It’s okay to ask for help when you need it.
This is the simple truism that drives the plot of Horizon: Forbidden West. Following the destruction of Zero Dawn and uncovering the truth about her birth, Aloy has become more withdrawn than ever. Assured her entire young life that she was an unwanted outcast, Aloy still believes it in her heart.
A mysterious, poisonous Red Blight has begun to consume the living world. At first, Aloy thought if she dug deeply enough into the remaining information the Zero Dawn project left behind, she could find a way to stop it. One by one, her leads have dried up, yielding nothing. Hope fades and, in its place, desperation and uncertainty grow by the day.
These failures lead Aloy to fear the worst. That she’s a fraud. That she cannot save the very people who now look to her as a saviour. She’s afraid of what they’ll do and say when the truth comes out. Her profound, debilitating fear of rejection drives Aloy into greater and greater danger with each dead end.
The connective feelers she began to put out into the world as the original game progressed have been retracted, and she attempts to soldier on as a one-woman band. Her abrupt withdrawal hurts the people who care about her, as this kind of behaviour always does. They’re left feeling abandoned or, worse, that she never viewed them as a friend at all.
When confronted by friends that are validly upset by her abrupt disappearance from their lives, Aloy stiffens, braced for the emotional blow. It often doesn’t come. Her friends and allies can see the strain her quest is putting on her, and support her how they can. They see what she cannot: even if she believes the path is hers to walk alone, it doesn’t mean they can’t join her for a little while. They surprise her at every turn, even when she wishes they wouldn’t.
Shunned and rebuked her entire life, Aloy is suddenly loved, and it’s very hard for her to accept that. This, I think, may make her the most relatable hero in Sony’s roster. She yearns for meaningful connection and, at the same time, refuses to believe she deserves it.
Aloys internal and external problems are the nexus of the entire experience. The Red Blight eats away at the bonds that hold nature together. Aloy, historically accused of being a red blight herself, finds her learned self-reliance eroding the few personal bonds she’s ever forged in her life. Both problems are too big for her to mend alone.
So begins a new kind of Journey to the West.
Mastering the fundamentals
From a gameplay perspective, Horizon: Forbidden West is more evolutionary than revolutionary. The easy, games journalism parlance here would be to say that “if you liked Zero Dawn, then Forbidden West delivers more of the same.” and it’s not untrue. It’s also not a bad thing.
Horizon: Zero Dawn struck the mechanical nail so cleanly on the head that major mechanical iterations are limited, confined to later sections of the game. Again, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. When the original game’s foundation is this strong, choosing to focus on perfecting the things it was good at rather than throwing hundreds of new ideas into the mix is to be applauded. If there’s a drawback here at all, it may be that a player base used to sequels arriving loaded with new ideas for the sake of new ideas may feel underserved.
Combat is largely unchanged. Your strongest weapon is Aloy’s bow, and a stream of arrows fed directly into enemy weak points is your most reliable tactic. Shock traps and elemental arrows return and are still as effective as ever. Keep moving, use your Focus to identify the weak points, time your dodges, and find opportunities to craft more ammo. Look for environmental triggers you can use to turn a complex battle on its head or create an ambush to kick it off.
Certain enemies have changed to keep things feeling fresh. New otter-type robots now act as wary sentries, regularly stopping their patrols to sit up and scan for danger. Broadheads are still your primary mode of transportation in the early game and make getting around the sizeable world map a bit faster. New boar-like enemies carry poison canisters on their backs that can be shattered to take them down quickly. Like the original game, your best plan of attack is to take your enemies down quickly and at range. Melee combat feels strong and suitably blunt-force, but your enemies are all caked in armour and melee can’t tear through it all that easily.
Aloy does have a few new toys in her kit, of course, like the Pullcaster, a retractable grappling hook for reaching high platforms and more rapidly scale climbing surfaces. It can also be used in physics puzzles, pulling crates from a height or even yanking heavy doors off their hinges.
Certain sections of the game take place underwater and provide Aloy with another means of traversing the game’s sprawling open world. There’s actually a lot I could talk about here, and I’d like to, but that could spoil some of the game’s most breathtaking moments so perhaps it’s best if I avoid going into too much detail. What I will say is that the game’s decision to have you spend your first six or seven hours trekking through bone dry badlands in the early game makes the arrival of the water sections feel like a wonderful change of pace.
Fidelity and Performance
Played in its 4K30 Fidelity mode, the PlayStation 5 allows all of Horizon: Forbidden West’s visual splendour to shine through. Guerilla’s artists and animators have put a plainly herculean amount of work into making the game a visual feast.
Beyond the complexity and expressiveness of its human characters, it’s the smaller effects that really dazzle. The way a stiff breeze ruffles hair, clothes, and foliage as you lie low outside an enemy fort. The way the dust kicks up from under Aloy’s feet as she sprints or rolls. If you zoom in on the game’s robotic enemies, it’s often possible to track the flow of power through its body. Small particle effects lend a sense of dense atmosphere to every biome.
Indeed, the effects of Guerilla’s effects and lighting work are most keenly felt underwater, which has so many effects and flourishes on screen that you wonder how it runs without any significant slowdown. It’s a testament to the raw grunt of this next-generation hardware that it can shoulder visuals like these without appearing to break much of a sweat.
There is also a 1080p60 mode as well for those who prefer a smoother frame rate. I will say, however, that the visual drop from Fidelity to Performance is rather pronounced. It still looks great, don’t get me wrong, but the 30 fps mode elevates the look of the game to another plane. If you can bear the chop of 30 frames, then it will make a strong argument for itself.
There’s a lot about Horizon: Forbidden West that I can’t talk about in this review because I don’t want to spoil its better moments. Because those moments and associated gameplay are so neatly tied into Aloy’s evolving arc, and because that arc is such a good one, it’s hard to go into too much detail without taking something away from you.
The point is this: If what you’re hoping for is a rock-solid sequel to one of the PlayStation’s strongest new IPs, you have it. Horizon: Forbidden West is the PlayStation 5’s first true blockbuster, an example of surprising design restraint, perfecting already strong fundamentals and introducing sensible, enjoyable new ones when the time is right. It’s also a towering technical achievement, a vision of what can be accomplished in this console generation by a team with a complete understanding of the hardware.