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Horizon Forbidden West Could Be The Franchise’s Empire Strikes Back

Platform(s): PS4, PS5 (version reviewed)
Genre: Open-World Post-Apocalyptic Third-Person Adventure

Well, here we are. Back in 2017, Guerrilla Games surprised us all with what the Decima Engine could do in Horizon Zero Dawn. The action-adventure sci-fi title quickly took the world by storm and made its way to the list of best PlayStation exclusives. Horizon Forbidden West is quite possibly the most highly-anticipated PlayStation exclusive in 2022 (tied with Sony Santa Monica’s God Of War Ragnarok, of course).

Five years in the making; how does Horizon Forbidden West improve on its predecessor? Does it pave the way for the future of next-gen open-world games?

Journey To The West

Looking to the west.

Guerrilla Games knows how long it’s been. We all know how long it’s been, though it doesn’t really feel like it’s been that long. When you boot up the game, it begins with a brief recap in the form of a short cinematic movie (which you can rewatch as many times as you like from the main menu). This is already a huge help for those (like me) who last played the game in 2017, in order to bring us up to speed to the events that lead into the story of Horizon Forbidden West.

Horizon Forbidden West pretty much picks up where Horizon Zero Dawn left our protagonist, Aloy. The previous game ended on somewhat of a dangling cliffhanger of an ending, and this is where the sequel begins. I won’t spoil important plot points (like how or why Aloy has to venture into the so-called “forbidden west”), but I can say that the overall story and writing in Horizon Forbidden West is definitely an improvement over that from the first game.

I’m probably not the only one to think of Horizon Zero Dawn‘s story to be bland and unremarkable. In Horizon Zero Dawn, Aloy had to prove herself to be worthy, as everyone around her looked down on her primitive Nora tribe. It was the same old trope. It was essentially the rise of Aloy as a hero, which we’ve seen countless times before.

In Horizon Forbidden West, it’s much more interesting and fascinating to see Aloy struggling with her newfound fame and reputation as the “Savior Of Meridian”, to juggle her responsibilities and what people now expect of her, including her friends.

Despite all she’s been through in the first game, she’s used to being independent and relying on no one but herself, precisely because she had no one. In her new journey to the “forbidden west”, she has to grow to accept the help of her friends, both new and old, in order to survive.

Aloy and her friends.

Aloy herself conveys more emotional depth than she ever did in the first game. At the start of Horizon Forbidden West, she leaves alone in the middle of the night to complete her mission and abandons her friend Varl, the latter of whom already promised to go with her. She thinks she’s strong enough to do everything herself, but the development of her character in Horizon Forbidden West is about how she gradually opens up and learns to make new friends, as well as learn to trust and rely on her old ones as well.

Yes, the world-ending stakes are still there, but the personal stakes and connections are what makes players even more invested in the game, and what makes it more memorable in the end. In that regard, Horizon Forbidden West has improved on its predecessor. A lot of that can probably be attributed to experience on the developers’ part.

The Decima Engine was rough around the edges in Horizon Zero Dawn but the potential was there. Horizon Forbidden West manages to take advantage of that extremely well.

Aloy and another one of her allies.

I was impressed with how Aloy and the other characters look so much better and more natural in Horizon Forbidden West. Kudos to the team for the game’s amazing facial animations, which is probably some of the best I’ve seen, on par with the likes of 2020’s The Last Of Us Part 2. I remember how stiff Aloy and other characters looked during interactions in Horizon Zero Dawn, which lessened the immersion for me. Horizon Forbidden West doesn’t suffer from that problem, and that’s a good thing, considering how much more dialogue there is in this sequel.

In Horizon Forbidden West, there are a lot more dialogue options when interacting with NPCs. It’s a lot like Mass Effect in that regard. At one point in the game, you’ll get access to a base, which acts as a central hub of sorts for Aloy and her friends for reasons that I can’t spoil. Just like the Normandy in Mass Effect, you’ll be returning to and fro from this base/hub and Aloy’s allies will be there for you to interact with. It’s important to note that most of the dialogue is actually optional since it won’t actually affect the story in any way (there’s only one ending).

Dialogue options.

However, some of this optional dialogue can lead to additional side quests. They’re also how you’ll spend time getting to know the game’s lore and Aloy’s friends. Since they won’t affect the story, you can skip the dialogue options, but I went through them all because the writing’s good and the voice performances are excellent. I previously mentioned emotional depth and personal stakes; these dialogue options are great at adding to that. I honestly didn’t care for (or even remember much of) the supporting characters in Horizon Zero Dawn, but I definitely felt more connected to the ones in Horizon Forbidden West. I find the stories and plots in games to be best when you can emotionally connect with them, and that’s true for this game.

As good as the writing and characters are this time around, Horizon Forbidden West still ends on a cliffhanger just like Horizon Zero Dawn. Guerilla Games is clearly setting up another sequel here. The ending isn’t exactly anti-climactic, but it might be for those looking for a proper or definitive conclusion.

Still, the way the game ends makes you feel excited for what comes next, and there are actually lots of unexpected plot twists throughout Horizon Forbidden West. It’s true what they say; it’s about the journey, not (necessarily) the destination.

Dino Riders (And Killers)

Exploring Relic Ruins.

Let’s not kid ourselves. the reason why Horizon Zero Dawn became such a hit can be summed up in two words: robot dinosaurs. And boy, did the game deliver on that.

Taking down mecha dinos with only bows, arrows, a spear, and a few other additional traps/trinkets made for a fun time. The fact that these enemies had destructible components and specific body parts added more strategic and tactical layers to the combat, ensuring that it doesn’t get stale because you’re not just simply randomly whacking at enemies.

Besides that, the game followed many open-world game tropes, with special challenges, side quests, and more. One gameplay mechanic that Horizon Zero Dawn did improve on was the boring old towers you had to climb to unveil a particular area of the map (the Ubisoft template, basically). Instead of the aforementioned towers, players had to climb giant moving brachiosaurus-like robots called Tallnecks. Figuring out how to get on top of the Tallneck was like solving a fun little puzzle, and no Tallneck was ever the same.

Horizon Forbidden West still features all of that and more. Of course, you’re probably reading this review to learn about the “more”, so enough about what I’ve already said and let’s get to the new stuff. Admittedly, the core gameplay and combat in this game remain mostly the same as the first one. Aloy uses her spear for melee attacks and to override machines (take control of them momentarily), and using the bow and arrow in this game is pretty much like in every other open-world game out there (L2 to aim and R2 to fire).

The most important gameplay aspect that Horizon Forbidden West has improved on is Aloy’s mobility and ability to traverse the world. In the first game, Aloy could run, jump, crouch, sneak, climb and mount machines. In Horizon Forbidden West, the game introduces a new gear called the Pullcaster in the early game, which acts not only as a grappling hook for Aloy but also allows her to use it to solve environmental obstacles. This manifests in various ways, like using the Pullcaster to pull rubble from a blocked path or using it to bring a pillar closer so that Aloy can reach it. You can even use it to pull objects like boxes and chests towards you.

The Pullcaster in action.

Of course, there’s also the game-changing Shieldwing tool, which allows Alloy to glide like Link in The Legend Of Zelda Breath Of The Wild. However, it’s not just for gliding purposes, as Aloy can also use it to perform sneak attacks on enemies from above. Essentially, this tool makes fall damage and falling to one’s death (both annoying issues in many open-world games) a thing of the past. You can even tweak the Settings to make it so that Aloy automatically deploys the Shieldwing whenever she falls close to the ground.

Grappling using the Pullcaster.

Another newly-introduced mechanic in Horizon Forbidden West is the ability to swim underwater. It’s no secret that water levels have a sour reputation amongst gamers (no one likes water levels, no one). They’re usually so janky because it’s unavoidable that handling characters underwater would feel sluggish and slow. This is especially so when these water levels have combat in them (groan). Therefore, I thank the developers at Guerrilla Games that they have not added underwater combat.

Water sections in Horizon Forbidden West are actually rare. In my almost 60 hours of playtime (more on that later), I could probably count with my fingers how many times I actually went underwater for extended water sections. Also, Aloy will only unlock the ability to breathe underwater at a certain point in the game’s main story. Once you get that, you can pretty much stay underwater forever. All in all, Aloy handles decently in water, and she can swim fast enough when she has to.

Going swimming.

While there’s no underwater combat, you’ll still have to do a bit of sneaky stealth underwater (stealth kelp, really, Guerilla Games?), as there will be machines in the water as well. Unfortunately, there’s no way to possibly fight back in any way while Aloy is underwater. The only thing you can do once a machine spots you is to swim away and try to escape. It’s annoying, but as I said, Aloy swims fast enough that it’s not really aggravating.

I wouldn’t call the water sections in Horizon Forbidden West bad, but they’re not that much fun either. I usually just want them to be over as soon as possible, and I suspect that’ll be the case for most players as well.

Many gamers have been asking whether Horizon Forbidden West, and I can confirm that yes, it does feature a flying mount. Before you get too excited though, it comes pretty late in the game, near the very end of the main story, so you’ll be spending most of the game without it. Once you get it though, you’ll probably never fast travel again, because the draw distance on the PS5 is phenomenal (but there are a few noticeable pop-ups occasionally).

Life Finds A Way

Flying mount Sunwing.

Now let’s get to the meat of the game; the combat. Just like the first game, the main way to take down machines is by slowing down time via Concentration Mode by pressing R3 and shooting specific components/body parts of enemies until they die. Horizon Forbidden West adds a lot more variety to it all, with new weapons and a new revamped skill tree system, not to mention new triggerable special abilities called Valor Surges and special techniques tied to weapons.

What are the new weapons? The bow and arrow (multiple types), spear, slings (throws bombs), tripcasters (the ones that shoot trip lines that can trigger traps when enemies touch them), and ropecaster (the one that shoots ropes tying the enemy in one place) all make a triumphant return, so if you’re used to them, that’s all good. But trust me when I say some of the new weapons are awesome to use. The new weapons include boltblasters (it works sort of like a mini machine gun that shoots projectiles in short bursts), shredder gauntlets (which works like a frisbee of sorts, but I found it too gimmicky to use effectively) but my personal favourite is the spike thrower.

The spike thrower is one of the most powerful new weapons. It’s nothing fancy like the other, just a sharp stick that you throw at the enemy like a javelin. However, it hits damn hard, especially when you’ve unlocked more powerful ammo like explosive spikes and even drill spikes (yes, just like the anime Gurren Lagann, these spikes drill into the enemy after it makes contact, it’s glorious). The weakness of the spike thrower is that Aloy has to stand in one place to throw the javelin, which makes her vulnerable to attacks. It’s still satisfying as hell (the ammo is expensive to craft though, so don’t get too spike happy).

Using a boltblaster.

There aren’t just new weapons though, as the sequel also introduces several new elements into the mix to spice things up. The previous elemental effects are still in the game, including Burning, Frozen, Electric, and Explosive. The new ones are elements like Acid (which translates to a corrosive damaging effect), Plasma (it’s like burning but with a special effect manifests in a delayed explosion after it activates), and Purgewater (which is sort of like… poisoned water, I guess). Just like in the first game, it’s important to know which elemental attacks work best against a particular machine enemy.

The skill tree system is much more refined and well implemented in Horizon Forbidden West. There are now multiple separate skill trees, each of which corresponds to a particular playstyle. For instance, the Warrior skill tree features active and passive skills related to melee, while the Hunter skill tree features those related to bow and arrow skills (increased Concentration Mode, etc.). There’s also one skill tree each for trappers, stealth, health, and overriding machines. The advantage of separate skill trees for each category means that you can allocate skill points to whichever playstyle you want.

For example, I focused mainly on the melee and bow/arrow skill trees. By the end of the game, I basically ignored the trapper skill tree and it didn’t have much of a negative effect on my playthrough, since my playstyle doesn’t use traps. My point is that you can cater the skill points into skill trees that complement your playstyle. You can safely neglect some of the skill trees in favour of the others without having to worry too much. You can pretty much also just plan ahead because every ability on every skill tree can be seen and checked from the start (don’t you just hate it when skill trees hide later skills until after you almost unlock them?).

More new mechanics in Horizon Forbidden West that spice up the game include the introduction of Valor Surges and Weapon Techniques, both of which can be unlocked via the aforementioned skill trees. They do a lot to help spic up combat, especially Valor Surges, which are basically the game’s version of supers or ultimates. Aloy accumulates Valor by attacking or getting attacked. Once full, you can unleash a Valor Surge. There are two Valor Surges in each skill tree, but only one can be equipped at any one time. Most Valor Surges basically power up one of any combat aspect. One would increase your melee strength, one can even turn you invisible or increase the power of ranged attacks.

My favourite, and the flashiest, Valor Surge in the game, is the Radial Blast. The Radial Blast is essentially Aloy exploding in a massive surge of electric energy, which is the closest thing to an AoE (area of effect) attack that this game has.

Is it an unspoken rule of modern open-world games that they have to feature a board game-like mini-game? The Witcher 3 Wild Hunt had Gwent. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla had Orlog. Believe it or not, Horizon Forbidden West has its own original minigame called Machine Strike. The rules are perhaps too complicated to fully reiterate here, but the mechanics are simple enough to understand once you start playing. It plays similar to chess or checkers in a way, with pieces on a checkered board. Each piece is literally a wooden miniature of a machine enemy from the world in Horizon Forbidden West. For instance, a Ravager would have a certain way it can move across the board and unique attributes of its own.

Plus, the checkered board can feature different terrains on each checkered square, with different terrains having different effects on different pieces. This means that you really have to think about where to position your pieces to attack the opponent’s and strategically plan ahead. One mistake can cost a match. Each major settlement on the map in the game features one Machine Strike NPC to play against, each of which you’ll have to win at least three times (once on three different boards, respectively). Machine Strike is completely optional though, just like Gwent in The Witcher 3. That said, I find it quite fun, but it’s definitely harder than it seems at first, especially against the tougher opponents.

Machine Strike.

Land Of The Lost

If there’s one thing Guerrilla Games has done, it’s to add a lot more side activities into this sequel. I’ve mentioned the Machine Strike minigame above, but there are many other side activities to complete as well. Besides side quests and errands (which are also side quests but smaller in scale and named differently), there are Relic Ruins (basically environmental puzzles to solve), Vista Points (another puzzle where you have to line up a hologram image with the real world), Hunting Grounds (the special challenges involving specific weapons from the first game) Melee Pits (melee-focused challenges), races (yes, you can participate in races with mounts, which is fun but a bit janky) and last but certainly not least, Arena Challenges (bigger and difficult fighting gauntlets set in a coliseum-like arena setting).

That’s not even everything you can do. An open-world game wouldn’t be complete without collectibles, and Horizon Forbidden West has tons of them. Some of these add to the lore of the game’s world, such as black box recordings, and some, like the flying drones, are similar to the Tallnecks in that they’re like puzzles and the fun is in figuring out how to reach them. There are sunken treasure locations all over the map if you want another excuse to actually go underwater, and there are rebel enemy outposts to clear out, which is another open-world trope.

Rebel scum.

One of the issues with Horizon Zero Dawn was grinding to find the required resources to craft ammo, items and equipment. That grinding is still present in Horizon Forbidden West, and it’s arguably even tougher to find some of them, but one new mechanic has made the whole process much, much easier. Players can now create Jobs (a category of side quests) to find specific resources for specific stuff (ammo, items, equipment). It makes things less of a hassle because now the game will mark the area where you can find the resources because Jobs function as a type of side quest. In other words, they are side quests, or rather, fetch quests, you can create for yourself for anything in the game.

That said, while the ability to create Jobs for any item significantly reduces the amount of busywork that most RPGs tend to feature, it only alleviates what is still a bit of an issue. If you think the first game’s grind for resources to upgrade equipment was a hassle, Horizon Forbidden West is even worse in that regard. Let me put it like this; I could still upgrade a lot of my equipment in the first game by simply playing through the game, but that’s not the case in the sequel.

I can’t upgrade my late-game equipment past two levels because of how specific the required resources are. I reckon that the reason why the developers introduced the Jobs mechanic is to make grinding easier. Without Jobs, finding resources would be even harder than it already is.

Another big problem with Horizon Zero Dawn which spoiled the experience was the fact that your inventory could get full, forcing you to throw away stuff to make room for more stuff. Thankfully, Guerrilla Games has improved the inventory system in Horizon Forbidden West. All additional resources will automatically and directly go into your stash, which you can access anytime from various locations.

You no longer have to worry about overloading your inventory and you can be the hoarder I know you want to be; it’s not an open-world game if you don’t hoard everything, right? Being over-encumbered is a thing of the past. Take that, Skyrim!

As for the machines, all of them from the previous game return, but there’s also a whole bunch of new ones. If you think the T-rex-inspired Thunderjaw and Stormbird from Horizon Zero Dawn were terrifying, prepare to be proven wrong. Horizon Forbidden West features even more powerful machines, including a giant snake and something that’s even stronger than the Thunderjaw.

The Slitherfang.

I’ve droned on and on, but I haven’t even touched the game’s overall graphics yet. You know as well as I do from the trailers and gameplay footage out there that the game looks absolutely beautiful, and I’ve already mentioned the game’s improved facial animations and movements above. If you thought Horizon Zero Dawn and by extension, Death Stranding (since that game was also powered by the Decima Engine), looked great, Horizon Forbidden West is further proof of what the Decima Engine can really do.

Playing Horizon Forbidden West on a PS5 and a 4K HDR TV, it’s seriously the best looking game on the console yet. It looked so good that I’d rather play the game in 4K than the smoother 60 FPS performance mode (which runs at 1080p). This game is the best evidence yet of the PS5’s power and visual prowess. The game still looks great on the PS4, but if you have a PS5, then that’s obviously the way to go.

Mysterious new character played by The Matrix actress Carrie-Anne Moss.

Lastly, it would be remiss of me not to mention the game’s wealth of accessibility options. There are a lot of options here that would make the game accessible to everyone, regardless of age and ability. These include tweaking how strong the enemies are, how long your Concentration Mode can be, auto-healing (by automatically consuming medicinal berries when Aloy is low on health), auto-Shieldwing deployment (so you won’t fall to your death), and even an Easy Loot option (this means that components you normally have to tear/remove from the machine’s body will still be loot-able).

It took me almost 60 hours (around 57 hours) to reach the end of the story in Horizon Forbidden West. That might sound long, but it didn’t feel that way while I was playing the game. There’s so much to do in the game, that even after those 60 hours, I still had many side quests and collectibles on the map to complete. If I were to complete everything, it would probably take me close to at least 80 to 100 hours.

If you rush through the main story without bothering to do anything else -which I don’t recommend since you’ll probably be under-equipped by the end- you could probably finish the game in 20 to 30 hours, though you’ll be missing out on a lot of good content.

A Trilogy In The Making

Before getting Horizon Forbidden West, I bemoaned having to review another long open-world game. PlayStation is off to an amazing start in 2022, and it’s far from over. This game joins the likes of Ratchet & Clank Rift Apart and others in being the best reason to get a PS5 right now, showcasing the next-gen console’s sheer power and potential. It’s also playable on the PS4, which you can then upgrade to a PS5 version for free, so I’d say the PS4 version is still worth playing.

Horizon Forbidden West doesn’t really do much to revolutionize or innovate the open-world genre. However, it’s a mighty exhilarating game with a great story, fun gameplay, beautiful graphics, and meaningful improvements over its predecessor, essentially adding way more to an already surefire great experience.

It’s clear from the ending of this game that there will be a third game to likely close out a trilogy, and that one will be a masterpiece if Horizon Forbidden West is any indication.

Pros

  • One of the most beautiful games on the PS5, especially if you have a 4K TV/monitor.
  • Improved facial animations and visuals showcase what the Decima Engine can do.
  • New weapons, skill trees and new combat mechanics (Valor Surges, Weapon Techniques, etc.) add more depth to the gameplay.
  • More mobility and traversal options to explore the open world.
  • A lot of dialogue options with better writing and characters you can be invested in.
  • Improved inventory system.

Cons

  • Still grindy when it comes to upgrading equipment and resources.
  • The story ends on a cliffhanger, just like the first game.

Final Score: 90/100

Review copy provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment. Played on PS5. Horizon Forbidden West releases for PS4 and PS5 on 18 February 2022.

 

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