Horizon’s second outing is a stellar sequel.
The PlayStation 5 has been out for nearly a year and half now (for those of you who have been lucky enough to get your hands on one), and the initial summer 2020 reveal event feels like it happened just yesterday. Many titles were shown off during that reveal showcase, including Returnal and Demon’s Souls, but Sony closed the show with Horizon Forbidden West, the follow-up to former Killzone developer Guerilla Games’ 2017 new IP. Forbidden West was positioned as one of the PS5’s first killer apps, a can’t miss title from a first-party PlayStation studio. It wouldn’t just be the sequel to one of the most beloved PS4 games, but it’d also be a taste of what’s to come with the next generation of PlayStation.
While there’s also a PS4 version of the game accompanying the PS5 release and we’ve already seen a fair number of next-gen showcases by this point, Horizon Forbidden West has continued to impress in all of its pre-release showings. Now that the game is making its way into players’ hands, the question can finally be answered: Is Horizon Forbidden West a true next-gen experience like it was marketed to be?
As the name implies, Horizon Forbidden West sends Aloy to the western region of what used to be the United States in search of a solution for an unstoppable blight that has been ravaging the scattered tribes of the land. Although Aloy saved the day once in the events of Horizon Zero Dawn, the post-apocalypse now has yet another apocalypse looming. The Forbidden West is a dangerous and unfamiliar place crawling with new machines to battle, new locales to explore, and new tribes to encounter. It’s a surprisingly varied place, and it makes a fantastic setting for this sequel.
Just like the first game, Horizon Forbidden West’s story has two major threads. There’s the present-day plot revolving around Aloy, the tribes of the Forbidden West, and Aloy’s colorful cast of supporting characters, and then there’s the ancient plot centered around the Old Ones, humanity before the collapse that led to the current state of the world. Horizon Zero Dawn’s central mystery about the Old Ones and the origin of the machines was a huge highlight, and the sequel has huge shoes to fill when it comes to crafting a compelling narrative. Unfortunately, most of the novelty of discovering how Horizon’s world works has worn off, but the sequel still has its fair share of secrets to discover.
While you’ll still learn a lot of new things about the old world in Horizon Forbidden West, Aloy’s personal journey takes center stage this time. Now that players already know the basics about Zero Dawn, the machines, and the Old Ones, the game takes much more time to flesh out the main cast of characters and the tribes of the Forbidden West, delving deeper into their customs, traditions, and day to day lives. Forbidden West really feels like the next chapter in a singular story rather than a fully standalone sequel. You can probably still enjoy it without having played Zero Dawn, but you’ll be missing out on a whole lot of context that the game expects you to understand going in.
The switch to a more personal story seems like a strange decision at first, especially with the game’s somewhat slow start, but once you get settled in with the main cast and start working through some of the side quest chains, starts to make sense. Just like the first game, Aloy is an incredibly strong protagonist. She’s grown a great deal since Zero Dawn, and it shows. Her exploits have made her much more assertive and confident, but she still has depth. She’s already saved the world once, but as every victory leads to another seemingly impossible challenge, she still struggles with self-doubt.
Also, because of her origins as an outcast, Aloy still struggles to work with other people, and her world-saving journey requires her to have a few friends by her side. Thankfully, Forbidden West’s supporting cast is much more fleshed out than Zero Dawn’s and watching Aloy open up to them and grow more comfortable working with a team is the emotional core of the story. Even the side quests feel much more meaningful this time around. They’re filled with cutscenes and give out much more worthwhile rewards, so it’s hard to skip them when you come across them.
Of course, the combat has always been the shining star for Horizon, and it’s better than ever before in Forbidden West. The core tenants are still the same: shoot weak points with your bow, set traps and tripwires around the arena, and use other tools to give yourself an advantage. Most of the weapons from the first game return, so you can use your old loadout if you want to stick to what you know. Forbidden West’s new weapons are the best of the bunch though. The Spike Thrower lets Aloy chuck spears at her enemies, and the powerful burst-fire Boltblaster is perfect for destroying parts.
Forbidden West also features a much more expansive skill tree that really lets you prioritize the parts of combat you like the most. There are multiple trees that you can dump skills into, and you can ignore the ones that you don’t like. If you want to improve Aloy’s melee capabilities but don’t care about traps or stealth at all, then you can do that. Skill trees also unlock new weapon techniques for each weapon type, which are special alternate firing modes that require stamina to use. These range from nocking multiple arrows at the same time or instantly placing a tripwire without having to manually line it up. These add a new layer of depth to an already deep combat system, and they allow you to specialize in the strategies that you enjoy.
The game’s enemy designs also play a large part in making combat so enjoyable. The Forbidden West is home to multiple new machines, and each of the newcomers is a blast to fight. The big ones shown off in trailers like the snake-like Slitherfang are threatening boss enemies, but even the smaller enemies like the monkey-like Clamberjaws are fun to take down. Each machine requires a different strategy to fight, and even the smaller ones still pose a threat
The game’s new upgrade system ensures that you’ll see a wide range of machines as well. Each piece of gear, including both armor and weapons, can now be upgraded several times. You’ll still want to replace your early-game gear with rarer stuff later down the line, but you can get more life out of your equipment and unlock more of its perks by upgrading it. When you need a part for an upgrade, you can create a quest for it and the game will mark its exact location on your map. With this system, you can essentially go on hunting trips specifically for the machines that you need, ignoring the actual list of side quests to go on your own personal little side quests.
The upgrade system exemplifies all the best parts of Horizon Forbidden West. It places as little resistance as possible between you and the things you need, cutting out the busy work and just letting you get out into the world and fight the cool robots. You can spend hours just going down the list of upgrade materials, planning out hunts and trying out new weapons. First on the list is a Snapmaw, then maybe you can fast travel over there and fight a Thunderjaw, and so on, all the while earning skill points to unlock new abilities to try out in combat against the next machine. It’s a mesmerizing loop.
The game’s actual side content is great, too, and there’s a lot of it. Everything is organized into sections in your quest log, so you can pick exactly what you want to do. There are your standard side activities like Rebel Camps and Hunting Grounds, but there are also addicting new activities like the Machine Strike minigame or old-world ruins that contain treasures. Even the things that existed in the first game like Cauldrons and Tallnecks have been improved upon. Each one feels unique, and the twists that you encounter with each one keep them from feeling like cookie-cutter content.
Getting around the world is also much easier in Forbidden West. Aloy has a new grappling hook called the Pullcaster, but it can only be used to move objects around or to zip to specific ledges. There’s also a new glider, but don’t expect to get very far with it. It’s really just to break your fall. The climbing system has also been vastly improved. You can’t freely climb anything, but you’re no longer limited to scripted sequences with bright yellow paint. You can now scan cliffsides with your focus and see highlighted handholds, which is helpful given how much verticality there is in this game. Oh, and don’t forget flying mounts, which are exactly as cool as they sound.
The Forbidden West itself is also much more varied than you would think. There are multiple radically different biomes in the game, and each of them feels massive. The snowy mountains feel impossibly tall thanks to the aforementioned verticality, forests feel super dense, and even underwater sections are enjoyable to explore. Every inch of this game is gorgeous, and the scale is equally impressive.
That’s on PlayStation 5 though, and there is a PS4 version of Horizon Forbidden West launching on day one as well. The PS5 version does have a ton of next-gen enhancements though, and it’s obviously worth getting that version if you have the choice. Loading times are blazing fast, the DualSense features make combat feel great, and the game is beautiful in 4K. The game also uses the cutscene character lighting system during gameplay on PS5, which sounds like a small feature, but it makes a noticeable difference. Finally, PS5 players can opt to play at 6o FPS, which is arguably the biggest improvement.
Despite all that though, the game still looks and runs fine on PlayStation 4. Horizon Forbidden West was touted as a next-gen showpiece when it was first revealed for PlayStation 5, but now that it’s here, it reveals a much more comforting truth: cross-generation games are fine and will be fine for a long time this generation. Horizon Forbidden West feels like a next-gen experience. It constantly wowed me with its visuals, its scope, its presentation, and everything in between. It doesn’t feel held back at all.
That doesn’t discount the PS4 version, either. Both are enjoyable ways to experience the game. Even though the PS5 version is noticeably better, the days of a last-gen game looking and running much worse compared to its next-gen counterpart (looking at you MGSV and Shadow of Mordor) are long behind us.
Despite how enjoyable Horizon Forbidden West is from start to finish, the whole game still feels a bit too familiar. It does make substantial improvements to the formula that the first game established, but it all feels expected. Forbidden West really doesn’t push any boundaries, especially when compared to the rest of Sony’s first-party lineup. It’s just more Horizon, which is both an exciting and slightly disappointing prospect.
Still, Horizon Forbidden West is a fantastic game that is really hard to put down. Even though it has a lot of stuff that we’ve seen before, clearing out bandit camps and finding collectibles is still a great time, especially in a world as beautiful and unique as this. It may not break much new ground, but the rest of 2022’s games already have some serious competition to live up to. Horizon Forbidden West is a bigger, better game than the original in nearly every way. With tons of engaging side content, a wide array of beautiful biomes to explore, and multiple threatening new machines to take on, there’s a lot to see and do in the Forbidden West.