|Publisher||Sony Interactive Entertainment|
|Platforms||PS5 (reviewed), PS4|
|Release Date||February 18, 2022|
I began drafting this review of Horizon: Forbidden West (HFW) soon after concluding the game. The announcement of the PS5-exclusive Horizon Forbidden West: Burning Shores DLC reminded me that I had some unfinished business with HFW. And by that I mean not just this review; HFW contains more sidequests than even the most dedicated completionist would want to endure.
Violence: Despite the best efforts of one specifically bloodthirsty bandit hunter, Nil, Horizon Zero Dawn protects its T for Teen rating by limiting violence towards humans and focusing on killing machines. Even when Aloy or other humans take damage, they do not bleed. Horizon: Forbidden West is similar in this regard. Players will spend most of their time shooting arrows into machines, but there are now plenty of humans to fight, too. In fact, players will witness several NPC executions. Suffice to say, HFW‘s increase in violence is notable.
Language and Crude Humor: Likewise, language in HZD was rare. Well, Aloy must be fed-up with appearances, because she is now less restrained. She says s**t more than a few times. As with violence, Guerrilla stretches every bit of that T for Teen rating.
Alcohol and Drug Use: In HZD, Aloy represents for all the teetotalers out there, to the chagrin of her drunken wannabe suitor, Erend. In HFW, Aloy indulges in her first on-screen adult beverage within the game’s first act. She now drinks to mark special occasions. To that end, Erend returns as an NPC, and frequently goads Aloy’s other friends to indulge in his Oseram brew.
In a side-quest, a character commits suicide by ingesting a poisonous plant.
Spirituality: In HZD, Aloy spends most of her childhood rejected by her own tribe, the Nora, as an outcast. The Nora are a matriarchal tribe that worships the “All-Mother” or “Goddess,” and Aloy was not born of a womb, but from a machine. She was considered “motherless” until she wins the Proving, and High Matriarch Teersa brings her to the door to the cradle known as ELEUTHIA-9 inside of All-Mother Mountain where Aloy was found as a baby. There, Aloy is granted the status of seeker. After discovering that the artificial intelligence GAIA cloned her from the DNA of Elisabet Sobeck in order to save the world from one of her subfunctions-turned-rogue AI, HADES, she restores the corrupted portion of her Alpha Registry so that she may enter ELEUTHIA-9. Because the Nora worship the ELEUTHIA-9 cradle as the All-Mother, and it allowed Aloy exclusive entrance, she becomes heralded as the Anointed.
Because of this, alongside all of the discoveries she has made with her focus, Aloy maintains a short fuse when she encounters zealously religious and superstitious tribes, especially when their faith is a vehicle for discrimination and bigotry. In fact, in HZD, she is so hostile toward religion, that I considered Aloy’s near-militant atheism as Guerrilla Games’ meta-commentary on faith. After all, a major plot point is that humans figure out how to create life through a series of AI functions, with the main one named after the Greek goddess, Gaia. Who needs God if humans can resurrect themselves with AI assistance?
A separate article would be necessary in order to explore religion in the Horizon games fully. At any rate, one new tribe in HFW worships machines as “land gods,” and even after Aloy “enlightens” a member of this tribe with facts that refute their faith, this person does not fully abandon the beliefs of their culture. Instead, they pivot from worshiping machines to focusing on learning ways in which humans can live in harmony with the earth. This reminds me of how God created man to be stewards of his creation (Genesis 2:15).
Overall, HFW illustrates merit, if not pragmatic purpose, to religion—maturation from its predecessor.
Sexuality: A couple makes love off-camera. The game makes this known to the player through dialogue.
Taking queues from The Witcher 3, HFW introduces LGBT characters through side-quests: a man says he is worried about their partner, who is a man; a transwoman wonders what happened to a lover from a rival tribe. Those instances are trivial, however, compared to major characters engaging in a same-sex relationship that becomes pivotal to the game’s plot. I will simply say that HFW villainizes grooming.
Diversity and Inclusion: I was impressed with HZD‘s inclusiveness, from Nora War Chief Sona and her Nora Brave children, to two out of the three depicted High Matriarchs being black and Asian. HFW doubles down on diversity to such a degree, that it is by far the most diverse AAA game in existence, not only through the depiction of practically every other NPC being BIPOC, but also Guerrilla Games hiring voice actors to match the ethnicities of the NPCs represented. HFW is on the level of Red Dead Redemption 2 in terms of production values.
HFW will stand forever as an example of executing DE&I correctly in video games, including the differently-abled. Guerrilla Games has crafted a remarkable NPC from a tribe that prides itself on martial prowess who loses an arm in battle. How this character copes with the tribal shame associated with this loss becomes a key plot point. The degree to which HFW showcases the full spectrum of human life also deserves an article-length treatise.
To refresh my memory in preparation for Horizon: Forbidden West, I played through Horizon: Zero Dawn (again) in its entirety on PC. To the benefit of old and newcomers alike, Guerrilla Games includes a summary of the events in HZD at the beginning of HFW.
HZD concerns the secondary reason why GAIA creates Aloy: to thwart Hades’ extinction protocol. HFW opens with Aloy desperately searching for a solution to the prime impetus behind her reconstitution: restore GAIA’s functionality before the world falls out of homeostasis beyond repair. In pursuit of her final lead, Aloy infiltrates the ruins of a Far Zenith facility in the hopes of locating a backup copy. there, she learns of a possible backup from data points revealing a Far Zenith plot to steal a copy of GAIA to complement their deal with the Zero Dawn team for a beta copy of APOLLO in exchange for ectogenic chambers.
One of her
thirsty suitors old friends, Varl, tracks her down and accompanies her on this adventure. A major setback turns them back toward Meridian. Upon their return, Blameless Marad greets them with an urgent message of his own: days after the defeat of HADES, a light emerged from the Horus Quantum Processing Module as seen in the post-credits HZD scene. Aloy inspects Sylens’ lance and it launches a signal to the top of the spire before disintegrating. Scaling the structure and reaching its apex rewards Aloy with a message from Sylens, prompting her to head into the Forbidden West to find him. Here, I would normally say “roll credits,” but the HFW logo does not appear until players allow Aloy to tell Blameless Marad that she is ready to embark upon her mission.
Players are then treated with a montage of Aloy traveling from Meridian westward through what appears to be the Frozen Wilds (even though they are in the northeast on the HZD map). Traditionally, I save commenting on graphics until later in the review, but Guerrilla Games clearly wants to impress players by the conclusion of this two-hour prologue.
Impressed, I am. The montage ends with a sequence reminiscent of my time in the Citadel elevator in Mass Effect; by hand-cranked gondola, Aloy descends very, very, very slowly from a mountain into a region known as the Daunt. Through this extended scene, HFW promises scale from the very beginning—graphics, weapons, and enemies.
There are too many great characters in Horizon: Forbidden West, but I am convinced that actress Alison Jaye knocked her depiction of Alva so far out of the park that Guerrilla Games was obligated to grant her some special mocap sessions to capture properly her effervescence.
Lucky PS5 owners will not have to wait for an entire generation or a PC port to enjoy HFW at 60 fps, as my preferred “performance mode” feature comes right out of the box. Those who prefer to play at 4k 30 fps can, but I would recommend this for those playing on smaller displays at close range, such as 40” and below. Only the most scrupulous eyes will notice the difference in fidelity that 4k provides, while everyone will be able to enjoy the benefit that silky-smooth 60 fps provides. PS4 owners should expect an identical experience as they did with HZD.
Players should rejoice in the fact that no bullshotting took place with HFW’s box art and promotional materials. The game is every bit as good-looking in motion as the press materials project. Aloy’s hair has more bounce to the ounce. Mo-capped character renders pop off the screen as if the game was live-action. I experienced no pop-in or texture colliding—an impressive feat for a game of this scope. Guerrilla Games impressively integrates biomes of divergent climates for Aloy’s exploration—desert, plains, rainforest, woodlands, plains, snowy mountains, and sea—through believable transitions. And while these environments read like a cliché checklist, there is something worth experiencing in each.
Within the desert a magnificent discovery slumbers; colossal redwoods shade the forest floor with their canopies, providing additional cover for machines that delight in stalking; and oh my goodness, my first encounter with Plainsong and, well, everything, left me speechless, and I am a man of many words! HFW is a game so gorgeous and rife with life, that it stops me in my tracks every time my daughter plays it even though I have seen most of the game. The secondhand amazement is real!
As for the nuts and bolts of HFW, one of my three main criticisms of HZD was that the machines are too cool for there to be so few of them. HFW corrects this problem immediately, introducing a new fodder-tier machine alongside a new gargantuan boss-tier machine in the prologue—another flex of scale. Fan favorites (or thorn in the side) like the Fireclaw and Thunderjaw return, but there are two other machines that are so epic that when introduced, they have their own theme music, “Built to Kill,” which also happens to be one of my favorite tracks in the game.
While I am on the subject of HFW’s OST, it astounds me. The only memorable track from HZD is “Aloy’s Theme,” while in HFW, I struggle to identify a bad track. “Rusted Sands,” “Guardian of the Deep,” “Whatever Comes,” “In the Flood,” and “The World on her Shoulders” are just a few selections from what I consider the OST of the Year in 2022.
Now back to enemy variety in HFW: even if gamers do manage to tire of the expanded machine bestiary, they should prepare themselves for the additional challenge of apex machines. Indeed, when players encounter a group of machines of a certain type, there is a chance that one of them might demonstrate “alpha” tendencies. Unlike ”corrupted” machines in HZD, they do not emit a toxin, but instead, become enraged with damage and augmented abilities to match. Additionally, parts that players can extract from them are for high-level upgrades to Aloy’s arsenal.
The green (beginner), blue (advanced), and purple (legendary) weapon tier system from HZD returns, as well as the ability to insert cores for additional bonuses. However unlike HZD, in HFW the best weapon for a situation is not necessarily always purple. The machine parts required to upgrade green weapons are far more plentiful and easier to acquire than those required to upgrade blue and purple weapons, which means players have tougher decisions to make than simply arming themselves with a single color code. Additionally, not all weapons are created equal; a blue shortbow might have the acid arrow for one encounter, while Aloy needs to equip a green trapcaster because the next machine is weak to electricity. While in the late game, it is possible to acquire a collection of purple weapons with a diverse array of rounds for most encounters, HFW’s weapon system does not merely encourage players to diversify–players will be forced by necessity.
As another indication of HFW’s grandiosity, I was able to finish HFW before I could fully upgrade everything, despite spending at least two hours triggering a virtual extinction of a specific animal species collecting pelts, fats, and feathers for upgrades. That is to say, Guerrilla designed HFW to scale along with players. If one plays on the hardest difficulty, they may need to hunt down all the materials for all the upgrades. Put another way, completionists like myself have a tremendous task on their hands, between basic gameplay elements and all the side quests and (odd) jobs that can spawn. Another tier of weapons, orange, exists beyond purple that I have yet to acquire!
HFW’s content serves as evidence that Guerrilla is not oblivious to its competition beyond the core features that make it a Horizon game (such as fighting technology beyond our IRL capabilities with crude weapons like bows and slings). The influence of The Witcher 3 is strong. Aloy gains levels with experience, and leveling up and completing quests grants Aloy points used to upgrade her tech tree. Like a post-apocalyptic Geralt, Aloy’s categories include traps, alchemy, and melee abilities; unlike Geralt, Aloy can enhance her command of bows and machines. The most significant of these is melee.
The stiffness of using Aloy’s spear beyond stealth attacks was the second among my criticisms of HZD. HFW corrects this not only with superbly fluid animations during attacks, but also a dedicated tech tree where Aloy can learn to charge her spear with kinetic energy to inflict additional damage, combined with a “finisher” style shot from her bow. She can now bound from enemies for Breath of the Wild-style slow-motion bow shots or knock armor from heavily-armored foes to expose weaknesses. Yet, while it is possible to fight machines with Aloy’s new martial skills, it is still not recommended. Bows remain the best bet for indulging in machine massacre.
Also Witcher-like is HFW’s improved worldbuilding. In HZD, side quests beyond the cauldrons feel mostly like busywork that ends with a fight against humans who foolishly assume Aloy to be a common primitive Nora, or a scripted encounter with uniquely powerful machines. These sidequests felt divorced from the grand scheme of everything: Hades is on the brink of destroying the world, but Aloy might spend time bounty hunting for the escaped prisoners of Sunstone Rock, or becoming a hound for Carja nobles during the “Robbing the Rich” quest. In HFW, there are still silly quests like finding ingredients so a chef can make a stat-enhancing dish to introduce Breath of the Wild-like food mechanics that can be immediately forgotten unlike in BOTW where Lynels can one-shot Link.
The plot allowance of Aloy having months to reconstruct GAIA before Earth falls out of homeostasis means I do not have to suspend disbelief that Aloy has time for spelunking…which she actually does during a main quest. Arena pit fighting against humans or machines offers additional content for content’s sakes, and is for the postgame. Yet their accessibility, particularly the melee pit quest to challenge the Enduring, triggers ludonarrative dissonance—Aloy winning in the pits does absolutely nothing to advance the main plot of saving the world. Similarly, side quests inevitably end as they do in HZD: a hostile human or machine encounter. Still, quests such as an elderly woman requesting that Aloy deliver a flower to an old friend in a rival clan helps build the world in organic ways that HZD lacked. Overall, questing in HFW is a net improvement.
Finally, Mass Effect 2’s influence upon HFW‘s sundry themes is unmistakable. While there is no “suicide mission,” the way in which Aloy establishes a base of operations and builds a team to reconstitute GAIA reminds me of my adventures with Commander Shepard. And much like the ME2 squad, everyone does not get along. I thoroughly enjoyed interacting with Aloy’s motley crew of friends and frenemies between main quest missions. However, also like ME2, HFW ends with more loose ends than when the game begins, including a mimicry of touting the “Collectors” as the big bad, only to find out later that it is actually the “Reapers” who must be stopped (names substituted for spoiler reasons, of course).
Despite HFW’s inconclusive ending, the journey to get there delivers sublime visuals, exhilarating enemy encounters, intriguing characters, and bewitching plot developments. In other words, Horizon: Forbidden West is what Mass Effect 2 was to its franchise—delivering an underwhelming ending, but outstanding everything else: sublime visuals, exhilarating enemy encounters, intriguing characters, character development, and bewitching plot devices. Plainly stated, its quality aligns with the likes of The Last of Us Part 2, or Returnal. Hopefully, the next full game in the Horizon franchise will provide player-made choices that meaningfully impact outcomes.
The Bottom Line
As with its predecessor, Horizon: Forbidden West surpasses the imagination for what is thought to be possible in a video game of its magnitude, and now, pedigree.