Horizon Forbidden West is, for better or worse, just Horizon Zero Dawn but bigger. For some people, that will be enough. I expect when the embargo lifts, this review will find itself nestled amongst some perfect scores, and I can understand why. Forbidden West is fun and it’s pretty, but with so many open-world titles coming along since Zero Dawn, I hoped the series might get better, not just bigger.
Forbidden West begins with a stumble. Right from the very first quest, the stakes revolve around the end of the world as we know it, and it’s just difficult to care. Horizon has built a fascinating world, but it’s now two for two on going way too big and losing us all in the process. Not only are the stakes too big for us to relate to or connect with, but the opening exchanges expect you to remember all the characters from the first game, like Who, Which One Were They Again, and Oh Yeah Them. This is another issue with going bigger – it doesn’t fix the faults, it doubles down on them.
I loved Horizon Zero Dawn. It seems to have come in for a critical reevaluation since the tidal wave of acclaim it was hit with at launch, but it remains one of my favourite titles of the PS4 era. It only had two serious faults for me; the story was weak, and the whole game engaged in Native American cosplay. Forbidden West just needed to overcome those faults, but it succumbs to them both.
It’s not only that Aloy is again facing the end of the world, it’s that everyone she does it with is terrifically dull. Erend and Talanah return and are built upon, while some new characters add a nice texture to the game – Aloy frequently has company on her missions now and feels more rounded as a result – but none will last long in the memory. Conversations allow you to press characters for more information or push on with doing quests, and towards the end I was choosing ‘let’s just do the quest’ every time. Not only is the world ending, but everyone needs help in life or death situations, and there’s no room for much personality in situations like that.
At one point, you and all the crew you’ve gathered ride out together for a mission. If I told you it conjured one tenth of the emotion a similar scene in Red Dead Redemption 2 brought forth, I’d be being generous to Horizon.
There is no attempt to interrogate or explain the Native American appropriation either. It’s too baked into Horizon’s formula for them to abandon it, but the game seems to use that as an excuse to shrug it off. One of the game’s best armours even sees Aloy don a chief’s headdress. However, there is more individuality here – tribes are still spoken about in broad terms, but individual people within those tribes rarely live up to those broad definitions and are their own distinct characters.
To pick one example of when the story feels like a loose framework for the beats the game needs to go through, there is one point when Aloy is trying to recruit a tribe to her cause, and the tribe refuses. They’re safe behind the thick stone wall they live sheltered by. Aloy, in a stunning act of diplomacy, decides to blow this wall up, leaving the tribe vulnerable to all sorts of invaders and machine attacks. With barely an objection, the tribe then helps her, and some even thank her for embarrassing their ruler. This is Aloy’s world and the game is too afraid to ever let it be anything else.
Of course, the good things are bigger too. To the smallest nut and bolt, the new machines are superb. If you think they’ve showed off their aces in the trailers so far, you’re in for a shock. The machine designs were fantastic in Zero Dawn, and this is a major area that benefits from ‘the same again, but bigger’. I don’t want to spoil the surprises in store, so to stick with a creature we’ve already seen, the Slitherfang – the huge snake unveiled back in December – probably wouldn’t make the top five in my personal rankings of the new machines. Every single battle is brilliant, and I can’t wait for people to discover them so I can talk about them. Many are hidden away from missions too, as (very violent) rewards for those willing to explore. The underwater machines are a tad disappointing, but that’s because – quelle surprise! – the underwater sections aren’t that fun.
I was consciously wandering away from the mission markers every time a new one appeared in order to get into meaningless fights. Is this what football hooligans feel like? Because I get it now. I walked everywhere instead of riding so I wouldn’t miss a single skirmish. I needed to slay every machine, and you will too. The new weapons perfectly fit into Aloy’s fighting style, which is now even more dynamic, while elemental weapons can now leave status effects and be chained together. Ice weapons used to freeze machines, but now melee is more effective once they turn ‘brittle’. Fire breathing machines can be ‘drenched’ and extinguished with water weapons. There’s something very fun about equipping a water slingshot, because it feels like Aloy is just pranking her enemies with water balloons. The corrosive attacks quickly became my favourite though, because it was so satisfying to see their metal flesh sizzle, sear, and melt.
Fighting is faster and more varied now, while enemies are bigger, more aggressive, and more intelligent. It’s not perfect though. You know the Chumbawumba classic, “I get knocked down, but I get up again, you’re never gonna keep me down”? Aloy’s version goes “I get knocked down, I’m still down, holy fuck why am I still knocked down?” Because machines are aggressive, they’ll claw at you and leave you on the deck. It’s agonising how long Aloy then takes to get back up, and this has a major impact on how fluid fights can – and should – be. It also stops you reloading certain weapons, which negates a lot of the combat’s best elements. At one point I switched the game to the easiest mode – where possible I review on the game’s default setting – to check if that changed how long Aloy spent on her arse. It did not.
Traversal has not improved as much as the fighting, but it’s still better. The glider is a fantastic addition, as are the various tools Aloy picks up to grant her quicker traversal or better access to new areas. The idea that you can climb anywhere is misleading though – in practice it’s not too different from Zero Dawn, as improved as it may be on paper. If you’re expecting to be zipping around San Francisco though, maybe check your expectations. Even rushing through the story, you’re talking 20 hours before you even see it.
That’s another issue – the first half of the game is spent in environments near-identical to Zero Dawn. In the second half, you’ll reach Vegas and San Francisco (despite the marketing, Vegas is by far the better location), but it feels misleading that the ‘forbidden west’ is not the West Coast, but is in fact anything west of Utah. Don’t expect a fresh experience right off the bat, expect to see a lot of Carja, Sun-Priests, and Oseram. That doesn’t help establish the game as anything other than Horizon Zero Dawn Again, either.
People are going to play this game and have a lot of fun. That’s all a lot of people want from a game, and Forbidding West delivers. Through a certain lens, it deserves the perfect scores I’m expecting to see. But much like Ghost of Tsushima, a lot of you are going to come away disappointed by the lack of substance and new ideas. In many ways, Horizon Forbidden West is like its own machines. It’s grand, it’s gorgeous, but it has no soul.
Score: 4/5. A PS5 code was provided by the publisher.
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