Horizon Forbidden West – Review: The sequel we deserved

Not for you if:

  • Collecting items and crafting weapons is your worst nightmare
  • You can't aim to save your life
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Video games are such a versatile medium. They can be used to tell all kinds of nail-biting stories, show off all kinds of fascinating worlds, and introduce you to charming and unforgettable characters. And every once in a while, you come across a game that makes you rethink how you view video games as a whole. Be it God of War, BioShock Infinite, or even Dying Light 2. Genre-defining games; you’ll find plenty, you need only be willing to look. But even among those, you can tell there are a few that stand out. A few that push the boundaries of what you’ve seen, what you’ve experienced. And Horizon Forbidden West sure is one of those games.

Now, I’m not going to tell you that “there’s no other game like this”. Because there is. There are tons of games like Horizon Forbidden West. And there’s definitely going to be a lot that try to re-create what it does so well. But none of them is or will be Horizon Forbidden West. This game is so bold, so meticulously put together, I legitimately don’t believe it’s something that can be emulated, but only experienced first-hand.

It’s funny because I only played through Horizon Zero Dawn last month and while, sure, I enjoyed it, I didn’t really think much of it. The backbone of something truly amazing was there, a lot of great ideas were in the mix. Yet the whole game felt bogged down by questionable pacing and poor design choices, but most of all, it failed to realize what its strongest points were. Let’s talk sequels, since this is generally where most franchises either hit their high point or completely miss the mark. Well, Horizon Forbidden West seems to fix all the issues its predecessor faced, and then some. Let’s dive right in:

TL;DR

Horizon Forbidden West pushes the boundaries, not only of the PS5, but of what open-worlds should look and feel like. I sincerely hope other developers are taking notes.

This review was updatedwith additional comments on March 1st, after we completed the story.

Horizon Forbidden West: Visuals

Oh, boy. I suggest you fasten your seatbelts because Horizon Forbidden West is guaranteed to blow your socks off. This game doesn’t just look good, it looks genuinely breathtaking at times. And the developers, they know, and they constantly remind you too. They want you to look at the world, take all the scenery in. They inspire a sense of wonder in you, by making you look at a world so different from our own. And god-damn it, they do it so well.

All images in this article are in-game screenshots, taken directly from gameplay, cinematics, or with the use of photo mode.

The untamed Forbidden West

There are tons of games that have sprawling open worlds for the sake of “exploring”. In reality, more often than not, it ends up just being a pretty canvas for the story to take place in. Or even worse, it’s full of checklist objectives or serves fetch-quest purposes. We’ve all played games that look pretty, and we’ve all played games that give you a sense of freedom. It’s rarely ever we get both.

What fascinated me most about Horizon Forbidden West is its “no-holds-barred” approach. When you see something that looks interesting far off in the distance, and you take the time to go there, it usually ends up being something that’s actually worth your time. And no, these are not the “happy accidents” Bob Ross was talking about. This world doesn’t feel procedurally generated, but hand-crafted. Forbidden West is the product of hard and passionate work by Guerilla, and that’s exactly what it feels like.

Games like Ghost of Tsushima have a similar, yet more generic approach. They’re bound to the constraints of the real world they’re trying to depict. So, they opt for drawing realistic landscapes, with some dramatically condensed scenery. Forbidden West is sci-fi and therefore bound by no real-world constraints. You can come across some really wild stuff. From dense and colourful jungles next to snowy red mountain tops, to dry-ass rocky deserts next to ominous-looking swamps. No matter what it is, you won’t get bored with looking at it.

Tweaking the experience

Interestingly enough, you can make this game even more exploration-oriented than it already is. Or less, who am I to judge? Right off the gate, the game asks you if you’d like your experience to be “guided” or the “explorer” kind. It might be pretty self-explanatory, but this option minimizes the trackers and waypoints you have on your screen at all times. It’s a pick-your-poison type of deal. I found that explorer worked the best for me, but that might not be the case for you. For optimal experience, I suggest setting your HUD setting to “dynamic” through the settings. It turns no-holds-barred to no-hands-held. You can thank me later.

There are two graphical settings to choose from; Favor Resolution and Favor Performance. Once again, pretty self-explanatory, but what’s important is you can swap between the two on the fly. Playing on Resolution sets the game at a native 4K, and let me tell you, the results look nothing like what you’d expect €500 worth of hardware to be able to produce. Performance keeps it running at a firm 60fps on what I assume is 1440p. The game plays better on Performance and the combat favours the higher frame rate, but you will experience sharp resolution scaling on far-away objects, the occasional texture pop-in, and Aloy’s hair jumping all over the place which really grinds my gears. Resolution makes the world come to life, and it will work best if immersion is what you’re going for.

Humans and machines; a love-hate affair

Guerilla Games have crafted this unique aesthetic that does a great job of mashing up sci-fi and pre-historic. Horizon feels authentic. It’s a game about people fighting for survival against frenzied machines, while they slowly start to understand them. If you asked 12-year-old me, he’d tell you that’s a cool-ass concept, and the 22-year-old me writing this review definitely agrees. This simple concept is reflected everywhere you look in Horizon Forbidden West. In the elaborately designed machines, in the intricately woven armour pieces, and in the battle-hardened, gritty faces.

There are tons of games like Horizon Forbidden West. And there’s going to be a lot that try to re-create all it does so well. But none of them will be so bold, so meticulously put together.

BGeek

The in-game screenshots compressed by WordPress can hardly do the fidelity of this game justice. We’re talking about faces that often look better than real life, fascinating machines that the cuter they look, the harder they hit, HDR sunsets that can put even your best smartphone photos to shame and outfit pieces with more polygons than I could imagine. Facial animations are great when playing on Resolution, with some of the finest emotionally-charged expressions you can find. The immersion sometimes breaks when in Performance, however, with some animations going a tad faster than they should and looking too excessive for their own good. Even so, Horizon Forbidden West is nothing short of a visual feast.

Horizon Forbidden West: Story

I’m not allowed to reveal much plot-wise since this is, technically, a pre-release review. And like the world, the story is something you should experience for yourself. Keep in mind, however, that I do not consider the story to be one of this game’s best attributes. The lore and the characters? Sure, these are very interesting indeed. But the main story is still too protagonist-focused when I don’t think it should. You see, this is neither God of War nor Uncharted. Horizon isn’t telling a story that can work by focusing on a single character. If anything, I believe that what should be given more screen-time is Aloy’s internal struggle, and not how pretty much everything revolves around her. This is somehow improved as the story progresses.

Zero Dawn was only the beginning

Horizon Forbidden West picks up shortly after the conclusion of Zero Dawn, so it’s best you played the first in the series before delving into the sequel. There’s a story recap cinematic at the beginning, but it only scratches the surface of Zero Dawn’s story. The essence of Forbidden West’s plot is you chasing after Sylens and trying to find a backup of GAIA in order to restore the terraforming systems. Little girl versus world-ending events, all over again. Yet this time around, it feels much more structured. While everyone still treats Aloy as the “saviour”, they make it clear that she can hurt their feelings. Even though the main quests are still Aloy-centric, the rest of the activities are not, and I really like that.

Pacing in Zero Dawn was all over the place, thankfully this is not the case here. Forbidden West is still slow, especially at the start, but the slow build-up is justified. There’s a much clearer emphasis on side-quests now. In the first game, you wouldn’t know which ones were actually worth your time or just boring filler content. The quality has been increased dramatically here, and the stories behind the activities help give the world a new dimension. I’ve always found the characters to be the most interesting aspect of every story, mainly because social relationships and human emotion are every writer’s nightmare. When you put down a game, the characters and the memories you’ve made with them are what sticks with you. It’s only natural to want to spend more time with them. Forbidden West allows you to do exactly that, and the result is some genuinely memorable moments.

Sticks and stones may break your bones…

… but lasers are far more dangerous. Zero Dawn culminated in a not-so-heavy sci-fi ending, and just as I described in earlier sections of this review, it was only the beginning. Forbidden West goes to new science fiction extremes for the Horizon series, and quite honestly, I found it rather surprising. Guerilla could have just stuck with the primal story they had originally set up, and this game would still be fine but turns out; this wasn’t the story they wanted to tell. Instead, they go all out on sci-fi elements and turn this into a story about a rebuilding an AI and fighting off hyper-advanced aliens. Most reviewers didn’t like what felt like a sudden shift in direction. I honestly enjoyed the somewhat-bumpy ride, it caught me completely off guard.

Do I think they handled it perfectly? Not really. Forbidden West can’t help but lose its focus a couple of times, trying to balance the main questline with all the side-stuff this huge world is filled with. It still feels more robust than Zero Dawn, however. The pacing in the story can still feel a bit whacky because it gets bogged down by endless dialogue options that culminate in a whole lot of nothing. If you skip the extra dialogue options, the story gets tighter. In that sense, I appreciate the choice Guerilla gives you. If you want to know more about the characters and the lore, you can do that, if you don’t mind slowing down a bit. If not, the experience feels much more tailored.

Side-questing is better than ever

The main story may not be one of Forbidden West’s finest assets, but the side-content definitely is. Even if you’re not a fan of the sci-fi turn the story takes, this doesn’t mean that you won’t enjoy Forbidden West. Side-quests feel more important in this game, since they are your primary means of interacting with the world around you, exploration aside. You can find some well-thought-out story beats to experience here, and they genuinely make the world come to life. You’ll meet some interesting recurring figures, alongside new ones, that are sure to pique your interest.

Interacting with your companions feels like an important part of the game and you even have your own base to make yourself feel at home. Exploration is further encouraged through questing since everything is neatly organized in sub-categories and they come with their own rewards. Conquering Tallnecks is more demanding this time around, you have to solve puzzles to get to them. Cauldrons are one of the best additions this game makes. They’re huge machine manufacturing bays, remnants of the Old World, that you can explore and then override.

Horizon Forbidden West: Gameplay

Gameplay was absolutely Zero Dawn’s highlight, but it still had its fair share of weaknesses. Inventory management was such a chore, you could spam your way through every fight, machines were either ridiculously easy or arrow-sponges and your dialogue choices made no difference. And Aloy’s hair constantly danced all over the place. The last one is the only one that’s still present.

Combat; not new, only improved

Remember how easy it was to one-shot those watchers in Zero Dawn? Well, you can’t do that anymore. Turns out, even the weakest of machines pack some serious punch against a teenage girl. Seriously, though, they know you’re out to get them, so they’re obviously out to get you. The difficulty has been turned up a notch, even when playing on Normal. This makes you approach each encounter more cautiously. Aloy can withstand fewer hits, and therefore you need more healing items. On the other hand, you have more weapons than ever at your disposal, and machines have more weak points you can exploit, even though they’re harder to hit. It’s very well-balanced.

What troubles me, however, is that you still need to craft arrows and ammo in the midst of battle. What’s up with that? The whole point was going into battle prepared, but constantly running out of ammo and having to replenish that by pressing X on the weapon wheel defeats the point of having multiple weapons. Doesn’t being able to replenish ammo so easily make it simple to just abuse a single weapon?

Melee combat has been reworked and is now a viable fighting style. You need some well-honed reflexes, though, as you’re usually fighting multiple machines at the same time. Valor Surges bring a new dimension to combat, giving you timed boosts. Inventory management has been simplified greatly, although you still hoard items like no tomorrow. The skill tree has been revamped, now offering both passive and active abilities, as well as stat boosts. It’s divided into multiple categories, each favouring a certain play style. Crafting has been updated too, and now you need to use crafting benches in order to modify your weapons.

Bigger map, better traversal

The map in the previous game was so huge, they needed to put fast-travel campfires everywhere to avoid it being a chore to travel through. Don’t misunderstand, the campfires are still here, but the traversal systems are much better now. They need to be because the map is even bigger. So big, in fact, that I can’t even get it to fit in a single screencap. Riding Striders and Chargers feels great now, mainly thanks to tighter controls and the DualSense’s vibration motors. Horizon Forbidden West is one of the few games that take full advantage of PS5’s controller and taps into its full potential.

Everything you see is climbable, you need only scan in with your Focus. Suddenly, handlebars and climbing spots appear, and Aloy can scale the terrain with ease. Forbidden West offers lots of welcome verticality in the landscape. There are new tools in your arsenal that make the whole climbing experience easier, like the Glider and a ropecaster that helps you pull things closer or even pull yourself up on certain spots.

Verdict

Horizon Forbidden West is, if nothing else, a technological marvel. The open world you get to explore is awe-inspiring, and the seamless feel it offers is unlike nothing else. This isn’t an open-world made for you to look at, but for you to explore. Likeable characters, life-like animation, and exquisite voice acting set up an intriguing, albeit protagonist-centric, story. This is a sequel that improves on every shortcoming of its predecessor and capitalizes greatly on all its strengths.

There was never any doubt that PlayStation Studios knew how to make quality games, they’ve proven themselves over and over, time and time again. Yet somehow Forbidden West manages to feel like the start of a new chapter, a significant increase in fidelity, in technical expertise. Aloy’s latest adventure feels like the only game that takes full advantage of PS5’s untapped power and uses it to create an untamed, Forbidden West. We can only bask in the experience Guerilla Games have so passionately put together.

We would like to thank PlayStation Greece for providing the early access key we used for this review! You can pick it up for yourself at the PSN store here.

George Makridis

Posts published: 107

Editor in Chief. Studying Communication & Media. Listening to Hip-Hop. Watching advanced humor sitcoms and dumb superhero flicks. Has way too many games in his library and not that much time to actually play them.