Aloy’s newest journey consumed me throughout my 50-hour adventure across America through snow-capped mountains, the deserts of Las Vegas, and the beaches of San Fransisco. When I wasn’t playing it, I was thinking about its rich, vibrant, and lively world and the dynamic people who inhabit it. I daydreamed about new ways to take down the vast array of machines and wondered which weapon I should upgrade next.
It’s a success in almost every way even if it sometimes gets bogged down with trying to do too many things in its vast open world. Guerrilla Games takes everything great about Horizon Zero Dawn and ramps it up without sacrificing the fun factor or the playability. It is funny, tender-hearted, and continues to introduce characters who are unafraid to be authentically themselves.
A Fantastic Story With Worthwhile Characters
Horizon Forbidden West picks up six months after the end of Zero Dawn as a frightening new plague threatens the world. The plague is killing the land and animals, machines are raging, and people are hurting. It is up to Aloy to head out to the Forbidden West to determine what is going on and how to fix it.
As you journey west, you’ll meet many characters – some old, some new. One of my favorite parts about this outing with Aloy is that the world just feels much more lived in. There are various settlements with people doing things people do – chatting, drinking, cooking, hanging out. It’s a joy to see.
Some of these people have side quests or errands that need completing. These made up some of my favorite moments in the game. Many of the best sci-fi TV shows offer episodes with side stories and arcs that rival the main plot. Horizon Forbidden West achieves this, too.
There were several that took me off with an old friend or a new companion of Aloy’s as we tried to rescue a kidnapped family member or to find data to help save a ravaged settlement. These missions expertly weave in lore, character development, and new areas to explore on top of offering great performances from the side characters.
On top of it, everything felt really cinematic. In one, I climbed to the top of a skyscraper in San Francisco and was awestruck by the world below. At the mission’s end, Aloy informed her companion, Alva, she would jump off and glide away. After a gorgeous ride down, Alva exclaims how cool that was to see and cheers for Aloy. These little moments really add to the overall narrative and development of both Aloy and her companions. It helps forge connections that feel tangible and real.
The main plot expands the world and delves even deeper into its science fiction roots. I won’t get too into details here so I don’t spoil things, but it is exciting and expands the universe by diving more deeply into the past to be somewhat vague.
My biggest issue with the plot was the misuse of the blood-thirsty, rebel leader Regalla. She’s initially set up as a larger villain but isn’t present for much of the game. Though, when she is on screen, Angela Bassett electrifies in the role. Ashley Burch as Aloy continues to offer up one of the strongest performances in gaming. Aloy is tough, vulnerable, and continues to fly solo with no love interest, and I am really thankful for that.
Overall though, the story offers up some tender and heartfelt moments between Aloy and her many companions. My favorite addition to the cast is Alva – the somewhat awkward, super-intelligent, and data-obsessed woman who is part of the Quen. She is lovable, funny, and so passionate. Segments that included her were some of my favorite in the game. There’s also the return of Varl and Erend who continue to be great sidekicks to Aloy.
Exploring Horizon Forbidden West
As games become more advanced, there are definitely certain expectations that they’re going to look better than the ones that came before. Horizon Forbidden West reaches those heights and then some. I would estimate that at least three hours of my total playtime were devoted to photo mode. The game is truly stunning and the character models, animations, and expressions are mind-blowing.
It’s easy to tell how a character feels because it’s expressed effortlessly on their face. The world itself looks incredible. Being an open world game, it would have been easy to fall into using the same textures and assets over and over, but Guerrilla does a fine job with the world and that isn’t apparent most of the time. Settlements in particular look stunning.
I came across Plainsong, a particularly stunning settlement, early on. Running up to it for the first time, I was awestruck. Around the settlement, there are a number of tribe members gathered and offering some sort of song toward the sky. They were all dressed in bright green garb with white face and body paint.
Plainsong itself is very in tune with the land and their buildings reflect that with its forest-like vibe. Scattered around the settlement are a number of dilapidated Old World satellites and nearby are machines tilling the soil. The visuals paired with the song the Plainsong people sang was one of the most beautiful moments I’ve experienced in gaming in recent years.
When exploring the world, I did find myself wishing that the UI could be toggled off or the size reduced. There’s often quite a bit going on. Horizon Forbidden West is an open world with the dial cranked to ten. The map is littered with icons pointing to places to go and explore, there are dozens of herbs and fauna to pick up for crafting, and enemies break off into pieces to collect.
It isn’t a bad thing, but between that and the UI, it sometimes detracts from the overall experience of the game’s beauty. The game does offer an Explorer mode, which removes a lot of the on-screen texts and icons when out in the world, but I wanted them there, just smaller, so I opted to play in the Guided mode.
Breaking Down the Mechanics
The brunt of the gameplay in Forbidden West is very similar to Zero Dawn. This outing, though, embraces all things skill tree. At first, I was excited by the prospect of having Aloy specialize in whatever I wanted her to. The Infiltrator and Survivor Skill trees intrigued me the most. The first rewards stealth gameplay and the second gives you perks when at low health and when gathering herbs.
As I moved forward in the game, however, I found many of them to be inconsequential. There are just so many skills to unlock and many of them make smaller improvements that didn’t always feel super impactful.
There are also new weapon skills to unlock for your bows, Tripcaster, and other weapons, but I didn’t find myself using them too often. I did enjoy some of the Valor Surges, though. These work as a sort of limit break or ultimate move. A bar builds up when taking damage, etc. and once the gauge is full, you can unleash one of your Valor Surges.
I found myself mostly using the one that makes you undetectable called Stealth Stalker. It was great for sneaking up on a series of enemies and taking them out. Some of them give boosts to weapon strength or allow you to chain damage from one enemy to another. I honestly only used Stealth Stalker and Radial Blast, which emits a large, high damage electric shock around Aloy.
Combat, skill tree or not, is still immensely satisfying. Tagging parts on machines to try and knock off with your arrows offers up an addicting loop. You need those parts to upgrade weapons and armor. There are still incredible and epic battles with giant machines. I had a particularly memorable encounter on the beaches of San Fransisco as the sun rose with an alligator-like machine.
There are a few new weapons available to Aloy this go around, too. My favorite is the Spike Thrower. It allows you to throw a javelin that wedges itself into the machine and explodes after a few seconds. It was incredibly satisfying taking down smaller machines and staggering machines like the Thundermaw with a single blast.
I also found myself using melee combat more in Horizon Forbidden West. It is more fluid, fun, and responsive than in Zero Dawn, and the skills unlocked in that skill tree do feel impactful.
A Worthwhile Trip to the Forbidden West
Forbidden West is truly a remarkable game. Zero Dawn came out and offered up a fully realized world, but sometimes things felt stiff and characters didn’t always feel real. Guerrilla improves upon the legacy they established five years ago tenfold. While Forbidden West had the unlucky timing of releasing right before Elden Ring, it should not be overlooked.
For everything Zero Dawn did good, Horizon Forbidden West does great. The game’s ending definitely points to a sequel, and I look forward to riding, swimming, and flying further into Aloy’s world as she brings along the friends she made in the Forbidden West.
Even if the game occasionally stumbles with doing too much in an attempt to tick the boxes for an open world game, it is unabashedly a love letter to the genre. Despite there being a lot, it never really feels overwhelming. The things to see, collect and do all feel organic and inspiring. If you’re looking to dive deep into a world that is entirely sure of itself and what it is doing, ride into the Forbidden West with Aloy.