Developed by: Guerrilla Games
Published by: Sony Interactive Entertainment Europe
Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4 (Reviewed)
Release Date: Out Now!
Finally, it’s time for my Horizon Forbidden West review! I’ve waited long enough, right? Still, I’m just in time before the Burning Shores DLC launches next month. My delayed review is not for a lack of anticipation or excitement about Forbidden West; I adored 2017’s Horizon Zero Dawn and the follow-up expansion The Frozen Wilds, so the return of Aloy and her adventures was one I was both eager and admittedly a little nervous to play. After all, it was never going to be easy for Guerrilla Games to replicate the magic of Zero Dawn and also avoid re-treading their own steps.
I needn’t have worried or waited so long. After 60+ hours with Horizon Forbidden West (and many more to come, as I definitely want that Platinum), I’ve been consistently delighted by the wonderful mix of familiarity and freshness it offers in a stunningly realised package. Just like Zero Dawn, it sucked me in for hours at a time. Forbidden West isn’t without some small issues, but my overall experience has been exceptionally positive and reminded me why I fell in love with the series in the first place.
The following review will be going in-depth into why I enjoyed Forbidden West so much. There’s a lot to cover, be it characters, story, exploration, combat, and the world itself. Fret not, as I’ll be breaking down my thoughts into sections as best I can, to make it as easy reading as possible. I’ll also be putting all the major spoiler talk into one block near the end, clearly labelled in case you haven’t played the game yet yourself. Right then, settle in, because it’s time to talk Horizon Forbidden West!
A Re-Introduction to Horizon
If you aren’t familiar with the Horizon story, the games are set in the 31st century, decades after a Swarm of rogue machines wiped out most of the Earth’s population. However, the AI GAIA was developed to restore the biosphere in the aftermath, using terraforming machines modelled after animals and fauna. All was going to plan, until the machines started going hostile on the new tribes of humans populating the renewed Earth. Aloy, the main character, grew up as an exile in the Sacred Lands outside her tribe, but through the course of Zero Dawn learns that she is a descendant of Elisabet Sobeck, the creator of GAIA – and therefore has unique knowledge and abilities that are key to stopping the machines wiping out the Earth once again.
At the end of Zero Dawn, Aloy successfully defends the city of Meridian against the malevolent AI HADES and a wave of machines and rebels. Yet, the Earth is still a maelstrom of unbalanced environments, with a limited amount of time before it descends into chaos. When we catch up with Aloy in Forbidden West, she’s already spent half a year hunting fruitlessly for a new backup copy of GAIA in ruins of the Old World, as this is the only way to restore order to the biosphere. Returning to Meridian, Aloy gets to reunite with familiar faces like her friend Varl and the Sun-King Avad, before discovering what we already knew from the post-credits scene of Zero Dawn; before Aloy defeated HADES, the elusive Sylens (played by the late great Lance Reddick) had taken a backup copy of the AI for himself. In a cryptic message, Sylens tells Aloy that to find GAIA, she must head into the aptly named Forbidden West.
A Jaunt Through the Daunt
With no choice but to follow Sylens, Aloy says her goodbyes and sets off. To start with, this means a cable car trip into the westernmost area of familiar Carja territory. Named the Daunt, this acts very much like the Sacred Grounds of Zero Dawn or the Great Plateau in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – it’s a mini-open-world in of itself, letting you get re-accustomed to the kinetic and excellently-executed mix of exploration, traversal, and real-time combat at the heart of the Horizon series. There are plenty of quests, characters, and battles to spend your time with, and I was already taking advantage of the Photo Mode to capture the many gorgeous vistas (this is also the source of the images throughout this review). In relation to the expanses of the Forbidden West awaiting you later in the game, the Daunt is comparatively quaint, but that’s only because of the sheer scale and spectacle awaiting you.
After several hours in the Daunt, it’s hard to resist waiting much longer to cross the border at Barren Light over into the Forbidden West. Crossing over requires the approval of the three clans that reside in the Forbidden West, so Aloy attends an arranged meeting. This set piece quickly goes from formal to frenetic, in an epic power-shifting set-piece which introduces the threat of Regalla. She is looking to overthrow the clans by any means necessary, and is voiced by Angela Bassett, who brings a powerful stature to the character. It’s a tough sequence that exhausts your resources and skill, and does a really effective job at establishing the dangerous stakes of the Forbidden West; it’s the kind of coup that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Game of Thrones! By the end of it, Aloy is weary but victorious, and able to finally explore the huge stretches of hidden map. Oh, and she gets the Shieldwing too, for gliding elegantly down great heights, and enjoying the beauty of the world in yet another way.
This is where Forbidden West really starts to stretch its wings, giving the player a vague idea of where to head for the main story beats, but mainly leaving it up to you to decide the direction you take, and how long to spend doing it. Whilst there is a world-altering quest for Aloy to pursue, there are many settlements with their own problems and discoveries along the way – and every extra quest or errand Aloy seeks out means new items, rewards, and knowledge of the world. It took me about 60 hours to complete the main story whilst doing every side quest I came across, but I still have plenty of errands, collectibles, and challenge areas to delve into, and I’m excited to do so. Some side quests even effect small details of the main quests, such as snippets of inter-connecting dialogue you wouldn’t get otherwise. It’s especially hard to resist playing around in the sandbox, because the central gameplay loops of Forbidden West are so addictively enjoyable!
Let’s take exploration to start with. Wandering around the Forbidden West is a delight in itself, with the picturesque natural landscapes punctuated by fascinating Old World ruins. I found myself even more drawn to these relics than in Zero Dawn; the post-apocalyptic Western America setting lets Guerrilla do their own spin on the likes of Las Vegas or (later) San Francisco, and there’s a sense of pure awe to seeing a half-buried/submerged Vegas or a crumbling Golden Gate Bridge. Beyond the big landmarks, it’s the many nooks and crannies of the Forbidden West that draw you into exploring further. Crucially, it didn’t feel like I was doing it just to clear icons off a map; I was genuinely interested in seeing what this world had hidden around the next corner, whether it was a new character, a stash of rare items, or a powerful machine to fight.
Part of making the exploration so liberating are the new tools Aloy has, such as the Pullcaster. This can pull crates, grates, and debris to open new paths, but it can also be utilized whilst climbing to pull Aloy great distances with speed and ease. I’ve rarely met a grappling tool that isn’t fun, and Forbidden West is no exception, with the Pullcaster adding a new sense of height, speed, and momentum to Aloy’s climbing toolset. In addition, there’s some Metroidvania aspects to Horizon Forbidden West. Early on, the explosive Firegleam plant and sturdy Metal Flowers will be just two of the blockades you can’t pass until gaining tools later, upon which time you can return and find the treasures they were hiding away.
Another angle of exploration is the new underwater sections, with Aloy now able to dive and explore the many relics hidden down on the ocean floor. It’s a satisfying addition that gives another way for Guerrilla to mix up the environment design, especially when Aloy gains the breathing mask for extended diving later in the game. My only gripe is that Aloy can’t engage in any combat underwater. Aloy has to use stealth to navigate past machines like the crocodile-esque Snapmaw, with the closest thing to combat being when you draw water out of an area to take on one of the new machine designs, a Tideripper (think a robotic Lapras and you’re not far off). I was expecting a moment where Aloy would be able to fight machines underwater in some way – in my mind, I was picturing a mechanised version of the epic Lagiacrus fights in Monster Hunter Tri. It never materialised, so it’s definitely something I’d like to see expanded upon in a sequel.
Just like in Zero Dawn, the real-time action combat remains, in my opinion, the strongest single element of Horizon Forbidden West. The visceral pace, freedom, and athleticism of the fights are an engrossing combination, consistently leading to combat encounters that feel uniquely cinematic. Sometimes it’s best to sneak up on the machines, scan them for weak points with your Focus, and take them out with quiet stealth strikes; but it’s equally (if not moreso) enjoyable to jump in and rely on a mix of preparation and wits to see you through. There’s nothing quite like timing your dodge-roll just right against the signals of a machine assault, before rallying against them with attacks of your own.
As you’d expect in a sequel, Guerrilla Games have really ramped up your combat options, with plenty of new weapons and ammo types at your disposal. Some of my favourite additions are the Beyblade-esque Shredder Gauntlet and the heavy but powerful Boltblaster – though the trusty Sharpshot Bow will always be my go-to! Many ammo types return, such as the paralyzing Shock arrows, or the Frost arrows which can cause machines to become brittle and vulnerable. A new addition is Plasma, which when built up on an enemy, creates a delayed explosion that is especially handy against many of the tougher late-game machines.
The ability to sheer specific parts off of machines (complete with satisfying metallic sound effects) continues from Zero Dawn, and this is the best way to craft the most powerful weapons and gear. You can easily make your own fun adventures from pinpointing which items you’d like to craft and hunting down the specific machines you need resources from. There is also the addition of craftable food consumables for significant in-fight health and stat boosts, which quickly become part of your essential preparation along with ammo, healing items, and traps. Forbidden West is great at rewarding you for planning and keeping yourself stocked up, and punishing you if you don’t.
Plus, there are new intricacies to the skill tree and levelling system in Forbidden West, and the buffs and abilities they unlock are split into six sections. This is also where Aloy can learn powerful abilities that use up your Weapon Stamina or Valor Surge metres in combat – and they tend to look spectacular too, such as the Powershot that takes multiple arrows of the Sharpshot bow and combines them into one high-damage explosive shot. It’s not all damage-dealing abilities, either – another ability I enjoyed was the Overshield, which gives Aloy added health and resilience for a short stretch of time. As with Zero Dawn, the quickest way to gain XP and skill points is to take part in as many optional tasks as possible, resulting in a rewarding cycle of exploration, combat, and unlockables.
There’s also an increased amount of close-quarters melee combos to be used against human enemies, which makes the rebel fights more layered – but I still enjoy them much less than the machine encounters. One of my main concerns going into Forbidden West was that it would overdo the amount of human opponents and start to stray into Uncharted-style dissonance, but it didn’t feel over-the-top here. Most of the combat is machine-focused, and you can even limit your kills of rebels to only their Leaders in certain situations, without needing to kill the entire camp. Don’t get me wrong, this is still an action game where you’re suspending your belief to a degree, but I thought the overall balance was handled with a deft touch, and I liked these efforts to give the player a choice.
Another crucial question for Forbidden West was how much it could expand on the machine designs in the first game. The answer is that there’re plenty of new machines to fight and marvel at, with several making their introductions in boss-fight sequences within the main story. An early example is the Slitherfang, modelled after a giant snake, and then there’s the huge mammoth-like Tremortusk that can carry rebel soldiers, adding another layer to its attack force. They’re all substantial additions that feel truly unique among the expanding roster. They’re mixed in with old favourites like the Stormbird and Thunderjaw, keeping Aloy on her toes throughout the entire game. It also makes my imagination run wild with the other unique machines that might be out there in the world, based on different animal species!
A new variant introduced in Horizon Forbidden West are the Apex machines, also known (ominously) as Hunter-Killers. These have black armour and deal extra damage – and as they’re often in amongst groups of other machines, they’re ones to keep a careful eye out for. Apex variants also drop loot exclusive only to that version, so they’re worth seeking out, especially for the rarer machines. It can result in the means to build the most hard-hitting weapons as well as the most durable – and coolest-looking – armour. Look, if you’re anything like me, the aesthetic of the armour is just as important as the stats! In Forbidden West, you can even craft dyes to alter the colour scheme of your outfit choice, and when combined with the range of unlockable face paints for Aloy, it creates a huge amount of visual customisation options to experiment with.
Sight & Sound
I’ve alluded to it a few times already, but let me just devote this space to really emphasising how incredible Forbidden West is to look at. The sprawling vantage points are everywhere, and the time-of-day cycle consistently throws up visual wonders like golden sun flares, soothing starry skies, or atmospheric mists. It’s enough to keep you exploring the world without end, and also greets you as a welcome present whenever you emerge from a dark cave, deep dive, or Old World ruin. I highly encourage playing around with the Photo Mode, as it features many options for focus, aperture, filters, borders, and more, with which to make your own unique screenshots.
It’s not just at a distance either; if you stop and look around at any given moment, you’ll likely see incredible animation, such as the realistic water tides or the way leaves drift through the trees. The machines themselves are complex wonders of mechanical parts that all work together to resemble a real creature, and as the machine fights get more intense later on, you’ll be barraged with dynamic light and particle effects. Got to love all those giant sparking lasers – as long as they’re not hitting you, of course!
Not having a PS5 yet, I was impressed regardless by playing Horizon Forbidden West in HDR on my original PS4. It leaves me very curious to play a PS5 edition of the game, because that’d bring yet another step up in visuals and performance. That would just be a luxury though really, and I’m more than satisfied with how the PS4 version performs.
When it comes to the audio side, Zero Dawn had already set a ridiculously high standard for a soundtrack – but y’know what? I think Forbidden West surpasses it. Just like the visuals, the soundtrack revels in mixing the natural and the mechanical. It has all the ambient beauty that Zero Dawn did so well, but combines it with an increased ratio of soaring dramatic tracks that can turn a machine fight into a battle for the ages. For example, a late-game machine named the Slaughterspine charges itself with plasma in time to an electronic crescendo of music, and the charge of adrenaline is both awesome and completely terrifying! It certainly gets the blood pumping, and signals that Aloy’s got her work cut out for her…
Animation & Small Details
When I look back over my comments on Horizon Zero Dawn and the DLC The Frozen Wilds, I mentioned how the former had a lot of stilted shot-reverse-shot conversations where characters would largely remain in one place. In The Frozen Wilds, I remarked on how it started to improve, with more varied conversation settings and animations. Now we’re at Forbidden West, and the progression is even clearer. Rarely do characters converse without someone adjusting themselves naturally, pacing around the room, or having a reason to change their tone. All these little details come together to make a more lived-in world. My only remaining criticism is that some of the dialogue trees can get deep into the weeds of lore, and for someone like me who doesn’t want to miss any optional dialogue, it can halt on the momentum of the story as I stop to learn every detail. This isn’t a huge criticism as this is extra optional dialogue, but I would’ve preferred a more efficient way to explain certain details.
Speaking of details, one improvement in Forbidden West is seemingly small, but seismic in terms of how much it streamlines the experience. Your inventory still has a max space allocation, but now if you would exceed it, items go straight to your Stash, which is a box of items you can access at any shelter or settlement. In Zero Dawn, it was never fun to leave items behind because of a lack of space, but now you can relax and know anything you can’t carry is being automatically stored away safely for later. It’s user-friendly and easy to understand, letting you get on with the fun of exploring the world and fighting huge machines. Thank you for this change Guerrilla, it’s an absolute Godsend.
Now then, back to the story for the spoiler section, which is up next!
Facing the Far Zeniths
Just as the world opens up to Aloy gameplay-wise, so does the story. After tracking Sylens down and discovering what he knows about HADES and GAIA, Aloy finally finds a GAIA backup – but before she can celebrate too much, it’s revealed that Sylens led her into a trap. Aloy is ambushed by the main antagonists of Horizon Forbidden West: the Far Zeniths, mysterious humans with seemingly-impenetrable shields and a very angular dress sense! Even worse, they have another copy of Elisabet Sobeck named Beta, who they force to follow them so they can access Old World terminals like Aloy can. Aloy barely escapes with her life after a humbling action sequence, and from this point on, the Far Zeniths and their unknown history become one of the driving plot points of Forbidden West.
It eventually turns out that the Far Zeniths are wealthy humans from the far past who survived by leaving the planet before the original Swarm of machines overran the Earth. The Far Zeniths then found another planet, but again fell victim to an AI enemy of their own making, so they’ve returned to Earth for refuge. Using GAIA, they plan to wipe out the Earth and start again as they see fit, so Aloy is on a race against time to restore several missing components of GAIA before the Far Zeniths enact their plan. This journey takes Aloy all across the far reaches of the Forbidden West to find the Old World facilities housing these programs. At this point, Forbidden West allows the player to choose in which order to go about it, which adds some welcome non-linearity to the story.
After the defeat and narrow escape from the Far Zeniths, Aloy is helped back to health by Varl and a new character, the spiritualistic Zo. This is a key point in the game, as Aloy is still relentless in her desire to forge ahead, but Varl forces her to rest. Aloy is capable and strong, but she learns to accept help when she needs it and has people willing to offer it. From here, the three of them decide to set up a base in the mountains with GAIA, and they invite Aloy’s old friend Erend there too. Over time, this base becomes a comforting game hub reminiscent of the Normandy in Mass Effect 2 (which is a very good thing!). That’s a comparison accentuated by the way new characters are added to your team (and subsequently the base) over the course of the following quests, and every time you come back, there are usually new insightful dialogue trees from which to learn more about them and develop their bond with Aloy.
Many of the team members even have their own bespoke side quests for Aloy to accompany them on. These significantly develop the characters and clearly strengthen their bond with Aloy. Perhaps the best example is Kotallo, a warrior who was injured in the ambush at Barren Light and brutally lost his left arm. His side quest is to test out a mechanical arm that GAIA helped him assemble; but after a successful fight, he decides not to wear it permanently, because he has acclimatised to overcoming the hardship of losing an arm. He sees no need to hide it, and Aloy helps him to that point. It’s such a great moment of character payoff (and a wonderful message).
It all feeds into Aloy’s main character arc, as she learns the strength of having a team instead of defiantly facing everything by herself – and that’s a great lesson in general. In later story quests, Aloy becomes visibly more comfortable to let her teammates be responsible for their own key parts of the mission, and that allows Aloy to enact plans that she otherwise couldn’t have. There’s always risk, and heartbreaking moments later in the story are evidence of that, but that isn’t something that should stop Aloy having these connections of trust and friendship. By the time Aloy enters the final mission, she has an entire team around her who all have their own parts to play – and Aloy’s more open approach has a positive effect on other characters such as Sylens, who starts to soften a little too.
When it comes to the Far Zeniths individually and their effectiveness as characters, I have mixed feelings. The whole premise of humans who fled the Earth, found another planet, wrecked it with AI (again!) and came back centuries later is difficult to fully buy into, mainly because we only get told all of this; other than some visualisations by GAIA, we have no real first-hand reference of such a dramatic and vast backstory. Also, the leader Gerard has barely any scenes, whilst the main physical threat Eric is a one-note, rage-fueled villain.
Thankfully, the group is rounded out by Tilda, who is played by Carrie Anne-Moss (best known as Trinity in The Matrix)! Her hidden motives and willingness to play both sides are engaging, and play a big part in later stretches of the story; plus, she has the closest connection to the aforementioned Beta, who is biologically Aloy’s sister because of being born from Elisabet Sobeck. Beta herself is the best part of the Far Zenith plotline, representing a mirror to Aloy but without the same adventurous life. Growing up in a clinical setting, Beta has a very different outlook to Aloy, and this again plays into the idea of accepting people different from you.
At first, Aloy gets frustrated with Beta’s more cynical outlook, but she eventually realises that the fatherly influence of her upbringing with Rost (who died early in Zero Dawn) is a key differentiator between the two. It’s nature and nurture shown evidently, with Beta the former, and Aloy the latter. Their developing bond is fascinating, and is a showcase for the voice acting skills of Ashly Burch, who has to play two characters in each scene the characters share – but still makes them feel like two clearly different people. On one side is the fierce but vulnerable performance as Aloy that anchors so much of the Horizon series, and on the other is the more reserved and wary Beta, who has rarely felt any sense of real friends or family before. The mannerisms, the tone inflection, and of course the writing itself… Ah, it’s so well thought-out!
“Singularity” is the final mission, consisting of a thrilling run through the Far Zenith base where your squad takes down the Far Zeniths and their machine army, whilst saving both Beta and GAIA in the process. Tilda turns out to be the final villain, which explains how much more screentime she got than the apparent leader Gerard. The climactic boss fight is Tilda amalgamated with a machine-turned-bodysuit, and it’s a solid challenge, much more satisfying than the Deathbringer variant which ended Zero Dawn. Afterwards comes the biggest revelation, as Aloy discovers that the Far Zeniths weren’t on Earth to stay there; they’re on the run from an AI named Nemesis, which chased them back to Earth and was the source of the signal which caused machines to turn hostile in the first place. I’m going to compare Forbidden West to Mass Effect 2 again here, again in a positive way! Both games end with a looming apparently-unstoppable threat moving through space towards Earth, setting up an action-packed third game. Sylens even sees the camaraderie of Aloy’s friends and decides to stay to take part in the fight to come. It’s both a fitting end to Forbidden West and a tantalising tease for the stories to come.
To the Skies
Apart from the plot points, another big spoiler that I had somehow successfully avoided for a year was that Aloy can override and fly on a Sunwing in Forbidden West! This is a late-game feature that I was not expecting at all, because I never imagined Guerrilla would go to the lengths of allowing us free reign to fly over the entirety of the Forbidden West at will. Yet, once it happened, it made complete sense, and gives you a literal new perspective on how to engage with the world of Horizon.
To begin with, the Sunwing is used to save allies in the main questline, but after that, Aloy can summon their mount whenever they choose. This left me glee with delight, as you can now make cinematic escapes from combat, fly up to a Stormbird face-to-face, or just relax and glide over the treetops. Just like swimming adds a new layer below Horizon to explore, the Sunwing adds one above it. As with the underwater sections, there’s no combat, but I’m more forgiving considering how much balance Aloy needs for staying on that Sunwing. Flight fits into Forbidden West like the last piece of a puzzle, opening up those seemingly-unreachable heights and making you wonder how you ever played without this feature.
-SPOILER SECTION END-
Forbidden West is a better sequel to Zero Dawn than I dared hope. It isn’t just a remix of Zero Dawn in a new setting, but instead goes to great lengths to build upon every section of the experience, whether it be the plethora of added combat options, the swathes of fresh machines, or extra means of traversal around the breathtaking world Guerrilla has created. The story, too, has come on leaps and bounds, taking a more character-focused approach and creating an expanded supporting cast that I hope to see more stories about. It’s just very small aspects holding me back from giving Forbidden West a 10, like the leaps of faith needed for parts of the Far Zenith story, or the inability to fight underwater. So, it’s the same score I gave the original, and that feels suitable in a way. Both Zero Dawn and Forbidden West are magnificent achievements in creating a new IP with a well-developed lead character and thrilling minute-to-minute gameplay, and they work together harmoniously as a narrative. With the way Forbidden West ends, there’s likely more Aloy adventures on the, ahem, horizon… And I absolutely cannot wait!
8 thoughts on “Horizon Forbidden West Review”
Awesome review! I had a blast playing Horizon Forbidden West as well. The game was amazing on so many levels, building on the original game, and making the sequel into a truly epic event. The emotional beats of the storyline and cast are all superb, you become totally invested in these characters and their relationships. The gameworld is beautiful and the manliness / combat it stunning. This game was about as perfect as perfect can be for a video game, and I can’t wait to see where the adventure goes next for Aloy and her friends.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it as well – I’m also very excited to see where the series goes next after that cliffhanger ending!
Are you going to be playing The Burning Shores? It’s making me consider finally getting a PS5, as it’s exclusive to that platform… !
LikeLiked by 1 person
I think I will, yes, as it looks amazing. I might not get it right away as I’ve been finishing Dead Space remake and Hogwarts Legacy still atm, but once I’ve done those I think I’ll try The Burning shores next. 🙂
LikeLiked by 1 person