My favorite moments of Horizon Forbidden West are the ones that unfold apart from the main story.
Developer Guerrilla Games’ stunningly huge world is dotted with eye-catching points of interest and thoughtfully composed human dramas that tantalizingly beckon you to guide Aloy, our protagonist (voiced by Mythic Quest‘s Ashly Burch), into points unknown. I played for 60 hours before the credits rolled, well more than the not-insignificant main plot demands, and that was entirely because I couldn’t help myself anytime I spotted a new animalistic robot to hunt, old world ruin to explore, or person in need of help.
Longtime fans of games like Elder Scrolls and Assassin’s Creed know this song well, of course. But Forbidden West is nonetheless a standout in a genre that’s filled with them.
Part of it is the world itself, a wild imagining of what the southwestern U.S. landscape would look like 1,000 years after an apocalyptic event wiped out all life on the planet. This is a gorgeous game by any measure, regardless of whether you play on a PlayStation 4 or its PlayStation 5 successor. It’s also brimming with life, from the animalistic robots that wander the land to the repurposed remnants of the old world, where mundane things like satellite dishes and the still-standing frames of ruined buildings are turned into communities and shelters.
These things aren’t just there for color; they naturally draw the eye both for the player and the fictional post-apocalypse dweller. When I catch a glimpse of San Francisco’s unmistakable Transamerica Pyramid piercing the skyline, I automatically want to go check it out. Yes, it’s cool to see what 1,000 years of post-apocalypse did to the human-made wonder. But I also know I’m likely to find people to help or robots to hunt there, each carrying the promise of gameplay and narrative rewards.
Credit: Guerrilla Games
The act of exploration is sometimes a chore, to be sure. Aloy is a much more capable wanderer in this sequel, with the ability to climb on many more surfaces — closer to Assassin’s Creed than Breath of the Wild — and make use of navigation tools like a high-tech glider. But the climbing and movement controls have a rough and sluggish feel at times.
It’s almost like the game loses track of your camera perspective in these moments; you’ll push the stick to move in one direction, but Aloy goes elsewhere. The only way to fix it is to just stop and let the game catch its proverbial breath. It’s a frustrating issue when it occurs, but these fleeting moments do little to detract from Aloy’s riveting journey.
Talking to the people of Forbidden West and helping them with their problems — old hat for these types of games — is made more impactful by some of the best performance capture I’ve ever seen in a game like this. Just about everyone Aloy talks to in a one-on-one dialogue exchange is visibly performing. Being able to read facial expressions and even body language in some cases subtly heightens the emotional resonance of any exchange. It’s an imperfect illusion at times, with bodies moving in a way that sometimes feels detached from the heads and faces they’re attached to.
These glaring moments of dissonance are hard to miss, but they’re also a testament to how impressive most of the virtual performances actually are. My favorite subplot in Forbidden West involves a performance troupe who need Aloy’s help bringing their shared dream to life. There’s a strong script guiding this thread, but it’s more than that. Talking to Morlund, the group’s effects whiz and de facto leader, I can see the play of emotion rippling across his face as he speaks from the heart about what he wants and how Aloy can help.
My favorite moments of ‘Horizon Forbidden West’ are the ones that unfold apart from the main story.
There’s an ineffable quality to the way I found myself sympathizing with the plight of this virtual person on an instinctive level. When I’m talking to a real person and they’re explaining how all they want is this one thing, for all of these very personal reasons, feeling compassion and a desire to help is pure reflex. That’s what happens in my brain and my heart at Forbidden West‘s strongest moments. It’s a strange yet thrilling sensation.
The remnants of the old world that you explore are also littered with narrative treasures. This is best exemplified by “Datapoints,” which take the form of discarded tablet-like devices from the before-times that Aloy can scan to read their contents. You’ll find these in just about every location, and the lineup of diary entries, emails, text messages, news stories, and advertisements enhance individual quests as well as our understanding of the world.
Morlund’s request for help in the ruins of Las Vegas is its own kind of self-contained story. But as you wander through the location and come across new Datapoints, a parallel story begins to take shape as we learn what became of Las Vegas before the world ended. You can play through that whole quest without looking at a single shred of text and get a perfectly fulfilling story arc. But there’s a much more emotionally fulfilling resolution for those who take the time to absorb a Datapoint-driven history lesson.
For all the pleasure I took from learning about the people of Forbidden West and their personal dramas, hunting robots is still the star. It’s as thrilling as it ever was in Zero Dawn; you just have more tools to lean on this time around.
Credit: Guerrilla Games
A javelin-firing Spike Thrower is handy against Forbidden West‘s increasingly massive threats, especially once you top those javelin tips with explosives. The Shredder Gauntlet, meanwhile, is one for the high-skill crowd; you can manually catch its spinning blades as they boomerang back to Aloy, with more catches and re-throws bringing added effects such as boosted damage, elemental effects (such as Burning, which causes damage over time), even explosions. These new toys are essential, too, in the face of a more fearsome cast of animalistic robots.
There’s greater variety in how you can approach any hunting challenge, too. When I compared notes with some friends after we all finished, we were surprised to realize how very different our strategies were. I prefer stealth and a lineup of weapons, mostly bows, that are more effective at shearing resource-loaded parts off of robot bodies. But both people I talked to favored different approaches: One relied more on traps and the Boltblaster, another new weapon that’s like a mash-up of a crossbow and a gatling gun; the other favored stealth like me, but he relied heavily on a limited-use invisibility skill that I barely touched.
The combat evolution in Forbidden West leans the series harder into the kind of chip-health-away-slowly mindset of the Monster Hunter series. It’s the perfect model for Horizon to emulate, and one that Guerrilla likely always had an eye on, even as Zero Dawn came together. There are no truly easy fights in Forbidden West; you’ve got to think about what you’re facing in every encounter, equip the right gear, and accept that taking on even a small pack of elk-like robots can turn into a grueling 15-minute affair.
The combat evolution in ‘Forbidden West’ leans the series harder into the kind of chip-health-away-slowly mindset of the Monster Hunter series.
I never got tired of cresting a hill and catching sight of Horizon robots’ signature blue “everything’s OK!” lights illuminating a nearby clearing. Same as the human settlements, these points of interest immediately catch the eye and pull your attention away from whatever quest-related checkpoint you might have been chasing. I just came to accept that my journeys through the wilds of Forbidden West would be regularly interrupted by pitched hunts, because how can I say no when a new set of robots — and the resources I can scavenge from them for more and better weapons, ammo, and gear — is right there?
This is the point I’ve been circling around, like so many of the robots Aloy hunts: Forbidden West lands best if you’re willing to take your time in plumbing its depths. From the lengthy process of taking down a big robodino (they’re not all dinosaur-shaped robots, but they’ll always be robodinos to me) to the compelling stories and personal dramas that unfold as you meet the people in this second age of human civilization, lingering in each hunt, each location, each story, and each moment for as long as you can is key.
Even as I watched the credits roll, I felt anxious to go back. The 60 hours I spent in Horizon Forbidden West‘s technically and emotionally dazzling world aren’t nearly enough. I still have a map that’s littered with question marks that indicate an unvisited point of interest. There’s a whole robot-fighting arena and racing circuit I’ve barely touched. Personal stories I haven’t discovered. Desperate people — who communicate that desperation using more than just words — I haven’t yet helped.
It’s a rare thing for any game to leave me wanting more right after I’ve finished, let alone one that I just spent two-and-a-half-days-worth of hours playing. But that’s the special kind of experience Guerrilla has delivered here. For any stumbles and less-than-polished elements, Horizon Forbidden West is a stunning video game adventure that belongs on any PlayStation owner’s shopping list.