Horizon Forbidden West Review

A verdant valley gives way to windswept dunes. The forest, with its fallen leaves underfoot that ranged from crunchy to damp, is now so far in the rearview mirror that I can completely buy this journey’s sense of scale. That humid scene was replaced with soft green, and now the desert’s dryness awaits.

Horizon Forbidden West is a story about stories. Sure, you can break it all down and say that reluctant returning heroine Aloy’s quest to save a reborn world is the all-inclusive pillar holding the whole thing together. To do so, however, would be to ignore the way the sight of that desert makes us feel. It’s the next phase in a long westbound journey for Aloy, and she looks upon it with wonder. In the PlayStation 5 version of the game, the haptic feedback on the DualSense controller works hard to lend our hands a sense that we’re right there with her as the sandy gusts pass over her and — oh, yeah — giant mechanical dinosaurs roam the land.

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There’s a story here about the important role of imagination in the design and development of ambitious video games. I am absolutely convinced  Horizon Forbidden West’s creators have read their fair share of the science fiction classics. They’ve also driven past satellite dishes in Utah and envisioned these places as far-future settlements for the survivors of a post-post-apocalyptic North American continent. Every ounce of this game is bursting with color; an experience so vivid that it will likely age quite well in the years to come. Eventually, we will notice all the blemishes in this 2022 outing of top-notch graphical substance. But for now, the emerald foliage near sapphire coasts, the ruby red alarms in research laboratories, and the like — with decent HDR, every television will tell the tale that Forbidden Westis a visual gem.

Not every story in Guerrilla Games’ visually mesmerizing sequel is told quite so well. There’s a dichotomy to the combat system, an oddity that stems from that most dreaded (and perhaps overused) of open-world critiques: "bloated." Aloy has access to a dizzying number of new trinkets and gadgets. As a reviewer, I should refrain from using words like doodad; the insinuation is that I can’t remember what this stuff is called. I have a professional obligation to retain this important information in my brain, you know.

But I can’t. Not all of it, anyway. There’s an overabundance to it all as if the developers were worried that players would grow bored with every weapon and tool at Aloy’s disposal, so they just kept shoving in some more. There are welcome exceptions, like the pullcaster. I’ll be surprised if I’m the only reviewer who grabs the low-hanging fruit here and labels the pullcaster 'the best open-world contraption since The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s paraglider.' Even the words themselves are sort of similar. Guerrilla, we’re on to you.

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The pullcaster gives Aloy everything she needs to weave her way across the world. Armed with her ever-trusty Focus, she can now determine precisely where she needs to launch herself in order to avoid stumbling down into a dreary and dramatically anticlimactic death. But beyond this wonderful item, there’s a sea of increasingly samey inventory to snag when, in reality, the myriad machines standing in Aloy’s path can mostly be dispatched with, say, a spear. Or a spear with an explosive edge to it. Or a spear with an explosive edge to it that’s fired from a handheld mechanical catapult and shreds heavy armor like butter in the sun.

It’s all a bit much. Your mileage may vary. Perhaps you’re of the mind that more is always better in life. In which case, this game will blow you away. More, more, more — more weapons, more monsters, more sidequests, more ambient behavior among NPCs. Some of that is objectively grand! It’s good to have more dinosaurs to ogle in-between dodging and damage-dealing. It’s wonderful to behold more realistic "background extras" moving around their tribal cities far more believably than Zero Dawn could hope to convey. But the weaponry crosses the border into superfluousness. The sidequests tend to pack in far greater rewards than the first game permitted, but precious few of them feel unique. The camera angles make these quest-givers seem dynamic, but there’s a lot of static in their requests.

If you enjoyed Horizon Zero Dawn’s skill trees, you’ll enjoy  Horizon Forbidden West’s. There’s not much else to say on that front. They’re back, but they’ve increased in number. A more impressive array of abilities can be unlocked, and the top-notch graphics and smooth frame rate of Performance Mode ensure that Aloy looks cooler than ever out there on the frontier.

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And looking cool is critical because our fiery fighter lacks the warmth she once possessed. It can be argued that Aloy’s newfound aloofness is a natural progression. She went from a child damned as an outcast to a renowned savior with plenty of friends. It’s just that, well, those friends of hers come across as still more tools for the job. Not because they aren’t written splendidly as genuine individuals; in fact, there are lots of opportunities for them to intermingle and grow as beleaguered people in search of a brighter tomorrow.

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At a certain point, something will open up allowing these blossoming personalities to interact with each other in kind of a BioWare-esque fashion. It’s pretty good. Except that Aloy never stops striking them all down, talking technically at the expense of humanity. She’s afraid of intimacy. This is simultaneously believable and disheartening; it makes for a frequently bland protagonist whose presence infused the first Horizon  with passion.

Aloy does have her moments in Forbidden West, and they’ll stick with me about as well as the slapdash-but-enthralling central narrative. It’s the story of stories, of course; the main reason many will come here. The embargo is firm on this front, so there’s not much I can say. It builds upon the first game’s foundations by embracing most of that chapter’s teachings, but a handful of scenes toward its end may leave fans frustrated with the inevitable slow march toward an equally inevitable third title.

The world is gorgeous, and many of its inhabitants are well worth getting to know — even if Aloy herself underwhelms. The combat’s snappy and the machines are spectacularly designed, but stick around a while and it will all boil down to a handful of techniques. The story is solid, if somewhat dissatisfying in its closing hours. There’s good and there’s bad here, none of it downright ugly.

Where does the curtain fall, then? Is Horizon Forbidden West  a middling game in search of something stronger? No, for its strengths are too mighty and its weaknesses, too minor. Nor is it merely decent; the clever sci-fi worldbuilding pushes it well past such words. It’s flawed but enamoring, breathtaking but seldom as bold as it could have been.

Better than its capable predecessor, with further room to grow, beautiful Horizon Forbidden West  is the rare game that compels me to think my deepest thoughts not for what it is, but for what its franchise can become. The qualitative gap between this pair is enough to make me wonder if a third installment — let’s label it Horizon the Third for now and be thankful for something smarter when it's inevitably announced a few years down the road — can deliver the masterpiece this setting so richly deserves.

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