Horizon Forbidden West has had a lot of weighty expectations to bear on its shoulders. Fans of 2017’s Horizon Zero Dawn looked at Guerrilla to offer a tantalizing follow-up to the ambitious open-world game. Five years in the making and serving as another bridge between console generations, Horizon Forbidden West needed to be a game to delight players across both PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5.
My time playing Horizon Zero Dawn in 2017 was somewhat tumultuous. I made the mistake of balancing the brand new IP with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. To the detriment of my time with Aloy and the post-apocalyptic world around her, I found myself struggling to connect with the characters and mechanics. In contrast, Forbidden West’s story by and large was the most compelling aspect of the game and drew me through to the credits. Here, I found myself with complete tunnel vision, growing closer to Aloy across a 50+ hour playthrough and rooting for her to overcome obstacles I was not prepared for.
As a follow-up to a prestigious title, Horizon Forbidden West succeeded on many fronts. It provided nail-biting tension as Aloy battled against powerful, ferocious machines. The narrative scale is ratcheted up to 11 and brought forth surprising new elements that respected the lore of its predecessor. Guerilla has also developed a cross-gen title that brought no concessions to the player experience on PlayStation 5. I was consistently shocked by how well the team had managed to serve two console generations while raising the bar on in-game lighting and atmosphere.
Rise above our ruin
Horizon Forbidden West picks up soon after The Frozen Wilds DLC. Aloy travels across the country to the Forbidden West in search of Sylens, who has trapped HADES, a subsystem of GAIA. In hope of kickstarting the healing process of earth and eradicating the machine threat, Aloy must find Sylens and a backup of GAIA.
The Forbidden West is uncharted territory for our Nora outcast. It is largely dominated by Tanakth, who is under siege drawn by a rebellion group. The sprawling area covers the overgrown ruins of Nevada, California, and Utah. The dichotomy between primitive tribes and futuristic technology is once again shown off in such a beautiful and compelling way. Aloy is much savvier about the Old World and what the remaining population can learn.
As a whole, Aloy is shuttered and finds solace in isolation. Yet, new alliances are formed and a family is built around her. The companions Aloy meets across her journey bring such spirit to the game. I found myself cheering alongside their victories, and heartbroken by their defeats. Ashley Burch once again doesn’t back down at any point while playing Aloy, delivering a complex and likable protagonist. There’s a certain grit to the character, but she shows a ton of compassion throughout the game too.
Horizon Forbidden West reached far beyond my preconceived expectations of where the story might go. I was certain we’d receive a clear-cut continuation of the narrative. However, we’re instead given several new moments of inciting incidences that build into a wider story. My curiosity was once again peaked. I couldn’t wait to unravel what was ahead of me: an ambitious story that paid off in full by the time credits rolled.
A straight shooter
Guerrilla chose not to reinvent the wheel when it came to the core gameplay loop, and for good reason. The thrill of drawing a rudimentary bow against a thrashing futuristic mechanical creature hasn’t worn off. Horizon Forbidden West does offer some new weapons and elemental damage types to sink your teeth into. However, the hunt is still very much the familiar dance of scanning each enemy, discovering their weaknesses, and using your arsenal to defeat them.
Facing the machines is always tense. Whether dodging the jaws of a Snapmaw or the fiery blaze of a Bellowback, combat always kept me on the edge of my seat. There’s something so satisfying about drawing a bow back and landing a shot on the weak point of a Stormbird, seeing it come crashing down.
Horizon Forbidden West has a number of skill trees to dive into. These vary from raising your melee potential to improving your stealth, scavenging, and sharpshooting. There’s quite a lot of diversity within the skills. In my 50 hours and having reached level 40, I was only able to max out two skill trees. This left four more to round out and a good indication of the amount of side content awaiting completion.
The game offers a great selection of difficulty options. Normal felt like a very well-balanced setting… until the final enemy encounter. Pulling an age-old video game move, the difficulty spiked for no discernible reason. I was left feeling frustrated as I kept running into a wall to close out the epic journey. Rather than a satisfying show of my accumulated prowess, I had a final grind to climb through before closing the story off.
Since Zero Dawn, I’ve been enamored with the environmental design that goes into creating the overgrown remnants of a forgotten civilization. Seeing the ruins of the Golden Gate Bridge or the once bright and bustling Las Vegas Strip, I was reminded how well Guerrilla is able to create environments that resonate. Every corner of the map offers something to see. Mounts once again return, offering a way for Aloy to override certain machines and gallop with them across the map.
During her journey, Aloy offers to fight on behalf of the tribes against many adversaries. Throughout the map, you’ll find new Tallnecks to climb and clear the map’s fog of war. New Caldrons are ripe for exploration and the sheer scale of some of them left my jaw on the floor.
The major new addition to the game’s mechanics is the Pullcaster. This weapon is Aloy’s new grappling hook-like tool that allows her to scale buildings faster at times. It’s also a prime component of the puzzle-solving in the game. During activities and missions, Aloy will need to traverse using the Pullcaster. The tool is also used to pull hatches and debris to clear them.
Additionally, the Pullcaster is used to grab onto crates and move them to reach new areas. Herein lies one of the game’s few pain points. I was brought back to The Last of Us’ tedious crate puzzles. I found a lot of the puzzles in Forbidden West a chore to complete. It became too repetitive to find the crate, move it across a room, grapple to another point, and repeat.
Shooting for the stars
Leading into the launch of Horizon Forbidden West, I was admittedly a little underwhelmed that it was a cross-generation title. I feared for the concessions the team had to make to have it run on a base PlayStation 4. Those worries subsided in a record-breaking five seconds after starting the game. From the moment the game opens up, it’s clear that Horizon Forbidden West is optimized to be enjoyed to its fullest on current gen.
The Forbidden West is a marvel to look at. The Decima engine at this point has outstaged many others used in the industry. The level of detail and contrast uniquely shown throughout the world gave me pause on many occasions. I found myself in awe, staging the perfect shot in Photo Mode as the moon’s light shined through a forest. Horizon Forbidden West layers lighting and particles with deep contrast and use of color that draws you in. The desert biomes left me feeling warm. In the snowy mountains, I could almost feel the chill as the flakes gathered on Aloy’s armor.
DualSense integrations are also pretty fantastic. As I drew back the string of the Hunter’s Bow, I felt it on my index finger. The speaker also drew the sounds of tension. On a final note, loading times are also borderline nonexistent, aside from the occasional five-second wait after dying.
Horizon Forbidden West took me from someone who enjoyed the series to a bonafide fan. I’ve been enraptured by Aloy and her journey for the past two weeks. Yet, I’m still thinking about the next moment I’m able to go back. The narrative took a sublime group of characters in a direction I was not expecting and set up for a thrilling next installment should we see another sequel.
Horizon Forbidden West is a behemoth of a game on PlayStation 5. I was continuously impressed by how rich and complex the narrative could be as well as the design elements. This title raised the bar in nearly every way over its predecessor. Guerrilla tossed away the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ proverb and came in with ‘if it ain’t broke, make it better anyways.’ Even with its minor shortcomings, Horizon Forbidden West is exceptional and an early frontrunner for Game of the Year 2022.
Horizon Forbidden West is available on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5 on Feb 18, 2022.
A review copy of Horizon Forbidden West was provided by PlayStation Canada for review purposes.