This is a spoiler-free Horizon Forbidden West review for PS5, with some minor early-game details covered.
Horizon Forbidden West came with an unenviable series of expectations. Improve on the first excellent instalment, broaden the scope of open-world adventures and deliver the first truly next-gen experience, all with Elden Ring breathing down its neck. The colossal nature of this task may ultimately have proven too much for Aloy’s latest quest, but there are still plenty of highs along the way.
A solid opening section grants the couple of hours necessary to settle back into the world and outline the stakes. Picking up shortly after Zero Dawn’s conclusion, Aloy has fled Meridian in the knowledge that Earth’s peril is far from over. A blight is killing the land and the only way to save it is to restore power to GAIA, the supercomputer with the power to reinvigorate the world’s ecosystem.
Whilst on the hunt for any leads that may point Aloy in the right direction, she’s suddenly confronted by her old friend Varl, who insists on accompanying her. Luckily enough, Aloy has got a spare focus, and explaining its functionality to Varl gives Aloy a nice excuse to remind players of the gameplay basics. Once we’re all caught up and back into the rhythm, it’s time to journey into the Forbidden West, a vast land that holds the key to GAIA’s revival. The downside is Easterners like Aloy are not welcomed by the Tenakth clan who occupy the land whilst in the midst of a bloody rebellion.
Once the tutorial is done, there’s also token catch-up segment that’ll help players recap Zero Dawn’s story and characters, whilst being insufficient for brand-new players. Forbidden West is definitely a game that requires a playthrough of its predecessor to make sense. Soon, the world opens up and it initially feels great to be back in Aloy’s hunter shoes. This only proves to be a fraction of the enormous map and despite several years passing since my Zero Dawn playthrough, it didn’t take long to be firmly refamiliarized with the gameplay mechanics. I was soon joyfully shooting off machine parts as if I’d never been away, scanning for weak points with my focus before ruthlessly exploiting them. So seamless was the transition that I soon started to crave some gameplay tweaks that would distinguish the sequel.
Thankfully many of these are just around the corner, with changes that range from very welcome to largely irrelevant. Aloy gets her hands on some new gear, namely a shield wing and a pullcaster that provide some benefits to her exploration. The shield wing is used to glide, bringing back fond memories of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It doesn’t get you very far – and I wish it had a little more range – but from certain high points on the map you are treated to a wondrous visual feast as you glide through the landscape. Aloy will basically order you to do this beforehand, so you don’t miss out on these moments.
The pullcaster is another addition that works nicely, often used during puzzle segments as well as simply speeding up your ascent of a mountain or huge derelict ruin. Like the glider, I’d have welcomed a bit more efficiency for this. I can’t be the only one getting tired of the obligatory climbing and ‘platforming’ sections, taken straight from Uncharted where the game does everything for you. It’s never been fun to hold a directional button, occasionally waiting for Aloy to stretch out a hand to make an absurdly difficult jump with no risk of failure whatsoever. Nearly every quest has some climbing involved, and if it’s going to remain this boring there may as well be an option to zip straight up and skip the slow, monotonous climbing altogether. Sometimes the option is there – and very welcome – but often it isn’t.
Speaking of slow and monotonous, there’s a final piece of equipment that warrants a mention – an underwater breathing tool. Yep, there are some lengthy swimming segments. There’s no facility to fight whilst underwater, making this one of the poorest additions in the game. These segments seem to go on forever, and I can’t fathom how anyone could possibly enjoy them. If they really have to be included, there should at least be some extra tech to make Aloy more versatile, with a harpoon weapon to fight off the underwater machines.
Elsewhere, the melee combat has had a facelift with a series of new combat abilities and combos for Aloy to pull off at close quarters. The most significant is probably the ability to build up energy in her spear to plant an explosive charge on an enemy that can be exploded with an arrow shot. The extra variety is nice, but unfortunately it still doesn’t make melee a particularly viable option against machines. I still resorted to the trusty bow and arrow for the vast majority of the game, at the expense of the new weapon types which never seemed to offer up enough benefit to be worth mastering. Saying that, I had a soft spot for the rapid-fire Boltblaster, and the javelin-esque Spike Thrower looks and feels pretty badass.
The final major combat addition is the Valor Surge system. Aloy can now charge up a bespoke Valor gauge by hitting weak points and taking damage, before spending it on a temporary power boost. These include abilities such as increasing ranged damage, strengthening melee attacks or simply unleashing a one-off blast to nearby foes. Again, these mostly don’t change the gameplay in any meaningful way and can actually be quite game-breaking. Even the strongest foes in the game can be taken down in a handful of shots if you know how and when to exploit these abilities. It’s admittedly satisfying to time a Valor Surge just right to decimate a powerful machine, but I’m dubious of whether they improve the combat’s depth or merely cheapen it.
Hunting grounds and battle pits are dotted around the map, generally tailored towards honing skills that involve the new gameplay mechanics, but perhaps my favourite addition is the arena. The concept is pretty simple – Aloy is pitted against machine combinations, either with a choice of equipment or occasionally a fixed setup. Each new battle is a tactical conundrum, and many of these skirmishes are thrilling and satisfying, coming with handsome rewards.
The strong foundation of Zero Dawn’s existing gameplay plus the cocktail of solid Forbidden West additions, the combat does occasionally crystalise into something special. Fighting an enormous machine for the first time, with exhilarating music and a real sense of urgency and spectacle is the biggest joy the game has to offer – especially earlier on. Unfortunately there are only a handful of such encounters, and as Aloy grows more deadly they rather lose their gravitas as her adventure wages on.
The best battles come against the new machine types, and the Tenakth themselves are occasional antagonists during some strong set-piece events. Otherwise, the clan are nothing to write home about. They have a handful of decent characters in their ranks, but the culture and politics of the region didn’t grip me in the slightest. And there’s no way around it – the Tenakth look utterly ridiculous. Their absurd, over-the-top designs are probably meant to be cool or intimidating, but it feels more like they are overcompensating for a lack of character. Instead, it was GAIA’s plot that directed us towards most of the genuinely intriguing mysteries – even if they mostly ended up with underwhelming conclusions.
Aloy straddles the line between likeable and irritating, and her character development has a habit of taking one step forward and two steps back. She’s at her best with her back against the wall, underestimated and outgunned before using her huntress wiles to overcome the odds. These moments are regrettably few and far between. Her exploits in the previous game have earned her the mantle of ‘Saviour’, invoking reverence at every turn. Even when she enters the Forbidden West, she wins an early battle against a powerful warrior. Somehow, news of this single battle not only spreads far and wide instantly, but leads everyone – including random nobodies atop snowy mountains – to hail her as ‘Champion’.
All of this adulation detracts from our protagonist’s most interesting qualities. Instead of seeing Aloy’s defiant, arrogant streak, more often than not she seems… bored. Most lines are delivered with a sigh that suggests she’s got something better to do, and her many challenges are breezed past with consummate ease. It’s a real shame, because there were plenty of opportunities to put Aloy through the mill, causing her to really question her convictions and debate whether she should lean on others or shoulder the ‘saviour’ burden herself. Instead, moments that should be earth-shattering to Aloy barely register, and she’s straight back to the cool, composed hero who at times strays dangerously close to Mary Sue territory.
In the end, there are some attempts to implant an arc with some emotional revelations that come out of the blue rather than feeling organic, to the point they are actually jarring and don’t feel earned. Again, this represents a waste as I liked many of the set-ups and ideas to explore but they don’t have enough flesh around the bones to make an impact. Meanwhile, her supporting cast are a similarly mixed bag. Many of the best characters, like her old friend Erend and new companion Kotallo, are underused, with some of the most attention going towards two particularly irritating new characters.
The most engaging parts of the story by far are Aloy’s exchanges with Sylens. It helps considerably that Sylens doesn’t fawn over Aloy but considers himself her moral and technical superior. What he lacks in combat is more than made up for with his knowledge and ingenuity. The interplay is underwritten by plenty of history and emotion, making it all the more compelling when they trade verbal blows. Like others, Sylens simply doesn’t get enough screen time and large chunks of the story are instead simple McGuffin hunts that force us around the world without any true personal stakes to latch onto.
It really doesn’t help that Aloy can’t stay quiet for longer than a minute. This is of course intended as a gameplay supplement, where constant hints and tips are meant to assist. Every tiny thing warrants a comment, whether it’s a puzzle’s solution, an enemy’s weak point or mundane commentary about the berries being foraged for the millionth time.
On the rare occasions Aloy remains silent during a puzzle section, she’ll instantly revert to type the moment you even look towards the solution. It made me long for the perfect balance Metal Gear Solid had with this, with its Codec available to call your allies for a nudge in the right direction whilst keeping it on your terms. Since Aloy’s friends are each kitted out with a focus now, a similar sort of system could have been utilised here rather than turning Aloy into Captain Obvious.
I’ve probably lingered on the flaws and annoyances of Horizon Forbidden West more than it deserves, which perhaps speaks to my own fatigue of these triple-A open world action-adventure-RPG games. There really is a lot of good stuff here, but it feels bogged down by elements we have seen so many times before. The open world is vast, filled with ruins, machine sites, settlements, caves, and peaks. There are collectibles and tasks to complete, such as collecting drones, black boxes and salvage contracts – along with many, many sidequests.
After well over 50 hours in the Forbidden West, there was plenty more for me to do. It’s just, at this point I didn’t particularly want to do them. Clearing all tallnecks, cauldrons, hunting grounds, battle pits and the arena was enough for me. Following waypoints for paltry rewards I clearly didn’t need wasn’t enough to keep me around.
The closest I’ll get to a late-game spoiler is something that could have alleviated this fatigue – a flying machine can be overridden and mounted, but this is unlocked too far into the game. An earlier override would have encouraged more organic exploration through the skies, whilst simultaneously offering the best way to appreciate the beauty within Horizon Forbidden West.
Outside of a few weird glitches like invisible NPCs and (more annoyingly) failing to recognise that I won an arena battle, my experience of the game’s performance was overwhelmingly positive. The odd mishap simply comes with the territory of large open-world games and the only graphical let-down was with generic, expressionless faces. This was consistently poor in NPCs, and sometimes extended to Aloy herself. Nonetheless, Horizon Forbidden West is mostly a visual feast to be admired.
On paper, Horizon Forbidden West should have blown me away. Instead, a mix of overly high expectations and overindulgence within the genre have contributed towards my concluding feeling. It’s not even disappointment. It’s closer to apathy. As good as it occasionally gets… it feels like old news. Not just from Aloy’s last adventure, but from just about everywhere over the last decade of open-world escapades. There were ample opportunities to take some more narrative and gameplay risks, and Guerrilla undoubtedly cashed out with a safer bet rather than going all-in with a gamble that could have set a new standard. I’m not saying a safe bet is necessarily the wrong choice, but it comes with a downside. Few will dislike Horizon Forbidden West, but I anticipate few will remember much of it in years to come.