Horizon Forbidden West - Review
I was fifteen hours into Horizon Forbidden West before I actually reached the Forbidden West. I’d promised myself I’d be focused. The plan was to concentrate on the main quests and do what I needed to grind up to the levels required for progression. But that tricksy map with its intriguing question marks kept whispering in my ear. “Don’t you want to see what’s on top of that mountain?”, “What happens if you jump into that lake?”, “It won’t take long to explore this new area, will it?”. And like a chump, I got dragged in. Just like the first time. The biggest problem with Forbidden West is that it’s basically the same as Horizon Zero Dawn, but with a few more shiny bits. But given how much I loved the first game, this didn’t turn out to be much of an issue.
I was wondering how easy it would be to step back into the furry shoes of Aloy, a Nora who saved the world from a machine-ravaged land back in 2017. Very simple, as it turns out. A tutorial with your old friend Varl reintroduces you to the basics via drip feed: sliding, jumping, shooting, using your Focus to scan the environment and so on. And as muscle memory kicks in, new elements are incorporated. A grappling hook pulls you up to protrusions in rocks and buildings. A glider lets you soar off sheer cliffs. A diving mask makes underwater expeditions more bearable (but only slightly). The additions are welcome and are so well integrated that I found myself wondering if they were actually new, or whether I’d simply forgotten about them in the last half-decade.
Something that definitely feels new is Machine Strike, a board game that is far more addictive than it should be. A simple placement of different machine pieces around a board kicks off a turn-based battle where the stats of the terrain are as important as the skills of the pieces. The goal is to collect seven victory points by reducing your opponent’s pieces to zero health. The complexity comes from the way you move, attack and rotate your pieces on your turn. You can ram rival pieces into each other to cause them all damage, sacrifice some of your health to take a second move with one piece, or swap an attack for an additional move. Only one of the four sides of each piece is armoured; leaving a flank exposed may prove costly. The game has echoes of Final Fantasy VIII’s Triple Triad, even to the point of collecting different figures from around the vast gaming world to use in challenges.
But this is a mere tangent, just another reason to get sucked into Forbidden West and plough hours into something trivial. It turns out the world hasn’t been fully saved and Aloy is once again called on to sort things out. Here, things are a little murkier. Players who are unfamiliar with Horizon’s lore including tribes, rituals, alliances and rivalries are likely to feel overwhelmed by the sheer density of the world-building. And those who did buy into the first game’s story are likely to feel a bit disappointed at how little it has evolved. It’s the very definition of sequelitis; a narrative that needed to grow legs in order to justify its existence, and in doing so turned into something unwieldy and — dare I say — a bit dull. A large part of your quest is running from settlement to settlement, tracking signals or leads and hunting down malevolent computer functions (no, really) that weren’t even mentioned in the first game but now are apparently calamitous if left unchecked. It’s not disappointing when taken on its own terms, it just doesn’t mesh with the first game as well as it needed to. And the new story beats aren’t all bad. A feisty human antagonist arrives on the scene relatively early on in a shocking (and beautifully shot) cutscene and adds contrast to an otherwise meandering story about rogue AI and some unwelcome sci-fi elements that feel out of place. If you’re new to the series, an extended prologue maps out the events of Zero Dawn pretty well, while your journal goes into detail about the main players involved. Playing the first title isn’t a necessity, but familiarity would certainly help navigate a huge cast of characters and their relationships.
For an open world game, exploration is both a delight and an annoyance. The map is absolutely huge and littered with the kind of interactions, quests and highlights that Ubisoft could only dream of making interesting. Yes, there is a lot of busywork but almost all of it is rewarding. The mini stories that play out add a lot more flavour than the main quest, which makes putting off completing the full story incredibly appealing. It doesn’t hurt, either, that the visuals are simply phenomenal. The vistas are saturated with colour and texture. Character animations are wonderfully realised — aside from a handful of scenes where it looks like the people are talking past rather than to each other — and the fluidity of Aloy’s movement is natural to a fault. Whether she’s barely hanging on to an outcropping or hurling herself off a rappel point, there are so many gasp-inducing moments of aesthetic joy in Forbidden West that picking a favourite is nigh-on impossible. PS5 owners with a HDR-supporting TV are in for a treat.
All of that eye-catching splendour comes at a cost, however. Even more than in the first game, your reliance on your Focus (a Bluetooth headset if it was designed by Versace) is tantamount to your progression. Sending out a search pulse will identify hotspots in your immediate vicinity, while clicking R3 sends you into full detective mode to gather clues, read data points and identify and follow tracks. All well and good, but the vividity of the surroundings often means that without this relentless Focus pulsing, you’ll stumble past chests or caches. It might be a beautiful world, but it’s bloody hard to locate a pretty box next to a pretty stream in a pretty wood, when pretty birds and foxes are distracting you. The same goes for climbing, the challenge of which is essentially rendered moot by the Focus liberally highlighting in yellow the paths that Aloy can take to scale mountains. There is no chance of you falling to your doom if you chase that yellow wireframe — you just hold the thumbstick in the direction of the plotted points and watch her swish her way to the top. It looks beautiful but feels empty. Similarly, Aloy’s relentless commenting on anything and everything she encounters sucks any joy of discovery out of the world. This was a factor in the first game too, but here — as with everything else — it’s been scaled up. You can barely step foot in a ruin (a self-contained puzzle box with a prize at the end) without the Nora immediately telling you exactly what she needs to do to get up to a ledge. Or scan an object. Or pull down a wall. Helping out a player is one thing, but jeez, at least give me a chance to get stuck before handing me the solution on a high-definition platter. To her credit, Ashly Burch does consistently great work voicing Aloy; I just didn’t need a running commentary about every minor location, puzzle or event I came across.
Environment scanning isn’t the only thing Forbidden West cribs from the Arkham series. The new grappling hook pulls you up to hard-to-reach areas and pillars in the most Batmanny way possible. Unfortunately, that is about all it does; you can’t use it to hook onto machines or remove machine parts or literally anything else that would have made it a more worthwhile addition. Like the skill trees, of which there are now six jammed full of new movesets and upgrades, it’s part of Guerilla Games’ “throw everything at the wall” approach to its sequel. Vista points are the equivalent of Batman’s Riddler puzzles, where you’re asked to line up a map with part of the scenery to unlock a piece of historical lore. And there are jobs, errands, contracts, side quests, quests and more. Much, much more. A lot of it lands. But some of it is simply there to mask that behind the engorged map and dazzling visuals, very little has changed under the bonnet.
In some respects, that’s not a bad thing. Horizon’s ranged attack mashup of archery, slowdown and zoom is as intoxicating as it was five years ago, except now the DualSense’s haptic feedback really makes you feel like you’re working to pull that drawstring back. Loosing arrows into the eyes of robotic dinosaurs and human foes alike is ridiculously satisfying. As before, parts can be shot or hacked off machines to weaken them, just as different elemental effects can be applied from your arrows, slings, javelins and tripwires. Traps make a return as well but they are a faff to set up and only really helpful early on, or in enclosed spaces. Once you get to a high enough level it’s almost worth ignoring them entirely in favour of taking down machines from stealth — especially if you’ve bumped up that particular skill tree. The acrobatic dance of Aloy and her spear remains a spectacle, especially with the inclusion of several new machine types. Concentration is key to archery though; clicking a thumbstick to slow down time and let you pinpoint weak spots is far preferable to launching a cluster of arrows at your metal enemies, but combat overall lacks the freshness from five years ago.
That isn’t to say battles are unsatisfying. Far from it: there is so much variety in the enemies and Aloy herself that encounters rarely bore. But there are missed opportunities. In a cliff-side engagement I really wanted to be able to kick or poke a machine over the edge. While the game rigidly locked my foe to the rock and prevented me from doing so, it was quite happy to propel me off the cliff to my doom thanks to a nearby explosion. This kind of inconsistency feels odd given how much time has been spent adding to Aloy’s arsenal of moves in other ways. For instance, Valor Surges are a new in-combat boost triggered by a two-button combo that offer Aloy a bump to defence, attack, health regeneration, stealth and more, and of course, they come with their own cutscene.
Ultimately the question is whether Forbidden West offers enough to justify its existence. The punch of the first game’s unique take on the open world genre no longer applies here, after all. Much like the rebooted Tomb Raider franchise, the sequel bangs a familiar drum. Bigger, certainly. Better? In some areas, yes, but only marginally. Elsewhere, bloat has set in, diminishing what is a technically incredible piece of work. More frustratingly, the game never really wants to let go of your hand. Unlike its rivals Monster Hunter and Breath of the Wild (and even the sparse yet rewarding world of Shadow of the Colossus), Guerilla Games wants you to see everything on its terms, not yours. The quiet, epic beauty of the Red Dead Redemption games meant that there was joy found in stumbling into something that you felt few people were likely to have seen. You won’t experience that level of personal reflection here. Forbidden West ends up like an overenthusiastic tour guide marching you around a gaming Machu Picchu, pointing out every single detail and refusing to let you simply discover its beauty on your own.
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