I didn’t care much for Aloy, the main character of Horizon Forbidden West† I think she’s the least interesting person in the cast of characters that surround her, and her serious yet aloof nature doesn’t really endear her to me. And although the world Horizon presents is intriguing, the story constructed for it falls victim to some late game twists that defy explanation. And yet, despite being less than enamored with the story and characters, which I mostly play video games for, I willingly and enthusiastically spent 64 hours hunting, exploring, crafting and fighting for two weeks and would happily do so again.
This review contains slight spoilers.
Horizon Forbidden West reaches six months after the end of Horizon Zero Dawn† Faced with a new threat to the planet, Aloy leaves her friends behind and heads west in search of the clues she needs to save the world. One of the most impressive things about Forbidden West — and the thing that immediately sucked me – is the world itself.
It has a fascinating seamlessness. You can start at any time at the bottom of a sandy canyon and just climb up to the top of a snowy mountain, then climb back down and end up in a jungle swamp. So much of my playing time came from these kinds of explorations. Since the actual plot left a lot to be desired, I was content to essentially create my own game. I’d look at a mountain or high ridge and wonder what was up there, stumbling upon platforming puzzles and mini-quests where I would rescue a few random travelers from a bunch of machines before continuing my journey up. Then, at the top of any peak, I’d snap some shots, moved almost to tears by the skybox, before crashing into Aloy’s paraglider – excuse me, shield wing – take a bunch more pictures because holy crap, this game is pretty† (A little note about me: I love the sky. Looking at a sky – real or depicted – makes me very emotional, and Horizon Forbidden West has some of the best skyboxes I’ve ever seen.)
Maybe it’s because we’re still in a pandemic that makes outdoor activities damn near verboten. Or it could be because I’m currently covered in a foot of snow. But even the facsimile of going somewhere or seeing a color other than stark, icy white gives me a capital “E” emotion. I often stopped every quest I worked on to absorb the sheer natural beauty of the world, in awe of the incredible power of my PS5. There’s a moment early in the game where Aloy is standing on top of a tower in the rain, and I could see the individual raindrops pinging off her breastplate and hear the “plink plink plink” sound from the DualSense. It was a sensory experience unlike anything I’ve seen before and certainly makes a case for it Forbidden West be a bona fide “next-gen” console experience.
My fascination for Forbidden West extends beyond its technical beauty to the inhabitants of the world itself. I’m intrigued by the machine animals that roam the land to fulfill an ecological need and how humans have organized themselves in this post-apocalyptic world, blissfully ignorant of the knowledge of the civilizations that preceded it. Again, I made a game within a game. Aloy, instead of the self-tortured clone of Elizabet Sobeck, becomes a traveling vagabond who learns the songs of the pastoral Utaru people or the creation myths of the warlike Tenakth. She had corrected the mistakes that plagued them before disappearing at the end of her shift and moving to the next village.
The machines roaming the land make each encounter a standalone puzzle that really clicked for me. You could, if you wanted to, brute force your way to victory by knocking them down with the arsenal of weapons available to Aloy. Or you can try to solve the puzzle presented by the enemy. Each machine has different strengths and weaknesses. The habits Forbidden West version of a smartphone called Focus, you can scan your enemies and reveal information about what kind of elemental weaknesses it has and whether or not it contains components necessary for upgrading your gear. Then in combat you can maximize that knowledge to defeat enemies efficiently and lucratively. I got a lot of satisfaction from using elemental effects to my advantage, dealing single digit damage to enemies with the weaker status effect arrows before unleashing holy hell once their elemental resistance was completely depleted. When I didn’t want to roll out flaming arrows, I also got the biggest kick stealth that killed my way to victory. I could jump out of tall grass, kill with one hit, or obliterate my targets with an extremely satisfying “boom” by setting traps on an unsuspecting – and frankly rather stupid – enemy path. There are many ways to kill Forbidden West, and they are all nice.
As much as I don’t care about Aloy, as she writes, she reigns like a dream. I appreciate that Forbidden WestPlatforming doesn’t require you to press a button to click surfaces; she naturally clings to them. And I love how she climbs and now and then flips her body like a wet towel to jump between horizontal surfaces, while other platformer heroes (cough Nathan Drake cough) have to shake their arms like dirty plebes.
The platform puzzles are fun to complete, but can be frustratingly stupid. There were many points where I was stuck longer than I thought acceptable, because the way forward didn’t make sense within the context of the puzzle or was just invisible. If I am in a destroyed building and try to get to an inaccessible ledge, the way to reach that ledge must be within the building or its immediate perimeter, not so far outside the building that it is completely invisible or invisible to the player . I’m convinced the devs don’t see the sky because of a puzzle where I had to use a switch that was both too far out of the puzzle area to be considered relevant and didn’t start an interaction prompt until I was almost on top of it.
I wanted to like the plot of Forbidden West† Some of his best moments reminded me of Mass Effect 2† Throughout the game you “recruit” people to help you in your quest to save the world. In the first quarter of the game, you unlock a Norman SR2-esque base of operations that slowly turn your companions into a cozy home. There you can chat with the friends you have gathered, hear more about their people and motivations, learn about the world before Zero Dawn, or just chill out, play the Forbidden Westt equivalent of chess. You can even accept personal missions similar to Mass Effect 2‘s loyalty missions that help your companions grow. (Don’t worry, failing to complete any of these quests won’t result in an unsuspecting death on the final mission.) My only wish is that your companions can actually join you in the field beyond their personal errands.
There was one companion for whom I could not spare time in the day: Honor. I felt bad because he was one of Aloys OG friends from the first game, but I was more attracted to the new people. There’s Zo, the cool black lady who meekly refuses to accept death from the biopest like the rest of her people, or Kotallo, the spiky Tenakth who hates you on first meeting but soon comes to respect you like a precious alley. During the final mission of the game, you’re paired up with Erend, and I felt better because we’d finally get some face time. But I soon learned that I was right to neglect him. honoring. Is. The. Worst. During our time together, he only acted bitch. When I hid in the grass for a stealth kill, he incessantly nagged at me, “Aloy, ready when you are,” or “Aloy, can we kill them already.” When I turned around, he would challenge me, “Aloy, let’s go already.” Erend made me regret that there is no friendly fire Forbidden West†
There are many things I am frustrated about Forbidden West‘s story which I won’t reveal due to spoilers. A certain relationship has been heralded as the “heart and soul” of the game, but I didn’t take any heart or soul out of it at all. Aloy, even at her best, keeps her friends at bay and carries this haunted, “woe is me, I am in such a burden” vibe. The story reveals that Aloy gets it fair from her genetic ancestor Elisabet Sobeck, but even with this information, Aloy doesn’t seem to learn from it. Her interactions with her companions don’t heat up. You don’t get prompts to deal with their dialogue like you can in other conversations in the game, so you can’t joke with them or confide in them. When she talks to them, it feels like a service, akin to, “I’m asking how you’re doing to fulfill the bare minimum of friendship.” Meanwhile, her friends fall in love or trade barbs across the base, while Aloy herself seems far from it.
In the final mission of the game, the story takes an extremely hard left turn. There is a sudden but inevitable betrayal, and those the game presents as the villains are ousted at the last minute by bigger, more powerful villains. It’s a case of power creep that becomes absurdly comical when you realize that you and all your allies are armed with metal-clad sticks and rocks. It’s a good thing I didn’t play this game for the story – it would have let me down.
Open world games tend to overwhelm me because I’m the kind of person who likes to keep her inbox to zero and clear her notifications. When I see all the little symbols that indicate the 51 million different things you can do, find or fight on a goddamn huge map, I feel a panic attack coming on. With that in mind, Horizon Forbidden WestIt shouldn’t be my kind of game.
But after completing Final Fantasy XIV: Endwalker, I’ve been looking for something to record the time the game took up in my life. I needed something meaty that entertained me and didn’t ask me to invest too much emotion. I wanted something I could play through without being fully mentally present when I recovered from end runner’s emotionally delightful, and Horizon Forbidden West met that need perfectly. It was the video game equivalent of the post-coital cigarette that I looked forward to smoking another 60 hours.
Horizon Forbidden West launches on February 18 on the PS4 and PS5.