The Best in the West

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Horizon Forbidden West on PS5

2017’s Horizon Zero Dawn ushered in a new era for Sony’s first-party studio, Guerrilla Games. Casting aside the linear corridors and orange-eyed Helghast of the Killzone series, the new IP introduced us to an amicable protagonist in Aloy, and a sprawling open-world teeming with animal-like machines roaming the Earth just begging to be slain, with Aloy stripping their components off like a complex and rather vicious puzzle. It was an excellent foundation, providing a tantalizing ending that set up its sequel. That sequel is here now in the form of Horizon Forbidden West, and just as any sequel should be, it’s bigger and better in almost every way over its predecessor.

Following on from where things left off in Zero Dawn, Forbidden West opens with Aloy trying to understand what’s causing an unstoppable blight — a red-colored moss that poisons the world and the natural creatures that inhabit it — and violent storms that are destroying the world. New machines have also begun to appear, prompting Aloy to embark on another epic adventure, this time into the Tenakth territory of the Forbidden West, No Man’s Land which borders it, and the Sundom of Meridian that players explored in the first game. There’s also the case of that pesky Sylens, quite possibly my favorite member of the ensemble cast, a character that retains his air of mystery in the sequel as he did in the first title.

Speaking more broadly in order to avoid spoiling anything in the story, Forbidden West’s narrative is excellent, maintaining solid pacing that’ll keep you hooked and eager to press on through Aloy’s adventure. It tackles themes of greed, selfishness, and humanity’s own ignorance of the damage it has caused, providing plenty of food for thought over our own actions in the real world today. It’s that latter point, in particular, that makes Horizon’s world and narrative so enthralling — the fact that there’s a tangible link back to the real world and our own actions and behaviors, further highlighted by the “ancient” ruins and remnants of our society, scattered throughout the world.

Aloy is as endearing as she was in Zero Dawn, with her inquisitive nature and selfless desire to do good in the world, no matter the danger it may place her in. She is a bastion of light and hope in times of darkness and despair. Her reluctance to just accept a bad situation and her story from a Nora outcast to a legendary warrior leaves an empowering message on the palette. It’s a story of optimism in the face of relentless adversity and how, despite our best intentions, it’s not always possible to keep everyone happy — to always be right in every scenario, regardless of how stellar a track record you have.

Ashly Burch delivers another spectacular performance, bringing this endearingly determined heroine to life, and Lance Reddick’s performance as the ever-enigmatic Sylens was another particular highlight. By and large, the performances from the entire cast were exceptional, with strong writing and contrasting characteristics being delivered in a manner that makes the various people you meet along the way feel so unique, in turn, making them more memorable.

Within what is a rather serious and grounded overarching narrative, Guerrilla Games still manages to get some genuinely humorous moments in there thanks to Aloy’s running commentary as she deals with ever-increasingly daunting tasks. The supporting cast is no slouch here either, with new faces like Kotallo and Morlund providing some comic relief in their conversations and witty remarks to Aloy, while Erend and Varl act as sounding boards and voices of support for our savior of Sundom in her times of need.

All of this comes together to make for a story that’s even more unforgettable than its predecessor. New and returning characters are memorable and drive you on to succeed on your quest. Guerrilla Games has delivered something special with Horizon Forbidden West’s narrative, with ample twists and turns that’ll keep you guessing throughout.

Fortunately, the gameplay delivers on that same level of quality, too, chiefly when it comes to combat and traversal. The former feels far more extensive, thanks to a range of new mechanics, from Valor Surge’s which act as a ‘special move’ of sorts once you’ve filled up your Valor Meter. Unlocked through the six skill trees in the game, they relate to the one that they’re found in. For example, High Volley can be found in the Hunter skill tree — centered around ranged attacks — which sees Aloy fire a high-arcing volley of arrows to rain down on your enemies, while in the stealth-oriented Infiltrator tree, you’ll find Stealth Stalker, activating a cloaking device to massively reduce your visibility from enemies.

Then there are Weapon Techniques, which are more or less the same thing but are focused on providing a ‘special attack’ for different weapon types — of which there are many more in comparison to the original game. The Sharpshot Bow’s Braced Shot, for example, sees Aloy fire a powerful shot from a kneeling position that explodes on impact. To ensure these aren’t overused in combat, they require Weapon Stamina, which slowly recharges over time, and the more powerful a Weapon Technique is, the more it’ll drain your stamina gauge.

There are a wealth of new weapon types, such as the buzzsaw-cross-boomerang Shredder that hacks away at enemies before returning back to you, and explosive spears and various elemental damage types. They help ensure Aloy’s arsenal of weapons feels varied and suitably lethal for the formidable machines she’ll encounter roaming across the Forbidden West. I did still find myself relying largely on the various types of bow, purely because I found them to be the most effective and easiest to use when combat got particularly hectic, but having different options to exploit each machine’s weakness rewards a more strategic approach to combat.

In that regard, the enemies you come across feel like even more complex and entertaining puzzles to tackle than those in Horizon Zero Dawn. They often require a combination of different ammo and weapon types to pick off components and, in some cases, use their own weapons against them if you can pry them off their chassis. Spot a Sparker on the back of a Charger? Target it with shock ammo to cause a chain reaction, rippling through the wiring and circuitry of the bull-like beast, dealing hefty damage while also momentarily paralyzing it. Come across a heavily armored Rollerback? Acid ammo and traps can help chip away and remove the armor, revealing weak spots that can be targeted for massive damage.

Melee combat has also been improved upon for the sequel, with new combos that Aloy can utilize to break the armor of human enemies or momentarily stagger a machine. It’s a welcome improvement, but melee combat still lacks that magic that Aloy’s ranged weapons, traps and tripwires do. Human enemies, in general, feel a little bit of a chore to take on in comparison to their mechanical counterparts, but given the latter are the real star of the series, that should come as no real surprise.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t discuss the variety of machines in general, then. Alongside fan favorites like the T-Rex-inspired Thunderjaw, through to new additions such as the previously revealed Tremortusk, Guerrilla Games has pored over every tiny detail of these machines. They’re a masterclass in design, with the gears of a Slitherfang spinning and whirring away in synchronicity, the illusions of wires and machine muscle working in tandem to bring these mechanical marvels to life.

The detail is just impeccable, from the rust of rivets and the shine of steel and silver to the scuffs, scratches, and scars of time etched into their hardened exterior and the sparks that fly when metal clashes with metal. The manner in which each machine can be picked apart, limiting its functionality or causing a massive elemental chain reaction is often mesmerizing.

All of these are found in the entirely new map of the Forbidden West, an open-world entrenched in lore that only helps to enrich the world. The environments feel far more varied than that of the first game, with towering mountains encompassing vast stretches of desert, dense jungles, crumbling ancient ruins, and vast systems of underwater tunnels and caves that come together to add a literal new layer to exploration.

The more you progress through the main story, the more key upgrades you’ll unlock for Aloy. The range from her glider to underwater breathing apparatus, and other gadgets like the grapple shot that allows her to target specific points on walls or pull down a wall of rubble. But the biggest improvement to traversal comes in the massively increased amount of points in which Aloy can simply dig her fingers into the side of a cliff and scale it with an effortless fluidity that’s almost captivating in its elegance. Not every cliff-face or mountainside can be climbed, but with quick use of her Focus, Aloy can reveal ridges, holds, and more in a surface that she can climb onto. This solves some of the frustrations I had playing Horizon Zero Dawn, in which surfaces that looked like they should be climbable simply weren’t.

Horizon Forbidden West Review

Playing on PS5, Horizon Forbidden West is jaw-droppingly beautiful at times, with snow-tipped mountains steeped in a thin veil of mist, naturally cascading down their jagged edges. The way sunlight permeates through the jungle canopy, illuminating the vibrantly colored flora and fauna that litters the floor as Peccary, rabbits, and foxes scutter about, stopping to feed before moving on.

There’s a real sense that the world is lived in, that the lights stay on even when you put your controller down, and this sentiment is no more prevalent than in the settlements scattered throughout the Forbidden West. From the first settlement I encountered of Chainscrape, through to Plainsong which is beautifully complemented by a heavenly choir when you first arrive, these feel more populated and substantial than those in Zero Dawn. NPCs will tell Aloy of rumors of things they’ve seen or heard about out in the wild; merchants can be heard trying to entice passers-by — including Aloy — to trade, and there’s even a board game called Machine Strike that makes each feel like a more lived-in, authentic locale. Settlements generally feel more like actual hubs where the last remnants of humanity congregate for strength in numbers, to converse with one another, or to simply make their home.

The Forbidden West and its neighboring No Man’s Land are absolutely massive, and Guerrilla Games has done an excellent job in ensuring that there’s plenty to see and do as you explore it. Arenas provide combat challenges for Aloy to tackle within set time limits and offer up lucrative rewards for completing, while Hunting Grounds and Melee Pits offer up combat challenges with more specific requirements for both machine and human enemy-based challenges respectively.

Survey Drones circle sections of the map, while Artifacts are tucked away inside Relic Ruins, themselves intricate puzzle rooms that’ll leave you scratching your head. There’s Gauntlet Runs for those seeking no-rules machine racing with Tenakth Tribe members, and Cauldrons to dive deep into in search of override codes for the various machines throughout the world. Just for good measure, there are Rebel Camps and Outposts to tackle, too, to scratch any itch for Far Cry outpost-style ambush missions.

All of this comes together to make Horizon Forbidden West’s world one that has that rare sense of wonder that so many have clamored for since Breath of the Wild did it so well in 2017. That sense of forgetting about the main story for hours on end because everywhere you turn there’s something new and interesting luring you in that direction, off the beaten path, into the unknown. The fact Forbidden West’s side quests feel as substantial and well-written as its main quests mean even if you blast through the story content, there’s still more than enough reason to keep exploring the Forbidden West.

A particular standout saw me visiting a flooded village, rescuing the tribe members there from a building, taking down a couple of Snapmaws that stood between one group and safety, and solving a few environmental puzzles to shift a giant crane to rescue some others stranded on a cliff-face, only to have to still seek out one more missing tribe member. These side quests are typically a combination of platforming, combat and puzzles that feel as well-designed as main ones. Whether it’s the combination of these various gameplay mechanics or the strong writing in this side content, they feel far more enjoyable and well-designed than the usual fetch-quest fluff in other open-world titles.

Where Horizon Forbidden West falls a little short of its predecessor, however, were some performance issues and bugs. At one point, the game failed to register my trigger pushes to ready or fire my weapons; in another important story cutscene, the audio momentarily cut out before popping back in. Another saw a random and frankly off-putting blue glow surrounding the edges of the screen whenever the camera panned to Aloy. I also had a grand total of four hard crashes to the PS5’s home screen, and another rather amusing instance where an empty room appeared to suddenly fill with water, causing Aloy to begin swimming underwater, before emptying a few moments later sending her crashing to the ground and dying. After dying in the final mission, the screen turned to black, the audio came back in, and that was it. I had to close the game and load it back up to continue on. Fortunately, the auto-save feature is pretty thorough when playing through main story missions, so I didn’t lose progress.

Then there are some minor issues with Aloy’s animations, particularly her hair in cutscenes which appears to bob around with an unnerving level of sentience even when she’s standing still. She also frequently clipped through ladders or objects when climbing, which can all be a little bit immersion-breaking.

Guerrilla Games has released its day one update and having spent over 10 hours with this patch in open-world activities, things do seem a lot more stable, especially with instances of pop-in I’d noticed prior to that. But for complete transparency, I spent 35 hours beating the story and exploring the open world prior to this patch releasing, and so I, unfortunately, can’t go back to some of these areas where I experienced bugs to confirm whether or not the patch has fixed things up.

Whether or not this is a result of Forbidden West being “held back” by the PS4, or it simply pushing the PS5 to its limits, or just some rare and unfortunate bugs that weren’t caught in time during QA, it all detracts from the immersive experience Guerrilla has otherwise meticulously crafted. It’s disappointing stuff, especially given the pedigree reputation that Sony’s first-party studios have made for themselves throughout the PS4 generation especially, and following a price increase on its first-party exclusives, there’s an expectation that things will get bigger and better, without that level of polish being lost as a result.

Even in spite of all of this, Horizon Forbidden West continued to amaze and surprise me. The way the ruins of Vegas come to life; the way the mist delicately coats the tips of grand mountains in the distance; the intricate systems of cogs, screws, and contraptions that bring the machines to life with whirrs, beeps, and boops. The world is vast, varied and an endless treasure trove that is a sheer delight to lose yourself in.

Horizon Forbidden West is a spectacular sequel to one of the PS4’s best exclusives. Its narrative is one of its biggest strengths, with unforgettable characters and twists and turns that maintain a solid pace throughout, and its combat has been expanded on, adding in new mechanics, weapons, and ammo types to make eliminating machines and humans an immensely satisfying experience. All of this is wrapped up in a world entrenched in lore that feels more alive and meticulously crafted than its predecessor with visuals and animations that bring that special blockbuster feel Sony’s exclusives are now renowned for to the PS5. Bugs and glitches can occasionally take the shine off it, but with many addressed by the day one update, these are likely to have less of an impact on your experience. Horizon Forbidden West is a must-play if you own a PS5 and an easy GOTY contender in 2022.

Twinfinite Editors Choice Award

Horizon Forbidden West Critic Review

Reviewer: Chris Jecks | Award: Editor’s Choice | Copy provided by Publisher.

Pros

  • A riveting narrative with twists, turns and memorable characters
  • Improved combat mechanics, every machine is its own unique puzzle waiting to be cracked
  • An immersive world with something of interest around every corner
  • Improved visuals and facial animations make for more engaging cutscenes and conversations with NPCs
  • It’s Zero Dawn, but bigger and better in every conceivable way.

Cons

  • Bugs and glitches can break the immersion when they do crop-up, though the day-one update does appear to have resolved many of the issues.

Release Date
Feb. 18, 2022

Developer
Guerrilla Games

Publisher
Sony Interactive Entertainment

Consoles
PS4, PS5

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