Review: Horizon Forbidden West

Horizon Zero Dawn was one of the best games I played in 2020 thanks to it releasing on PC before I was able to get my hands on my first PlayStation console. It featured a gorgeous open world, a compelling story, an engaging combat system, and one of the most interesting storytelling premises I’ve seen in video games, which is the idea of fighting futuristic machine animals with basically Stone Age equipment. It certainly had me wondering what the hell was going on, and finding out how its world came to be was a very satisfying narrative discovery. Horizon Forbidden West is more or less as good as it gets of a sequel, improving on a lot of aspects of the first game (not all, however), and managed to keep me interested from a narrative perspective despite losing that sense of “WTF” wonder from the first game, which is an impressive feat.

Horizon Forbidden West takes place several months after the Horizon Zero Dawn, and for all intents and purposes is a direct sequel. Due to it being a direct sequel, I strongly recommend against playing Horizon Forbidden West without playing the first game, because its premise relies on understanding the story from the first game, and even the introductory recap scene completely spoils the first game’s plot. Besides, the gameplay from the first game is still really good despite being half a decade old (wow, it has been five years since 2017), and if anything will make Horizon Forbidden West a smoother experience due to already having an understanding of the fundamental gameplay. To try and put the premise of the game in the best way without spoilers, basically the world’s biosphere is collapsing and Aloy is searching for a way to save it.

Gameplay:

Horizon Forbidden West keeps a lot of the core gameplay from the first game, so those who loved the first game for its machine combat will feel right at home. The biggest mechanic improvement is probably the melee combat, which feels a lot smoother and a lot better to use, and Aloy actually has a few different combos she can use in different situations. The machine combat remains pretty similar, but there is a much bigger focus on weakpoints and removing key parts off of machines. Removing important components from machines deals a lot of damage, and a lot of times many machines have important parts needed for upgrades that can only be obtained from knocking parts off. The combat system also feels a bit more balanced than the first game where fights generally devolved into spamming frostbite due to how powerful it is. A lot of the new machines are pretty deadly, and combined with the changes to the combat system generally make for a more challenging experience than the first game, which I would say is a good thing. The difficulty settings can even be customized, which is pretty awesome as it allows for a very tailored experience as opposed to just picking between Easy, Normal, and Hard.

The level design also received significant improvements, which makes exploring the open world a lot more interesting because the puzzles aren’t all the same. Tallnecks and Cauldrons actually feel pretty unique per encounter which is a major upgrade over the previous game. There were quite a few puzzles where I had to genuinely think for a bit on how to solve, and some of the solutions were actually really creative, so major props to the developers for that. I’m not as big a fan of the open world, which I feel like in comparison to the first game, it feels a lot more bloated with content for the sake of content. I remember a few unique side quests from the first game, whereas a large amount of the side quests in the sequel that didn’t involve important characters felt very same-y: talk to NPC who needs help, kill a machine, success. At the end of the day, I guess content is content and I’m not actually obligated to explore places or help NPC’s I’m not interested in, but a lot of that stuff does not entice me to actually do them outside of completion’s sake because the rewards are usually pretty mediocre (in comparison, at least Elden Ring offers actual incentives for completing side dungeons by offering actually useful rewards like weapons and spells).

Tallnecks received a major upgrade in Horizon Forbidden West, as opposed to just jumping on and climbing to the top in the first game.

The progression also received a major overhaul, with the addition of actual skill trees and a more expanded weapon and upgrade system. I like the skill tree changes, and they also included some abilities from the first game into Aloy’s starting skillset which is pretty nice; not having to level up and put points just to be able to perform stealth attacks from a ledge is great. I cannot say I am as big a fan of the changes to the gear progression, however. A lot of the weapon upgrades feel very tedious and grindy to obtain, especially for late game gear, which begs the question of whether the hassle of obtaining them is really worth it. The fact weapons now have different ammunition also means there is a lot of weapons I will completely ignore because it either does not use the ammunition I want to use, or the ammunition is too expensive for me to regularly use which means I end up barely using it, thus defeating the entire point of progression in the first place.

My other major criticism is that overriding machines has more or less been neutered compared to the first game. While I don’t mind the new system of needing to acquire parts from machines to craft their override ability, the main issue lies in the fact that overrides themselves are greatly diminished in usefulness. Even with the overrides crafted/unlocked, I can’t override Apex machines, which normally wouldn’t be a big deal outside of the fact that they show up all the damn time. Also there are a few new interesting machines that Aloy can mount, but mounted combat is the same regardless of what machine Aloy is riding; there is absolutely no reason for me to override a Clawstrider over a Bristleback because I can’t use the Clawstrider’s special abilities in mounted combat, which means the Bristleback is better just because I can travel faster on it.

Overall the gameplay sort of feels like a “two steps forward, one step backward” approach. The core combat system and level design received some major upgrades, but I was not a fan of the changes made to the override system and the gear progression.

Writing:

I think Horizon Forbidden West’s writing is actually pretty solid, especially for a sequel. In the first game, a lot of the wonder comes from exploring the world, unravelling the plot to try and make sense of a backwards world where humans are primitive yet co-inhabit that world with highly advanced machines. That wonder no longer exists in the sequel as now the audience knows what’s up, so the writing has to be extra strong to compensate for that. For the most part, it does the job well. It expands on the lore of the Old World, providing more details on various things outside of the Zero Dawn project, showing the unfortunate reality that humans can find an opportunity to be selfish even when the entire world is at stake. Aloy herself is still the stubborn and strong Nora warrior, but she goes from someone stumbling her way through the first game’s story to more of a mentor figure to her friends and allies, being armed with all the Old World knowledge she acquired in the first game. She still has issues with accepting help from others, as she feels that with her skillset and knowledge she is the only one capable of doing what is necessary, but over the course of the story learns to fully embrace the strength of her companions.

Aloy’s character writing and the new plot/worldbuilding details do a lot of the heavy lifting for the writing, however, and outside of those I felt more or less indifferent. I did not particularly care for a lot of the new characters introduced to the story, with Kotallo being the only real new side character I enjoyed. I also thought the main villains were rather weak despite having a really cool concept and setup to their existence, and they weren’t really thoroughly fleshed out, which is a shame since I thought the antagonist of the first game (Ted Faro) was so brilliantly done. I was also not particularly fond of the ending of the game, which introduced a rather unnecessary twist where its only purpose is to tease another sequel/DLC, and I thought that somewhat tarnished what would have been an epic conclusion otherwise. Specific gripes with the story aside, I also feel like the writing could do with a bit more of “show, don’t tell.” Almost all information in the story is given via exposition dumps, and given a game as content-packed as Horizon Forbidden West, after a certain point it goes from wanting to learn more to wanting to just get over it. Overall, I still enjoyed the story and thought it was about as good as it gets for a sequel to Horizon Zero Dawn, but there are definitely flaws to be found if the developers don’t want the next game to feel mega stale.

Misc/Ending Thoughts:

The biggest improvement in Horizon Forbidden West over the first game is that non-gameplay/story-related is easily the cutscenes/facial animations. Dialogue sequences look significantly better as the characters look a lot more animated and life-like while speaking. The addition of actual cinematic cutscenes was also great, and amplified a lot of the major story moments in the game (especially in the final story sequence). The world is also visually very impressive, but the same is true of the first game so that was sort of expected at this point.

Overall, Horizon Forbidden West is really good, and does a lot of things right for a sequel. That being said, I was not a fan of some of the directions they took regarding the gameplay and story, so I am very wary of what comes next, whether it be DLC or another new title. After beating Horizon Zero Dawn, I was really excited for the next game and instantly bought Horizon Forbidden West on release, but despite enjoying the game a lot, I must say I am not nearly as excited for whatever the next release is, based on some of the gameplay and story design choices, and I will likely wait to see if those get addressed/resolved before deciding to give this series another chance.

Rating: A great sequel, and I highly recommend for those who enjoyed the first game. Some design choices make me suspicious of any future titles, but the game itself is definitely good. Buy it on the PS4 store for the $60 version, as the PS5 upgrade is free so there is literally no reason to pay an extra $10 for the PS5 edition.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store