Despite its arrival on PC, it took some convincing for me to delve into the post-apocalyptic, almost mythical realm of Horizon Zero Dawn. Prior to their open-world venture, Guerilla Games was only known for ‘Killzone,’ a franchise that always spoke to me as an average mindless shooter. So don’t blame me for not buying into the initial hype.
I tried Zero Dawn for the first time last month, and although I wasn’t wowed by its gameplay, the overarching story and visuals made for a refreshing affair. I’ve been itching for some more hunting action recently, and right on time, Sony hit me up with a review code for the sequel. Does Horizon Forbidden West make for a worthy successor? Let’s find out.
Horizon Forbidden West review: Story
We open to a cinematic shot of our huntress Aloy, galloping towards the vast horizon in search of hope – a way to protect mankind from an infectious, red blight that’s ravaging the lands. Time is running out, and she must get access to GAIA, an AI developed by scientist Elisabet Sobeck. The game picks up 6 months after the events of the original, and therefore, does not waste any time trying to explain the lore. The 5-minute recap session at the beginning does enough to set you on the right course, but can still be confusing for newcomers. The dialogues are rich with all kinds of jargon and references, and so well-written, that it feels unjust to jump into this without playing the prequel, Horizon Zero Dawn.
Fresh off her victory against HADES, Aloy is a celebrated hero of the Meridian. The citizens take kindly to her, recite tales of her glory, and even have a memorial statue built in her name. Being treated as an outcast for a good chunk of her life, she has trouble adjusting to all of it. There’s a sense of awkwardness in her voice and mounting pressure, as she tries living upto expectations and preventing the world-ending threat. The writing approach tries to relieve her of that tension by stressing the importance of allies. Throughout the journey, countless characters offer to help, but Aloy remains adamant about doing it all by herself.
Around two hours into the game, Aloy learns that she needs to traverse into the arcane frontier known as Forbidden West to find the source of the deadly plague. And to get there, she needs to open gates to the Embassy, which is kept closed on accounts of a peace treaty between the neighbouring clans. Her clout doesn’t work here for once, and so, help arrives in the form of her comrades Erend and Varl, who step in to convince the authorities for easy passage.
This puts Aloy in an uncomfortable position, where she is forced to take it in and move on. The choice-based dialogue system in this game won’t let you accept any aid, and instead allows you to pick between moods. You can choose to be polite or rude in the manner you thank people. Or pick the third option where she conjures up a neutral dialogue to address the issue. Either way, she keeps pushing people away, and it is a disheartening sight to see.
Voice actress Ashly Burch does a phenomenal job with those tonal shifts, and motion capture by Hannah Hoekstra is consistent with her performance in the prequel. There were points where I felt like Aloy was too expressive with her eyebrows, as she would raise them after every phrase or so. Similar to Emma Watson’s acting in the early Harry Potter films. But I feel like this critique could be attributed more toward the animation department than the actual model.
Aloy’s rejection of help might seem annoying to some, but you can’t really blame her for wanting to be alone. It’s not an ego thing either, as she was conditioned to solve problems on her own since childhood. Meeting the fierce new villain Regalla and learning of her sad origin story, she realises how loneliness and the thought of betrayal can take someone on a misguided path. Such instances are sprinkled throughout, and Aloy slowly becomes more open to the idea of letting people in and sharing some of her burden. The friends she made along the way are here to stay, and her character arc gets some bold and beautiful treatment.
Horizon Forbidden West review: Gameplay
PlayStation exclusives are notorious for embracing outdated game designs. Sadly, Horizon Forbidden West falls in the same category. Sure, there are a lot of fun improvements, but don’t go in expecting next-level innovation here. The biggest change has to be the way PS5 titles feel in your hand, with the new DualSense controller adding depth to the immersion. Every bit of jolt or reaction in-game is translated directly onto your palms. Running through bushes results in soft rustling vibrations, while jumping off heights adds a sudden jerk. It’s even felt during archery, whereupon pulling on a tightened bowstring, the adaptive triggers get tense to press.
One of the biggest complaints with Zero Dawn was the limiting traversal, where Aloy would only climb using yellow-coloured handholds that were placed in specific points on the map. And while this is still true for man-made structures, mountain climbing and exploration has been expanded upon – to a degree. The handholds have been removed, and Aloy now grabs onto crevices and rocks to make her way to the top, in a way that feels more open and natural – albeit nowhere close to what you would find in an Assassin’s Creed game.
Hitting the Focus button (R3) sends out a scan that reveals climbing points you can latch onto. However, they have been limited to existing only where the developers want you to explore. This is ideal for loot hunting or finding new locations, as you know the outlines have been placed there for a reason. But when you consider the thrill of exploring uncharted areas, it feels less immersive and too easy.
Fans of The Witcher 3 are going to adore the open-world system in this game. The environment is lively, teeming with ingeniously designed machines, prowling and waiting at every opportunity to attack humans. Oftentimes, you’ll come across interactive set pieces, where the AI humans try fighting off these beasts in the background. It makes for a pretty engaging scuffle that can be watched from afar. Or, you could jump right in between and take command of the battle, after which, the characters reward you with rare loot.
This is further expanded upon with world interactions. You can go around towns and settlements and talk to people to unlock new quests and in-depth lore that lead to decent payoffs. It never feels overbearing and if one of the characters has been rambling for too long, you can cut short the conversation and revisit those dialogues later. Look elsewhere, and you’ll find merchants, traders, and chefs that cook up hearty meals to provide a temporary performance boost.
As you would expect, weapon and clothing upgrades are also offered at these stations with easy accessibility. In case you happen to lack any raw materials required for upgrade, the game lets you create ‘Jobs.’ These are player-specific quests that help Aloy track and acquire individual items for crafting, without having to wander aimlessly. In most other titles, the player is required to go out exploring again, and guess where they could find that one last piece of the puzzle. But here, the game directly points you in the direction.
While you’d still be relying on your foot or riding machines for a major portion of the game, the special gear gathered during the story adds some weight to traversal. Incredibly early in the game, you get a Pullcaster, which functions like the grappling hook from the Batman: Arkham games. It can be used for a host of things such as retrieving hard to reach items, hooking onto high areas, and pulling down rubble to uncover hidden locations.
Then, there’s the Shieldwing that lets you glide down safely from atop tall structures. But unlike Breath of the Wild, using the glider here does not drain your stamina, which is quite pleasing. This time, the developers have also added underwater exploration, where you scour for items and encounter perilous machines swimming about, mimicking the patterns of a shark or an alligator.
At the early stages, you have limited lung capacity, but as the story progresses, you’re given a diving mask that lets you go deep-sea diving for unlimited time. I like how the game doesn’t stop you from exploring these areas earlier, albeit with limitations.
Combat is easily the highlight here. The blight is causing machines to behave more erratically than ever before, ramping up the intensity to a new level. There are times when these beastly foes completely stop moving. You go up close thinking it’s a free hit, but then, their eyes start glowing red, they let out a wild scream and pounce at you. Here, you could dodge roll out of the path and chip away using your trusty spear. Or, if you’re fast enough, enable the focus to slow down time, whip out your bow, and shoot weak points to deal heavy damage.
Aloy can craft acid and fire arrows on the fly, which are super effective against bulky machines. With a well-placed shot on one of the canisters sticking out of their butt, you could corrode down their metallic body or blast them into smithereens. The skill tree does take time to build up, but offers a ton of variety on-field if done right. You could unlock a perk that showers down a rain of fiery arrows or go berserk with the new ‘Valor Surge’. Think of it like the Spartan Rage mode in God of War, which builds over time as you fight. Once enabled, Aloy smears her face with tribal warpaint and gets a short adrenaline surge that makes her brawny and almost invincible, letting you run amok like chickens with their heads cut off.
Horizon Forbidden West review: Graphics and Audio
Playing this game on PS5’s Resolution mode was the best decision I made, though with some sacrifices in the framerate department. There is some noticeable stutter every now and then, but in the grand scheme of things, the 30fps made the experience feel more cinematic. The world in Horizon Forbidden West is breathtakingly beautiful, taking you on a soothing journey through its glorious vistas and decaying city ruins, brimming with stories untold.
Iconic locations such as the moss-covered San Francisco Golden Gate bridge, dense rainforests, and stormy deserts have a level of grittiness and technical detail that highlights the amount of love and care poured into this project. Even the character models have a touch of realism, where turning the camera at certain angles or by entering the photo mode, you can see the peach fuzz (facial hair), protruding out of Aloy’s skin.
Simply hovering over the game on the home page fills your eardrums with an angelic chant that feels connected to the original while striking out on its own – as a sequel should. Composer Joris de Man is back on board, teaming up with musical duo ‘The Flight’, to deliver a soundtrack that blends classical music with some tropical beats to match the game’s tribal theme. The 3D Audio ensures an immersive experience, where you can clearly hear the machines’ footsteps thudding in the distance – creating suspense in the veins of the Jurassic Park movies.
Horizon Forbidden West review: Verdict
Through intricate world-building and a tactical combat mechanic that keeps you on high alert, Horizon Forbidden West proves to be an absolute blast. Underneath the shell of its dated AAA game design lies a strong narrative that functions well to expand on Aloy’s arc and beliefs, in a way that feels humane. Top that off with the rich, stunning environment that is easy to get lost in, and Guerilla Games might have secured their spot as a hefty contender for the awards season.