This review contains spoilers for Horizon Zero Dawn – yes, we know it’s a five year old game but if you haven’t played it yet then considered yourself forewarned.
I FOUND myself captivated by Horizon Zero Dawn when it released in early 2017. Its combat was engaging, its expansive world was packed with mechanical beasts and challenges to partake in, and its narrative was truly fantastic.
Five years on from Horizon’s maiden voyage I’m delighted to have been able to experience the series’ next installment in the form of Horizon: Forbidden West, a journey that learns from its predecessor and provides an arguably greater and grandiose adventure.
Set just months from the conclusion of Horizon Zero Dawn, Forbidden West sees Aloy travel to the titular region in the hopes of finding a solution to the various issues that are beginning to plague the biosphere.
A plague known as the Red Blight has enveloped the land, killing crops and animals, leaving people on the brink of starvation, with chaotic storms wreaking further havoc.
Desperate to free her world from the unrest, alongside the fact that she’s the only one capable of accessing it given that she’s a clone of its creator, Aloy heads West in the hope of recovering and restoring GAIA, a powerful terraforming AI that when restored to its proper state will restore balance to the biosphere.
Given GAIA was destroyed and its subordinate functions scattered throughout the lands in Horizon Zero Dawn, this will be no easy task. The Forbidden West earnt its name for a reason, with the bloodthirsty and merciless Tenakth tribe inhabiting the region and not being a huge fan of outsiders. The Tenakth are undoubtedly powerful and scary, but an even more dangerous and mysterious collective in the region pose as Aloy’s greatest threat to date.
Even though the ever-heroic Aloy isn’t one to ask for help on her quest, she quickly amasses a handy crew consisting of allies both new and old. Familiar faces in Varl and Erend join the fight, while new friends like Utaru Gravesinger Zo and Tenakth Marshal Kotallo quickly find themselves inspired to help Aloy on her mission. The welcome mix of both old and new characters help keep things fresh, while also fleshing out the stories of likeable allies from Horizon Zero Dawn.
For obvious reasons I’m not going to reveal the pivotal moments of Forbidden West’s narrative and the epic twists and turns in which it takes, but I can say without doubt that the story it tells is terrific, continuing the rich vein of storytelling that one should expect from a Horizon game.
Bolstering what is already a fantastic narrative are the bevy of likeable and well acted characters. Aloy remains a brilliant protagonist; she’s confident and assertive, yet caring enough to help anyone in need, all of which comes through in her writing and performance by Ashly Burch.
The top-tier writing and voice acting extends through the core cast and even less notable characters in side quests. Facial animations are also vastly improved and look particularly impressive, especially when compared to its predecessor.
The way in which Forbidden West approaches its world building is also impressive and worthy of plaudits, resulting in a world that feels lived-in and has plenty of history.
Each tribe has their own detailed backstories and cultural differences that make them feel distinct from each other, which in turn makes them not only more interesting, but also the world at large.
There is plenty of optional lore to experience if you find yourself interested in the history of the Forbidden West, its people, and its neighbouring lands, all of which can be seen in dialogue and side-quests. Taking the time to learn of each tribe and their relationships with each other further strengthens the already awesome narrative.
Speaking of the world, it looks absolutely gorgeous on PlayStation 5, presenting the varied locales of the Forbidden West in glorious detail. If you want to get the best visual experience, playing in the resolution mode will be your best choice, whereas if you’re willing to forgo resolution slightly in order to get increased performance in the form of a steady 60 frames per second, then performance mode is the pick. I toggled between the two modes throughout the adventure, before settling into performance mode, where the visuals still look brilliant and the game runs satisfyingly smooth.
On the gameplay front, Horizon Forbidden West is a third person action RPG packed to the brim with a sizable selection of mechanical monsters to hunt and loot and even more quests to complete. While the core experience is very similar to that seen in Horizon Zero Dawn, Forbidden West further expands on combat and exploration in a way that sees both improved considerably.
Combat in Horizon Forbidden West largely pits Alou against a mechanical beast of some kind, forcing her to use her array of weaponry to slay the beast and loot it of its valuable parts.
The weaknesses of the machines can be highlighted all at once by analysing them with Aloy’s focus ability, displaying their elemental weaknesses as well as their weak points in the form of valuable parts that can be removed and looted if struck repeatedly. Targeting these weak points and dousing your enemies in a weapon imbued with their elemental weaknesses is your key to success. The same can be said with human enemies you encounter along the way, minus the removable mechanical parts of course.
What makes combat so addictive in Horizon Forbidden West is the fast and frantic nature of the combat, alongside the various enjoyable weapons you have at your disposal. Bows are the weapon that you will be making use of the most throughout your adventure, and accurate shooting of the bow at exposed enemy weak points will see your foes defeated far quicker than if you just pepper them with arrows. Slingshots and bombs, and throwable spears are just a few examples of other offensive weapons. Those keen on a more methodical approach will appreciate the return of the Tripcaster, a weapon that can be used to lay down wire traps powered by various elemental properties.
Levelling up and unlocking abilities present on the various available skill trees will improve Aloy’s abilities, making her more proficient in things such as melee combat, stealth and hunting with her bow. Unlocking the larger components of a skill tree will grant you access to a Valor Surge, a special ability that will buff Aloy in that given area for a short period of time. As a big fan of hunting any machine that came my way, I made use of the Ranged Master surge, an ability that lets Aloy deal increased damage with ranged weapons for a short period of time.
Combat effectiveness when using the spear is considerably improved from the previous game, with it serving as a handy weapon in combat encounters for more than just stealth and stunning purposes. It doesn’t deal a huge amount of damage and I’d still opt for using the bow or any other weapon, but it does come handy in desperate situations.
There are Melee Pits situated throughout the Forbidden West that see you use your spear and bow against human opponents, while the Arena and Hunting Grounds provide Aloy with challenges where she must combat various machines. Overall, combat in Horizon Forbidden West is a welcome improvement upon the solid groundwork established in Horizon Zero Dawn.
One of the biggest collective frustrations with Horizon Zero Dawn when it launched in 2017 was the lack of verticality in its exploration because of its underdeveloped climbing mechanics, especially when compared to that year’s The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, where players could freely scale pretty much any mountain they could find.
Horizon Forbidden West doesn’t quite exhibit that level of freedom, but it’s still a marked improvement that makes climbing far more enjoyable and open then it felt originally.
Using Aloy’s focus near structures will reveal areas in which it can be climbed, with Aloy able to scale things akin to Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed. The addition of this climbing mechanic sees the Forbidden West region exhibit far more verticality in its design than Zero Dawn, providing a greater sense of traversal and freedom.
Further aiding traversal are the Pullcaster, Shieldwing, and Diving Mask, three items that make Aloy more versatile than ever before. The Pullcaster is essentially a hookshot that allows you to hoist yourself onto specially marked hooks in the environment. This serves not only to allow Aloy to reach areas she otherwise can’t, but it can also be used to grab and pull particular metal objects such as vents, which can be accessed once torn open by the Pullcaster.
The Shieldwing, on the other hand, is Forbidden West’s answer to the paraglider seen in Breath of the Wild. When falling from a steep height, Aloy can activate the Shieldwing to safely glide down towards the surface. The Shieldwing is most useful when wanting to travel safely down from high areas such as the peak of mountains, and can also be used in conjunction with the pullcaster in a particularly satisfying fashion. There’s just something beautiful about using the Pullcaster to hoist yourself up in the air, opening up your Shieldwing to glide for a bit, and then dropping your shield for your bow and nailing an enemy with an attack.
Lastly is the Diving Mask, an item that lets Aloy breathe underwater, granting her the ability to freely traverse the seas of the Forbidden West. Aloy can swim underwater by default in Forbidden West but only for a short time initially, but the ability to traverse the depths improves dramatically once you get ahold of the Diving Mask.
Combine these new additions to the new and existing machine mounts and the already solid movement that Aloy already had, and it’s clear to see that traversal in Horizon Forbidden West is as enjoyable as I’ve seen in an open world for a fair while.
Although I’ve found myself gushing about all things Horizon Forbidden West thus far, I did have some small visual hiccups along the way; notably that the seamlessness of the experience is sometimes hindered by moments of pop-in where flora and fauna appear out of thin air.
I also had some moments where I went to loot an enemy or chest only to find myself soft locked in the animation and unable to move, although thankfully the constantly working autosave system meant that I’d only lose about a minute or two of progression at most. I was enamoured enough by the experience to not be too perturbed by these issues, but they were still annoying blemishes on what is otherwise a polished product.
While the visual errors did take me ever so slightly out of the experience, nothing else could keep me away from the brilliantly crafted world that is begging to be explored in Horizon Forbidden West.
The upgrades it makes upon Zero Dawn’s already successful and addictive formula makes for an even better adventure with an overwhelming amount of things to do, while its story succeeds on further enhancing and expanding Horizon’s fascinating and lore heavy world.
It’s also a visual marvel on the PlayStation 5 in both resolution and performance modes, and its great soundtrack further enhances the strong sense of atmosphere that the world building provides.
Horizon Forbidden West is an absolute treasure that is not only a welcome sequel to Horizon Zero Dawn, but also arguably one of the best games to grace the PlayStation 5 thus far – with a solid claim to being the best native PS5 game yet.
Written by: @GrumpyGoron