was a perfectly okay game with yet another open world full of things to pick up and boxes to tick. While it's almost universally loved as one of the best PlayStation exclusives and many people say it was a formative title for them, it made me reconsider giving Horizon Forbidden West a chance. I'm so glad I did.
A West Side Story
Horizon Forbidden West is a direct follow-on from the events of the previous game. Set six months later, Aloy has spent the time in-between travelling the world, searching for a solution to a new emerging threat. A plague has swept across the land, choking both flora and fauna, which means crops are spoiling and animals are dying. Left unchecked, this blight will destroy all life on Earth and only Aloy, with her understanding of old-world technology, can hope to stop it.
Aloy’s plan is to find a backup copy of GAIA, the AI designed to manage the world’s ecosystem. Since GAIA self-destructed, her subroutines have run amok, hence the aggressive killer machines and the technological plague destroying the world. Her search for the AI eventually takes her to the Forbidden West, a land that is home to hostile tribes, especially to those coming from the east. Aloy must manoeuvre through the modern politics of tribal diplomacy while ultimately seeking out ancient technology to save a world that does not understand the threat it faces.
This is the core of the story, a base from which Horizon Forbidden West launches into an epic science fiction tale. It is unfettered in its hard sci-fi aspirations and it goes so much further than expected, making the story one of the shining beacons when it comes to the complete package. There will be no major spoilers of the plot here, but to say the plot escalates is an understatement. It is the best kind of sci-fi, the kind that has you questioning just how far this could go as new barriers are broken and more is revealed.
- Want to learn more about Aloy's new tricks? Read our guide to the Horizon Forbidden West Valor Surges.
A Hunter Of Man And Machine
Combat is much the same affair as it was in Horizon Zero Dawn, with a few additions. Your core weaponry is still a blend of bow-based ranged weapons and your trusty spear at your side because Aloy is a hunter, and for the most part, you will play that role in combat. Stalk your prey from the long grass, scan machines to find weaknesses, then strike only when you have the upper hand. Burn machines that are susceptible to fire, corrode those weak to acid attacks, then use new abilities like Valor Surges to give yourself a boost to damage or healing. Fight smart, not hard… for the most part.
This is where Horizon Forbidden West hits its first snag. Not all fights are yours to control, because sometimes you'll find yourself in situations where you're at an evident disadvantage. A particularly big machine or boss fight can feel long and drawn out if you don’t have the exact tools for the job. For the most part this frustration can be mitigated by being prepared, as a hunter should, but you can't always have the upper hand.
Simply put, there’s no way to be stuck in the middle of several rampaging robots and have a good time. Getting knocked over, spending an eternity standing back up only to be sent flying again, repeat ad infinitum, can only happen for so long before you need to put the controller down for a few minutes. All the while, you're dealing so little damage because you don’t have the right tools, you may as well be tickling the enemy into submission.
This is a combat system that swings so wildly between immensely satisfying and mind-numbingly aggravating. Ultimately though, satisfaction wins out, at least enough to give the combat much more praise than criticism. That said, we must criticise what we love and Horizon Forbidden West has a ways to go to iron out the creases still kinking the mostly smooth combat.
- Not sure where to find the arena? Our Horizon Forbidden West arena guide explains all.
What A Pretty Apocalypse
The leap forward from Zero Dawn to Forbidden West doesn't look quite as impressive on the face of it, but that's largely down to how ahead of its time the first game was. Forbidden West is the true embodiment of a PS5 game, running at a smooth 60fps and looking utterly gorgeous to boot.
The most impressive thing here are the load times though, because this massive, detailed open-world game has practically no downtime, with load speeds hitting a few seconds at most. Whether starting the game up or fast travelling huge distances, loading is almost instant. Using fast travel to go from one end of the map to the other took five and a half seconds… the future is truly here.
Modern graphics and impressive technology are all well and good, but art style is what you need to make a game memorable and gorgeous. Horizon Forbidden West has this in abundance. Fittingly for an experience so focused on the environment, there has never been such biodiversity in a single game. Aloy's journey will take her through snowy mountains and highlands to arid deserts, dense jungles, swampy lowlands, and stunning coastlands. The landscape is then dotted with ancient ruins from our time, as well as futuristic facilities. There is almost too much to see in the Forbidden West, a nearly never-ending game for explorers.
- The Horizon Forbidden West Melee Pits are a great place to test your skills, and we've got all you need to know.
One of the key themes is how Aloy has to confront her place in this world. Where the first game was about Aloy learning about herself, now she must embrace the role of saviour, for good or ill. This is a difficult struggle for her, to go from shunned outcast to one of the most famous and influential people in the region. Seeing her learn to accept her role is a big part of the progression of the story, and one of the most interesting.
Luckily, Aloy does not have to do this alone. She will meet many people on her adventure and this time she makes a few more friends. Taking more from its RPG side, Horizon Forbidden West has Aloy eventually surround herself with allies who gather in their mountain base. You can chat with them, play games with them and even take on sidequests with them. This likeable bunch of characters help to flesh out the plot with some well-needed humanity. It’s a group you'll want to spend as much time as possible with thanks to how well written and casted they are.
Aloy was already an interesting character coming into the second game in the franchise and this time she must take on even greater responsibility, but also learn to manage it. She lives in two worlds now: the world of the past where she must concern herself with machines, AI systems, and saving the world, and the present where she must deal with tribal politics and the people around her who don’t understand the things she must do to save them.
Throughout the story, she can get caught up in either world. She gets frustrated with modern nonsense getting in the way of her seeking out solutions to the deadly problems no one but her understands. Likewise, she finds herself empathising with those around her, trying to help in situations that are not at all her problem to deal with.
Watching her go from struggling with all of these conflicting issues to managing it all with friends around her is a well written, enthralling narrative. Aloy is maybe the most believable and well-realised hero in all of gaming, and that is a credit both to the writers of the game and Ashly Burch, who portrays Aloy to perfection.
Horizon Forbidden West is an exceptional game. Its greatest pitfall is that the combat isn’t always great and while it's immensely satisfying most of the time, those moments of frustration cannot be ignored. For those looking to get lost in exploring a beautiful landscape, this may be the greatest open-world ever made. The writing is world-class, both on a personal character level and in its grander sci-fi scope. Where the first game washed over me as just another open-world game, Horizon Forbidden West enraptured me and took me for a wild ride I did not expect at all.
Reviewed on PS5. Code provided by the publisher.