Horizon Forbidden West Review: California Dreamin'

Horizon Forbidden West is a game that I've been looking forward to for a long time, and by most accounts, it ended up meeting my expectations. Horizon Zero Dawn was far and away my favorite game of 2017 and overall became one of the most enjoyable titles I played during the PlayStation 4 era. As such, to say that I was excited to see what Guerrilla Games would have in store with the sequel, Horizon Forbidden West, would be a bit of an understatement. 

Although I largely have positive things to say about Horizon Forbidden West, I do have to admit that I'm a bit disappointed with it in some aspects. That's not to say that the game isn't good, because it absolutely is. However, I found myself less engaged with Guerrilla's follow-up entry for a number of reasons, perhaps most notably because it feels merely like a slight evolution of a game that I have already played. 

Horizon Forbidden West picks up after the events of Zero Dawn with the game's main protagonist, Aloy, setting out on a mission to essentially save the planet. After a plague begins ravaging the people, crops, and machines in Aloy's homeland, she must venture out west to find a solution to the problem before it destroys all life. The story ends up developing in some interesting ways from this starting point, but Aloy's overall goal remains largely the same throughout. 

(Photo: PlayStation)

Unfortunately, the story of Horizon Forbidden West lacks a compelling conflict. The broad objective of "saving the planet" is far too open-ended and makes Aloy's own personal journey over the course of the game rather uninteresting. One thing I would have loved to see in Forbidden West a bit more would have been a foreboding antagonist for Aloy to directly have to deal with. While antagonists do pop up in Forbidden West, their overall ambitions and goals that put them at odds with Aloy never felt all that captivating. 

The other thing that I found with Forbidden West's narrative is that it lacks the same sense of intrigue and mystery as Zero Dawn. The backstory of this world, how it became this way, and eventually, how Aloy fit into it is something about the last installment that I loved. Horizon Forbidden West has some notable mysteries with its storytelling as well that develop over the course of the game, but none of the questions that the game asks ever reach the same highs as Zero Dawn

In spite of this, what remains largely excellent in Horizon Forbidden West is its combat and general gameplay loop. Outfitting Aloy with a barrage of bows, slings, and other weapons in the goal of taking down a robotic dinosaur that has been equipped with shoulder-mounter canons is still so much fun. While I started to see the lack of depth with the combat in Forbidden West this time around (every encounter simply boils down to shooting an enemy's weak spot and not a lot more), that never prevented me from finding a lot of enjoyment when combatting multiple robo-beasts at once. 

(Photo: PlayStation)

Horizon Forbidden West actively encourages you to go hunt down certain creatures on a regular basis. Aloy collects various weapons and armor over the course of the game, but if you want to upgrade any of it, you'll often need to have specific items that can only be acquired by hunting down specific foes. Some of my favorite moments while playing this game came when I was simply venturing forth through the world to find a specific animal (specifically the new ones that are unique to Forbidden West) that I needed to harvest resources from. Best of all, even when you are in the midst of these moments, the game is still giving you XP just for taking on new creatures, which leads to everything that you do feeling like it ties back in with your overall goal of becoming stronger. 

As you do gain XP, you'll be able to unlock more skills that Aloy has in her arsenal to improve in different ways. The skill tree system in Horizon Forbidden West is far more expansive than what Zero Dawn offered, which allows you to more specifically hone-in on what you want Aloy to be talented in. Not to mention, Forbidden West also allows you to unlock specific abilities that are new to this game. For example, some of these abilities might allow you to deal more damage with any arrows you fire for a select period of time, while another ability could give you the chance to fire off some extremely powerful shots to deal some massive and immediate damage. There are a ton of different paths for you to upgrade Aloy, which means you can really look to adopt your own unique playstyle as you level up. 

To go along with these new skills, Aloy also has some new weapons this time around as well. While your trusty bow(s) will likely remain the main weapon that you wield to take down opponents, there are a handful of new additions that I had a thoroughly great time with. Likely my new favorite weapon is a powerful spear that Aloy can hurl at foes. My preferred version of this weapon that I often used would explode a few moments after connecting with an enemy, which would blow chunks of their outer armor all over the place. Once I blew holes in a creature's armor with this spear, I'd then begin peppering their new weak point with arrows. This is just one tactic of many that I found myself using quite often with the tools in Aloy's kit, but there are countless other ways you can combine these weapons to take down creatures. 

(Photo: PlayStation)

Even though the PS5 has already been out for over a year, we haven't received many games just yet that show off what the hardware is capable of; Horizon Forbidden West is now definitely one of those "next-gen" titles we've been waiting for. Even when playing on Performance Mode (which prioritizes frame rate rather than resolution), I still found that the visuals on display in Horizon Forbidden West were largely excellent. The general prettiness of this game world was enhanced even further by the art direction, which I found to be one of its strongest aspects. Much like Zero Dawn, Forbidden West has a number of distinct biomes (mountains, desert, forests, coastline, etc.) which all feel wholly unique and fleshed out in their own way. These different locales always provide a nice change of pace after you spend too much time in one area, which means that you never get bored of viewing this world. 

One thing I have to note about Horizon Forbidden West is that my own experience with the game featured a decent number of bugs. Texture pop-in was very frequent, clipping through environments happened a lot, and I even had some strange audio glitches occur during cutscenes. It's worth stressing that much of my own experience with Horizon Forbidden West did come before the game's day one patch arrived. Following the addition of this patch to my own review build, some of the problems that I mentioned did seem to improve, but they weren't gone entirely. None of these issues necessarily impacted my core experience with Forbidden West, but the game was still much buggier than I would have liked it to be. 

(Photo: PlayStation)

It is also worth acknowledging that Horizon Forbidden West is absolutely massive. There is so much to do in this game that it was honestly overwhelming for me to play at times. At any given point, there's a good chance you'll find yourself tasked with dozens of different quests, hunting missions, or other side tangents outside of the main story. With so much to do, it's easy to get distracted from the current objective that you may be trying to complete. Still, if you're looking for a game that you can sink your teeth into for a prolonged period of time, Horizon Forbidden West is definitely what you're looking for and should take you an extremely long time to reach 100% completion. 

Horizon Forbidden West, by most counts, is another strong release for Guerrilla Games and PlayStation. This is very much a sequel that just looks to go bigger and better than its predecessor, and in that regard, it very much achieves what it sets out to accomplish. Although I wanted more from the story and the game's general structure is very much the same when compared to Zero Dawn, fans who loved the last title should still love the adventure that this follow-up takes you on.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Horizon Forbidden West is set to release on February 18th for both PlayStation 5 and PlayStation 4. A review copy of the game was provided by PlayStation for the purpose of this review. The game itself was reviewed on a PS5 console.