You can’t change your context — and context is everything. Five years ago, Horizon Zero Dawn launched on PlayStation 4 as something of a surprise. Guerrilla Games hadn’t made a new universe since Killzone launched in 2004, and all of those games had been first-person shooters. It introduced us to Aloy and her vibrant post-apocalyptic world, where the tribes of man contend with giant metal machines that resemble our animal life. It was a vast journey for both Aloy and the player as they explored the ruins of history and hunted these massive mechanical beasts.
Now, Aloy’s story continues in Horizon Forbidden West. Following the events of Horizon Zero Dawn and Horizon Zero Dawn: The Frozen Wilds, Aloy is looking for a way to restore GAIA, the AI tasked with terraforming and protecting Earth. In its absence, a red fungus called the Blight has spread across the lands, killing flora, fauna, and man alike. With her former mentor Sylens having headed west on his own sinister plot, Aloy must follow him and further discover the truths of this world.
Aloy’s context, her place in her world, has vastly changed. She’s no longer the outsider, the Carja born without a mother. She’s now the Savior of Meridian, a hero to all in her homeland and somewhat known by those beyond it. She left Horizon Zero Dawn as a superhero, and Horizon Forbidden West is all about building her team. This sequel sets her on a new path surrounded by folks I hope to see more of. It also touts a bigger world and more freedom in how to engage with it. As the Horizon experience grows, though, some new features feel as if they were crafted with the wrong metal monster bits.
Horizon Forbidden West’s main tale dives into the machinations of Zero Dawn’s counterpart organization, Far Zenith, prior to mankind’s first extinction. It’s also about Aloy inserting herself into the unknown politics of the Tenakth. This group controls the lands South and West of the Carja capital Sundom and was, up until the events of Horizon Forbidden West, in a bloodthirsty war with the Carja. With new leadership, many people are optimistic that peace is possible.
With the literal weight of the world on her shoulders, Aloy has to wade into this political mire. A larger part of Horizon Forbidden West’s narrative is about challenging who Aloy thinks she is. She’s always been the exile who has to do everything alone and by force — energy she carries into the Tenakth territory for better and worse. Bluster, martial prowess, and anger aren’t always going to save the day.
Horizon Forbidden West tries — and mostly succeeds — at giving Aloy a new found family. Old friends return in various places, but Varl, Erend, and to a lesser degree Talanah all find themselves getting bigger roles this time around. Varl is the diplomat, willing to talk and empathize whereas Aloy tries to push through. Erend retains his contacts among the Carja Vanguard, making him somewhat of a blue-collar confidant. And Talanah is the second set of boots on the ground in the Forbidden West.
Alongside these returning faces, Aloy makes new friends in the Tenakth lands. They all congregate in the Base, an old-world ruin that Aloy and crew take as their own. It’s a place to return to as you move forward in your journey — one that grows with you. Every time you come back, you can sit and chat with your friends and catch up on recent events. As people move in and new technological facets of the location are powered on, the Base takes on more life and color. It hammers home that Aloy is no longer alone, and it ended up being one of my favorite spots in Horizon Forbidden West.
The main scenario will take around 40 to 50 hours to complete, though my playtime during the review period was significantly higher. Guerrilla Games has once again crafted a huge world with even more to explore this time around. The first game comprised contracted versions of Colorado, Utah, and Arizona, while this game is roughly Nevada, Idaho, California, and perhaps Oregon. It’s slightly bigger and features more visual variety across its environments.
These environments are absolute stunners and some of the best I’ve seen in a game. Aloy will travel across huge windswept fields in the shadow of dead behemoths, the vast corrupted farmland of agrarian Utaru, underwater environments of glowing coral, and dense jungles where you can just feel the humidity creeping up. Guerrilla Games knows how to build convincing, beautiful locations, and it feels like half my time in Horizon Forbidden West was spent in its Photo Mode.
The early hours of the game feel like DLC since they center on re-familiarizing you with the world and the ebb and flow of hunting. You’re not working with many new tools or seeing many new machines. Horizon Forbidden West possesses a more subdued speed with which it hands out wholly new creatures and features. More vertically-oriented environments make the new Shieldwing glider a necessary exploration feature, but you’ll play for six-to-eight hours before seeing it.
Your other major tools, like the Igniter and the Diving Mask, are tied to specific legs of the journey. In fact, I’d say it’s better to focus on completing the main quest rather than exploring the world because you’ll run into progression gates. I understand the narrative import, but I wish these were either handed out earlier or that the world was better designed to not put as many walls in your path. It’s annoying to go exploring only to find all the paths are blocked off because you lack the right tools. There’s an art to restrictive level design that can make a world more enjoyable to explore — and Horizon Forbidden West struggles at showcasing it. The recent Metroid Dread is fairly good at this style of progression, with new weapons giving you access to new and more meaningful areas.
The parsing out of new machines is likewise subdued. You’ll see the new raptor-like Clawstrider in the early story, but hours will pass before you find one in the wild. There’s some confidence in that — in trusting your mechanics and classic machines enough to carry players forward — but again, the pace at which new experiences are doled out could’ve used tweaking.
Compared to the first game, there are around double the machines in Horizon Forbidden West. Returning machines include mainstays like the Scrapper, Charger, Glinthawk, and Thunderjaw. Some are wholly-new, like the aforementioned Clawstrider, the Pteranodon-like Sunwing, or the hulking Slitherfang. Others are simply rough replacements: Watchers aren’t gone completely, but their general function is mostly done by the new ferret-style Burrowers.
Since Aloy carries some new tools into battle, this sequel offers a solid mix of new types of encounters. Bows are still your bread-and-butter, but elemental damage is more available on Hunter and Sharpshot bows, while War bows have morphed into the short-range, fast-firing Warrior variant. The Tearblaster and Rattler are gone completely. The new Boltblaster is Aloy’s personal Heavy Weapon, limiting your movement options and requiring a lengthy reload but absolutely shredding enemies if you have the time and space to use it. The Spikethrower is a Javelin-style weapon that needs to be launched at full draw to really deal damage.
While I had plenty of fun with several weapons, I’m less a fan of the Shredder Gauntlet. This weapon looks like a jai alai cesta and works in somewhat the same manner: Aloy throws out a disc that hits the target and then returns in her general direction. After three hits, the disc becomes charged and the final throw does a ton of damage. The issue is that catching the disc three times is a crapshoot. It returns on a random trajectory and you need to contend with whatever is in the environment. Sometimes, it would hit a hill or a tree, and nothing is more frustrating than a fully-charged disc hitting a random object. In a mostly flat boss arena, it’s a cool weapon, but that’s not the case for most of the places you’ll encounter machines. A decent idea that needed more refining.
It’s here that we’ll return to the idea of context because while most of Horizon Forbidden West lands, there are a lot of small nicks and cuts in the experience. When Horizon Zero Dawn came out in 2017, we were a year away from Monster Hunter: World and four years off from Monster Hunter Rise. This big-budget, full-fat monster hunting experience with a great story on console or PC was a novelty. While only some weapons in Horizon Forbidden West feel great, all of their Monster Hunter counterparts do.
While many machine encounters are well done, some feel somewhat cheap. For example: the new Tremortusk and Shellsnapper enemies feel like they can hit you at any range. They also require way more tearing down to get them into a manageable level, like the semi-equivalent Thunderjaw. Likewise, after a number of deaths resulted from Aloy getting stuck on a rock outcropping or fence, I found myself wishing for the sparser Monster Hunter arenas designed specifically for an encounter.
There’s also Horizon Forbidden West’s enhanced melee combat and traversal. Despite gaining combos and an entire skill tree, melee combat doesn’t feel great. There’s no lock-on, parry, or block; dodging is Aloy’s only way of mitigating damage. Shieldwing and Pullcaster expand traversal, but their flow doesn’t always come together like with Spider-Man’s Point Launch or Monster Hunter Rise’s Wirebug. The Shieldwing activation is a button hold when it should probably be a tap. Meanwhile, the Pullcaster’s point snapping feels like it has a slight lag. It’s playable, but better iterations have come before it. Horizon Forbidden West also shares a problem common in open-world games, which is making you constantly tap the alternate vision mode to figure out where you can go and what you can interact with. As graphical fidelity has increased, it’s become difficult to differentiate between various parts of the world, but man, activating Focus Pulse every minute or so doesn’t feel great.
None of this makes Horizon Forbidden West a bad game. It’s a great one with a beautiful world, a unique aesthetic, and an intriguing story. I loved my time back in its world enough to want to see more of its tantalizing future. But within the context of 2022, there are areas where Guerrilla Games has to tighten up the experience. The ship sails, but there are small cracks in its facade. It’s running at a full sprint, but you can feel the knees buckling every now and then. That might be less of a problem when you’re running the race alone, but when compared to significant competitors, especially those that have already come before it, you can’t help but notice the stumbles.