Journey to the (Forbidden) West
Full disclosure: Horizon Zero Dawn is my favourite game of all time. The first chapter in Aloy’s epic tale, set in a post-post-apocalyptic world, is a beautiful marriage of science fiction plotline and tribal-esque combat using unique, primitive weaponry. After finishing the Frozen Wilds DLC, the game cemented itself in my heart as the game I would revisit over and over again. So I began my journey into Horizon Forbidden West with equal parts excitement and trepidation: I couldn’t wait to see how the story plays out, but was also acutely aware of the risk a sequel could do to a franchise.
Fret not, Horizon fans, as Forbidden West not only improves many aspects of the game to allow a deeper immersion into Aloy’s character and the player’s playstyle, developer Guerrilla have also filled the world with plenty of quests, storied characters, a slew of machines both old and new, and varying environments, thereby ensuring no area is barren. After just managing to explore the width of the map, I am happy to report that Horizon Forbidden West stands head and shoulders above Zero Dawn, and is an easy early contender for Game of the Year.
Not long after Horizon Forbidden West’s opening title faded onto the screen (which in itself was approximately an hour into the game), Aloy made her way to the top of a snowy peak, upon which a watchtower stood. Whilst trying to convince the guard on duty to take her down to the other side of the mountain by way of a gondola, a panoramic shot of the setting that is the Forbidden West comes into view. It was a majestic landscape of snow capped mountains enclosing a valley, stretching miles into the horizon. “The world looks pretty big”, I thought to myself.
Little did I know, “pretty big” was dead wrong: the vista in the cutscene was merely the tip of the iceberg of the world that Horizon Forbidden West is set in—a cursory comparison with Zero Dawn’s map would put Forbidden West at about 50% larger.
This world is no barren wasteland, either, with plenty of variety in its environments and climate. From the snowy peaks and water-carved valleys of the Rocky Mountain range (akin to Nora territory of the first game), to the sandy oasis that is the Vegas strip, to the Redwood-lined Californian marshes and overgrowth, Guerrilla have taken all the areas we saw in the first game, supersized each biome, and saturated within the world with as many quests, encounters, and machines as they possibly can.
The addition of underwater exploration adds another dimension to the world, and while the depths of the oceans and lakes are not as bustling as terra firma, exploring underwater feels like scuba diving. Guerrilla Games have previously stated that they worked extensively on water rendering for the sequel, and it clearly shows: even streams look markedly different from Zero Dawn, with lighting that mimics real-life and further immerses you into this world. I won’t dive into details, but a story quest in the middle of the desert is a particular highlight, creating a level that I can only describe as “eerily mesmerising”.
But Aloy is not out in the wild for a casual scuba dive: The Saviour of Meridian, as she is known throughout the regions in the game, is out to save the world. In the six months since the end of the first game, Aloy has been tracking down the artificial intelligence known as GAIA in order to save the world from destruction. The game begins at the end of her six month absence from Meridian, when Aloy receives another clue to head into the Forbidden West: a territory run by warrior tribes who had a bloodied history with the elitist Carja in years past, but are also threatened by a splinter rebel tribe, headed by Chief Regalla (voiced by the immensely-talented Angela Bassett, who’s voice alone strikes a commanding presence, and a perfect fit for an antagonistic tribal leader out for blood). The interweaving of the primitive setting and science fiction storyline brings about another group of antagonists from the modern world for Aloy, that is aligned with the science fiction throughline of the game. I won’t spoil who the group is, but their lineage is out of this world, and meshes the past/present/futuristic setting of this game beautifully.
To combat these adversaries, Aloy has had a few changes of her own: Guerrilla Games have added in-depth RPG elements to Aloy’s outfits, weapons, and skillset. Every weapon and outfit are now upgradeable, by way of workbenches and utilising parts salvaged from machines. Rarer items have more upgrade levels (three for common, four for rare, and so on), which increase buffs and sometimes unlock coil slots to augment the item.
Furthermore, there is no “one loadout to cover all bases,” where a single, four-weapon loadout covers all possible elemental damage available, as in Zero Dawn. Even with the addition of two extra weapon slots, the added elementals mean not all elemental damage types are within an arm’s reach in a single loadout. This carefully-designed direction adds nuance, incentivising players to experiment, and encouraging them to hunt for parts in order to salvage the coveted part to purchase a much-needed item or fully upgrade a piece of kit. Whereas I stuck with the same loadout in Zero Dawn that I deemed most advantageous (i.e. the best variant of each weapon) in Forbidden West I needed to be more deliberate at switching outfits and weapons based on the circumstances I was about to get myself into.
By far the most intriguing upgrades in the sequel, however, are the skill trees and the addition of the Valor Surge system. In Zero Dawn, Aloy had four skill trees to upgrade, with a maximum of 44 skills to learn, including the new tree introduced in the DLC. This time around, there are now six skill trees, resulting in over 160 skills to spend skill points on: be it a weapon technique, a passive boost, or an active skill. Each tree has multiple branches, and as players gradually upgrade each tree, they can unlock “Valor Surge” specials that give Aloy a unique skill to use in a fight. The Valor Surge can be activated once Aloy has gained enough Valor, and each Valor Surge can be upgraded to a maximum of three levels, increasing their effectiveness. The addition of the Valor Surge and increased number of skills allows players to upgrade skills to suit their playstyle, be it a melee brawler, a silent infiltrator, or a master of machinery or traps, to name a few.
Aloy will need to make use of all these skills, as combat has become more challenging, with a variety of machines that far outnumber the 25 available in Zero Dawn. Horizon Forbidden West has 43 machine types, with most machine types containing variants—acid, fire, frost, et—adding up to around 100 unique machines that roam this world. This breadth of machine varieties each draw inspiration from an animal or dinosaur, and are wildly aggressive. From 10-foot mammoths on land, to giant bats in the sky, to Loch Ness monsters in the sea, each machine design is unique and requires a different approach to defeat. Both human enemies and machines are instinctively sharper: they will learn your attack routine if you continue to spam the same melee combo, and if you camp from the same hiding spot, they will base their search on the location of your last sighting and backtrack from there. It is easy to get into trouble if you’re not paying attention to the fight, but careful planning and knowledge of the machines will avoid a lot of headaches.
Thankfully, Aloy’s not alone in her world-saving mission: throughout the story, she’s joined by various side characters, both old and new. Varl and Erend, Aloy’s allies from the first game, return to assist in her quest, as well as new characters from the west who, whilst maintaining their varied tribal heritage, learn about the real history of the world, and use this knowledge to help Aloy—it helps that Aloy has plenty of Focus to spare.
Speaking of which, Focus 2.0 is a more effective scanning device. It retains the effects from the first game (highlighting machines, human enemies, and other points of interest, by holding down R3), but you can also now quick-scan Aloy’s surroundings by clicking R3 once, highlighting resources and climbable points for a brief moment. The quick scan mode helps clear up an otherwise cluttered screen, with resources that used to litter the screen now reserved to only appear on the quick scan mode. To make combat more approachable, the focus mode now allows players to highlight machine weak points and resources via tabs that they can scroll through and pinpoint, thereby eliminating one of the nagging issues hampering the combat in the first game: no more aiming the reticle to a particular part of a moving machine, and maintaining the focus in order to highlight it. I found the pre-combat procedure more engaging and less frustrating with this design, bypassing the need to keep my aim on a machine part as the machine is charging at me, full speed.
Highlighting climbable areas and giving Aloy tools such as a grappling hook and a glider shows how much work Guerrilla Games have done in order to make the world feel more alive. Going up mountains in Zero Dawn was tricky (if possible at all), requiring you to find exploits in the terrain in order to access some areas—it made the world smaller than it seemed on the map. By allowing Aloy to climb, grapple, and glide, Forbidden West adds verticality to the world, and makes traversal more enjoyable and rewarding. With the numerous settlements scattered throughout, the world truly feels dense and alive at every turn. By removing the golden fast travel pack (allowing unlimited fast travel), you’re forced to traverse the vast plains by mount or on foot. While I initially wasn’t thrilled about it, I quickly understood and appreciated the decision – Forbidden West wants you to enjoy the journey and take in the sights. With campfires readily available throughout the world, they’re not hard to get to when fast travel is needed to cross the map.
And yes, you can fly across the map on pterodactyl-like machines.
Complementing the world is a story that gets its hooks into you at a faster pace than Zero Dawn did. Whereas the first game can be described as a slow burn, Forbidden West’s story beats come quicker, and keeps you on the hook for more of the mystery to be unfolded. Central to the storyline is Aloy, and her development and knowledge becomes the glue that links the past to the present. Her understanding of the world as a whole, both past and present, gives her the air of a seasoned veteran, and she approaches each revelation with an “expect the unexpected” mindset. She is still human and not invincible though, and voice actress Ashly Birch does a great job in portraying Aloy as determined, with a hint of vulnerability peppered in. The voice cast of Aloy’s allies, like Varl and Erend, do a solid job in bringing these characters to life, and the other side characters and antagonists are legit: Lance Reddick as Sylens, the aforementioned Angela Bassett, and Carrie-Ann Moss are all well-known Hollywood stars, and bring their characters so much personality.
Side quests are no longer carbon copies of one another—Tall neck quests, for example, require a variety of puzzle solving to complete each, and no two are alike. This applies throughout, making each encounter distinct from the last: Guerrilla Games have put personal touches to each quest, and it really shows.
Because I have yet to purchase a PS5, I spent close to 50 hours playing Horizon Forbidden West on a launch PS4. I, like other Horizon fans who are planning on playing this on PS4 or PS4 Pro, was concerned at how well it will perform. I am happy to report that overall, the game performs just fine on an eight year-old console. There was a section of the game within the first five hours that I experienced a major, but not unplayable, frame drop that had me worried this would be the norm, but it lasted no more than three minutes, and I never encountered frame drop issues for the rest of the time. There were times where the game jarringly switched to a loading screen in the middle of traversing through the world, but they were mere seconds and did not happen constantly. Graphically, the game looks more vivid and dense than Zero Dawn, and other than the odd texture pop-in, I didn’t encounter any major, game-breaking graphical issues throughout my time. Overall, I was amazed and relieved that Horizon Forbidden West performed as well as it did, albeit with my PS4 sounded like it was taking off at times.
Five years after Horizon Zero Dawn debuted on the Playstation 4 and solidified Aloy as a fan favourite in the Playstation mascots lineup, Guerrilla Games have crafted an excellent follow-up. Horizon Forbidden West is, in every way, more substantial and more immersive than its predecessor. This is for the PS4 what The Last of Us was for PS3: a swan song that maximises the potential of last-gen consoles.
If Horizon Zero Dawn was your jam, then this is a must-play. If you enjoyed it but found the world arid and lacking, then Forbidden West has enough packed in the world that it may just get its machine claws into you. I would be flabbergasted if it doesn’t make a Game of the Year nomination list.
Horizon Forbidden West
Developer: Guerilla Games
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Genre: Action adventure, open-world, RPG
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.