Successful sequels build on their predecessors in multiple ways – think Mass Effect 2, Assassin’s Creed 2, and Uncharted 2. They all improve what came before them by conjuring up exciting new gameplay mechanics, developing characters through engaging stories, and switching up mission design to offer variety. In other words, they take a solid base and combine with new elements to create more advanced bonds, much like an alloy… or in this case, an Aloy. Horizon Forbidden West does this with aplomb, building on the already impressive foundations of 2017’s Horizon Zero Dawn to tell a thrilling story full of familiar explosive combat against elaborate robotic foes and blockbuster action sequences, but also adding Witcher-like settlements to the map and filling it out with great side quests. There’s a genuine sense of exploration and loads of completely involving lore behind it all to uncover. The result is a fantastic open-world action-adventure that, despite falling into a couple of its old habits, emphatically delivers on the promises made five years ago.
The battle between the natural and firmly unnatural is everywhere to see in the Forbidden West. It drills down through many levels to what the Horizon series is all about, from the vines strangling the remains of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge to the animal-like man-made machines that wander the land, tracing the footsteps of their long-dead creators. But this clash also takes place inside Aloy, who (spoilers for the first game) herself is a complicated combination of human and synthetic life. It’s what drives the plot along and lends a personal touch to what could be otherwise ungainly themes if handled without the obvious care that developer Guerrilla Games has put into Forbidden West.
Take the Power Back
Once again, Aloy is on a time-sensitive mission packed with mystery, not least in its characters, many of whom are firmly established in the grey area between friend or foe. Its twists and turns are numerous and had me guessing how it would turn out right until the end of Aloy’s journey. That journey isn’t a short one; my playthrough (which was done at a fairly relaxed pace that included completing a healthy amount of side missions) took around 32 hours.
Guerrilla has definitely learned a lesson this time around when it comes to finding a balance between worldbuilding and telling a coherent story. Horizon Zero Dawn tackled some big, ambitious ideas, but sometimes stumbled when it came to conveying them in an engaging way, with an over-reliance on audio and text files found in lifeless labs and abandoned offices. With the stage now firmly set, though, Forbidden West is able to confidently stride over the deep exposition potholes that Zero Dawn sometimes fell victim to, (mostly) mercifully avoiding lengthy information dumps in favour of a more elegantly told tale. While there are still a decent amount of audio logs to find, the quality of them is much improved, and more importantly, this time around all of the story’s key moments are told through engaging cutscenes that contain their fair share of character-centric drama without dwelling on it long enough to overstay their welcome.
This is still very much a hard sci-fi setting, though, and that is where the slightly weaker parts of Forbidden West’s story lay during the opening hours. Sometimes it just can’t help but stray into overlong monologues referring back to the events of Zero Dawn and the setup for the journey west, and that’s where some momentum is lost. This makes for an uneven start, but the pace promptly picks up and becomes much more engaging once a new threat is introduced and the true plot of Forbidden West comes to the fore. From here on it successfully rumbles on its way to a full-on bonkers, yet highly enjoyable ending. It’s also worth noting here that Forbidden West is very much a sequel to Zero Dawn, meaning newcomers attempting to skip the line and jump in here may feel slightly alienated by the overarching plot, though there’s still plenty to enjoy regardless.
The story’s strengths, however, far outweigh those awkward moments. It’s much stronger when focusing on the personal dramas and social and political conflicts of the Forbidden West than when satiating its fetish for rambling holograms. If Horizon Zero Dawn was about Aloy discovering a dangerous new world, Forbidden West is all about a new world discovering just how dangerous Aloy can be. After the events of Zero Dawn, she’s a living legend: worshiped by some, feared by others.
The present-day political turmoil between warring tribes paints a tense backdrop with plenty of room for great moments to play out in front of. There are some real standout missions, too: one questline involving a clumsy but loveable inventor trying to fulfill the ambitious legacy of his grandfather is a particular highpoint. It’s a perfect example of how well Aloy’s quest collides with other people’s stories to create something truly memorable.
There are fantastic character moments that are delivered with a deft touch; it’s a credit to the writers that I found myself caring so much about the fate of these people so quickly after meeting them. This goes for the actors embodying the characters, too – performances are brilliant across the board, with no one feeling out of place and even the most incidental seeming characters well observed. That’s no mean feat considering the large cast of fresh faces you’ll meet throughout your playthrough.
Part of that is due to the fact that Forbidden West is far more concerned about the world as a whole and the people surrounding Aloy than Zero Dawn ever was; from early on it becomes apparent that the whole lesson of the story for Aloy is allowing some of the pressure she places on herself to be carried by others. The supporting cast does a great job of keeping you company, and Varl – an old friend of Aloy’s from the Nora tribe who is with you from the opening moments – in particular, provides warm companionship throughout and brings the best out of Aloy. It’s a pleasant change when compared to the often-lonely adventure of Zero Dawn.
Actors Angela Bassett and Carrie-Anne Moss bring salvos of Hollywood-caliber firepower to the story; the former provides a fearsome presence as rebel leader Regala, even if she is too absent for long stretches to feel like a prominent piece of the story. Meanwhile, Moss brings a touch of class to proceedings as the enigmatic Tilda. It’s never enough to wrestle the limelight away from Ashly Burch as Aloy, though. Naturally, she’s at the core of everything in Forbidden West, and Burch carries that weight with confidence and panache – displaying power in loud, pivotal moments, but also shining in the story’s quieter, more heartfelt pockets.
On the topic of the loud parts, while Zero Dawn may have been action-packed, its presentation never felt nearly as cinematic as this. Massive moments take place in masterfully choreographed cutscenes with swirling camerawork reminiscent of a Tony Scott chase sequence. It may seem simple, but subtler techniques (such as a wider lens used during conversations) add a filmic quality to dialogue-heavy scenes, allowing characters to use their bodies to move expressively and convey a wider range of emotion. Feelings run high over the course of the lengthy campaign, and while this isn’t anything like the trauma fest of something like The Last of Us Part 2, Forbidden West certainly tugs on the heartstrings.
Know Your Enemy
A stealthy approach, laying in wait to silently strike from tall grass, is almost always wise at the start of a fight as you’ll likely get into the most trouble when you’re outnumbered. Even the less deadly machines, such as darting Skydrifters and pouncing Scrappers, pose a threat in numbers, and left unchecked they’ll relentlessly unleash attack after attack. Rarely has the saying “attack is the best form of defense” been truer, and just as in Zero Dawn these enemies’ bodies are loaded with weak points that allow you to affect the way they fight and change it to your liking.
Take the new Clawstrider, for example: it’s an extremely aggressive dino menace that can wipe you out with lashes of its devastating tail. Had enough of it? Equip some tear arrows and split your tormentor’s tail straight off. Alternatively, coat it with a yellow gloop using the new adhesive ammo to slow it down, which is extremely effective against quick machines like this. That cycle of learning an enemy and their multiple different attacks, reducing the number of options available to them by targeting and destroying their weapons, and then finishing them off with ice, fire, acid, or whatever other damage types they’re weak to never grew tired over dozens of hours. The combat in Zero Dawn was already fantastic, and Forbidden West only stacks more options on top of that – such as new weapons and ammo types – and feels better and more flexible than ever as a result.
The explosive Spike Thrower is a particularly satisfying new addition to Aloy’s collection of weaponry, lodging projectiles into machines before detonating them to cause big damage. I found this to be a near-essential item against some of Forbidden West’s bigger beasts. Many of these battles are of a scale and a quality that many games would aspire to for their grand finales. Knocking off their heavy weapons and then picking them up to turn their own guns against them adds a dynamic edge that rewards good aim with more firepower. Cleaving the cannon off of a Ravager and unleashing a barrage into the side of Tremortusk – a gigantic and very angry robot mammoth – is a pure, unadulterated power trip. The superb score also soundtracks perfectly throughout, dynamically cranking up the noise during high-stakes battles and adding crunchy electronics to the familiar orchestral refrains from Zero Dawn.
The central piece of Aloy’s arsenal remains the bow and arrow though, with many different versions on offer. Mixing and matching to make sure you have all of the different types of elemental damage you need on your weapon wheel is key; the next step is being skilled enough to hit your fast-moving targets. Admittedly, I’m a sucker for archery combat in games, but it really doesn’t get much better than unleashing arrow after arrow into the glowing weak point of a metal menace. It also really brings out the best of the PlayStation 5’s DualSense, which lets you feel the bowstring tighten on your trigger finger before the recoil cascades through your controller.
The machines themselves are exquisitely designed, each bringing their own bag of party tricks to the West. The hippo-like Widemaw that pulls you in with its vacuum mouth before spitting boulders at you is a considerable threat early on, so there’s something extra satisfying about being able to one-shot one with a well-placed projectile between its metal teeth as you grow more powerful. The speed and power with which the machines move is a sight to behold – not that you’ll have much time to stop and stare as they barrel towards you. But if you allow yourself to slip into slow motion for a moment you’ll be able to see each gear ticking within their gaping jaws before you need to dodge out of the way of death.
Among the many returning machines is the Thunderjaw, which poses as prominent a threat as it did five years ago due to its vast array of weapons and its sheer size. Zero Dawn cranked up the difficulty near the end of its story, and it’s not too different here either. There are a few particularly challenging machine types that you have no option but to take head-on, demanding you have full confidence in your chosen playstyle.
Aloy’s skill trees are extensive and allow you to tailor exactly how you want to play, certainly offering a far more extensive menu to choose from than the original. Out of the six different columns available I put a lot of my points into the Hunter branch in order to maximise my bow skills and increase the effects of the concentration ability which allows you to slow down time. This also unlocked some handy secondary-fire abilities for my bow, such as being able to send a high arching volley of arrows onto a target for increased damage. Valor surges are special abilities unlocked on each skill tree that can be triggered intermittently throughout combat to really turn the tables in a fight – for example, one of the stealth surges harnesses Stalker machine technology to temporarily grant you a cloaking device, making it easy to ambush unsuspecting enemies.
Combat encounters vary from fight to fight and eventually demand you display all of the skills at Aloy’s disposal as bigger and bigger threats are thrown at you. It’s a great exercise in thinking on your feet and consistently provides excellent moment-to-moment gameplay. One huge contributing factor to this variety is the sheer amount of different enemy types in the Forbidden West. It’s not just in the range of machines on show, but also in the humans determined to stop you.
Fighting packs of humans is entirely more dynamic in Forbidden West as you scramble around architecture and vegetation and in and out of stealth. It definitely feels like Aloy has ripped a page out of Ellie’s journal here where it comes to how to handle these encounters. There’s a fantastic weight to melee combat, which feels like a much more viable and – crucially – fun option this time around for Aloy. Swings of the spear crunch into enemies and unlockable combos add extra depth. These come in handy, especially against the energy shield-wielding rebel champions. In general, Aloy feels great to control in combat, light on her feet but heavy-hitting. All until you find yourself caught between a Rockbreaker and a hard place, that is.
While not going so far as to adopt the “climb anything” approach of more Bokoblin-littered open-world games, there’s a greater sense of freedom thanks to your new pulse’s ability to scan for handholds on cliffs, and there’s usually a path to reach wherever you’d like to go. Although it’s undoubtedly an improvement on Zero Dawn, I did sometimes feel penned in by a world enveloped by mountains. It’s in combat where this is often highlighted, when I’d feel myself scrambling around looking for a handhold to climb a four-foot wall that Aloy really should be able to vault over without even needing one. Unfortunately, this activity often ends in an untidy death at the hands of a trampling machine. It does feel a bit archaic to be restricted to predetermined handhold routes when we’re used to much more freeform climbing in 2022.
Similarly, while you can now grapple yourself to objects using the Pullcaster, don’t think of this as being a game-changer on the level of Halo Infinite’s Grappleshot or Just Cause’s grappling hook before it. In Forbidden West it’s much more of a puzzle and combat tool used for getting out of sticky situations than it is something that will help you zip around its world. That being said, most of my quibbles with the climbing were quickly forgotten once a liberating new ability (which I won’t spoil) is introduced later on and makes moving around the map a much more exciting proposition. It comes as a great relief too, as it’s a world I wanted to spend a considerable time exploring.
A rapturous harmony of beautiful natural landscapes and fearsome machines, Horizon Forbidden West is one of, if not the most visually impressive game I’ve ever played – even when playing on performance mode, which offers a smooth 60fps at the cost of some level of detail – a tradeoff which I’d wholeheartedly recommend due to the fact that it still looks fantastic. From tiny touches like individual blades of scarlet grass to awe-inducing landscapes that sweep the horizon, it’s an astonishingly detailed world. There’s verdant jungle, sweeping desert, snowy peaks, waves crashing like liquid crystal against sand… the list goes on. Seriously, though, sometimes the only thought that crossed my mind was “f**k me, have you seen the look of this?!”
Forbidden West takes the time to ease you into its vast world. After a slightly pedestrian and linear tutorial section, it kicks into life and sets you free. It’s clear from early on that Guerrilla has spent a lot more time creating a more interesting open world this time around and nowhere is this clearer than in its settlements, which are universally a vast improvement over Zero Dawn’s comparatively lifeless equivalents.
These range from small villages made up of huts and traders to large towns, each with their own quirks. My favourites are those that make homes of old-world architecture – Plainsong, for example, is a commune repurposing a series of nature-reclaimed satellite dishes. There are many to discover, each beautifully unique, including one particular enrapturing underground location that’s home to one of the most visually striking video game levels in recent memory (and I won’t dare spoil it). In general, the Forbidden West is littered with physical echoes of past humanity, making for a rich and visually compelling sandbox that almost serves as a museum to the history we’re living in now.
It isn’t just the environment, but the attention to detail placed in the humans. Each tribe is distinct from one another and the costume design on show is astounding. Aside from being places to stock up on resources and acquire new weapons and armor from merchants, these clusters of civilization are where a lot of side missions will begin. This is probably the biggest area of improvement for Forbidden West when compared to its predecessor, which had very limited and repetitive optional content.
Side quests are infinitely more engaging and pretty lengthy, too – they’re not just throwaway requests from nameless wanderers but instead are smartly woven into the main story. Some will involve characters you’ll meet along the main plot asking more personal requests of you, while others will be completely new faces asking you to help out with social issues, such as helping depose a town’s unlikeable leader from his position of power.
These side stories only enrich the experience, and while you may not have many active choices to make that influence their outcome, I really did feel like I was changing the world around me as I made my way through it. In that respect, it’s quite easy to be reminded of The Witcher 3 in the way it approaches its secondary missions: you’re not only all but guaranteed a fun time but also very likely to find satisfying stories and unique pieces of gear for your troubles.
For example, one treasure hunt-like quest had me diving into caves and digging through shipwrecks in order to find an ancient piece of technology that I could repurpose into a unique type of tripcaster (the tripwire deploying weapon from the original) that deploys shields instead of the standard traps. A good portion of the side quests and people you meet along the way also help shine some light when compared to the relevant dark themes of the main story. There’s a great levity to the writing, which manages to flow seamlessly between talk of world-ending events to witty one-liners. The different quirky characters met and distinctive rewards received from each side quest means that they very rarely feel repetitive. It’s a real credit that, in a world so dense with objective markers, very few (if any) feel like rinse-and-repeat jobs. Yes, some missions are just glorified fetch quests (true of virtually every game ever), but when the parts you’re fetching are the antlers of a fire-breathing metal antelope, there’s rarely a dull moment.
Outside of side quests, there’s a long list of other activities available: rebel camps to clear out, different types of collectables to find, arenas to test your might in, and of course, scaleable Tallnecks, the giraffe-like recon giants. Cauldrons also return from Zero Dawn, and these challenging dungeons that are carved into mountain sides grant you the ability to override machines’ will and make them fight for you. A particular favourite of mine are the new Relic Ruins, which are fun little puzzle boxes hidden around the world that put all of your mental tools to the test. Some of which take a considerable time to solve, as if bitesize chunks of Tomb Raider have been transplanted into a far-flung future.
That Witcher 3 influence even extends to the minigame Machine Strike, a strategy board game that contains all the addictive qualities of Gwent or Assassin’s Creed Valhalla’s Orlog. It’s impressively deep and there are many, many people in the world to go up against, all with their own boards, pieces, and playstyles. It not only begs to be played for hours on end but also encourages exploration in order to find new machine miniatures to add to your collection.
The action isn’t just restricted to the many, many objective icons on the map though – aimless wandering is rewarded with random events taking place across the world, which gives a sense of real discovery. These range from fighting off some rebels who have prepared an ambush by a rocky path to rescuing a family from a herd of aggressive machines, and many more. Occasions like this further build on a feeling of genuine causality to your actions in the world too, as you’ll bump into the same people later at a settlement who will thank Aloy for playing the role of hero.
On top of all of this, there’s just so much to see and do that I don’t want to spoil in any way. Characters, creatures, and locations that I wouldn’t want the joy and surprise that I experienced discovering taken away from others. For large swaths of it, the Forbidden West really is a place that needs to be seen to be believed.
Source: IGN Video Games All