When Horizon Zero Dawn launched, I was blown away. The first entry in a new series besides Killzone by Guerilla Games was a big deal. At the time, the studio had been working on the same franchise for nearly a decade and recognizing the talent they had, and the studio wanted to step outside of its comfort zone and create something entirely new. Several years later, I think we’re all glad Guerilla Games stepped outside its comfort zone.
Set six months after Horizon Zero Dawn, Aloy has set out to stop the red blight from spreading across the world, knowing the truth about it why it has begun to spread, and the repercussions for the world if not stopped. In the follow-up sequel from studio Guerrilla Games, upon discovering that a supercomputer is looking to terraform the planet, Aloy continues her search to prevent the world from ending. She’s been trying to understand the blight and how to stop it, which eventually leads her to the forbidden west. In this new land, she’ll come across new tribes, machines, and friends.
To make matters more personal, Aloy sees herself as an outcast, while the various tribes celebrate her accomplishments by going so far as to create several statues in honour, which does not concern her – our hero is focused on saving all those who once thought nothing of her. She’s wearier and on edge and who can blame her— she carries the fate of the world on her shoulders.
Horizon Forbidden West is a smartly improved sequel
Forbidden West puts you back in the saddle immediately; getting back into the swing of the gameplay was like riding a bike. The familiar gameplay we love is here, smoother and more refined — the two things I was hoping we would see. My biggest concern in a follow-up was how much freedom the player would have to explore the bewildered world Guerilla has built. In short, there’s a lot more expression of freedom for the player, and it is apparent just how much more the world is available to the player than before.
After a fun and memorable opening segment sending players on a hunt for a possible Gaia backup, we’re soon back in the city of Meridian. Serving as a climbing tutorial to familiarize players with Aloy’s parkour skills and new Pullcaster, you free climb a structure to start the next sequence, Using this segment as a segue into the real threats Aloy faces down in the world of Horizon.
In the first game, you could jump and see a latch, and while it visually looked like it could be reached, it technically couldn’t. One of my biggest complaints was the lack of understanding on whether a surface was climbable or not.
In Horizon Forbidden West, it’s clear developers listened and improved the climbing system. There’s more freedom to explore every biome, with climbing being a clear highlight. The new system offers a visual representation of surfaces Aloy can now climb thanks to the power of her Focus.
The free climbing system used in Forbidden West offers more freedom than Zero Dawn, but not as much as other games like Breath of the Wild or newer Assassin’s Creed games. The gameplay feels better too, and climbing is generally more exciting than ever thanks to smartly adapted guides to mountaineering. Aloy is swift and often nimble, so watching her climb up & over these massive hurdles with ease is never dull and filled with annotated notches across the rocks and cliff faces. This is all done with the help of a Focus, a visual interface.
Focused on Improvements
Few individuals in the world of Horizon own a Focus, but for those who do, they can see information in real-time, familiar to Batman’s detective mode. By tapping R3, the world pulsates around you and gives you a brief idea of the surrounding resources, potential threats, and as an added improvement, the scalable surfaces – show up as yellow lines & markers indicating what to look for.
Holding R3 allows you to scan enemies and machines, allowing the player to learn their patterns and tag them (or their body parts) to keep an eye on them while you stealth your way through an area. Against machines, Focus offers the ability to see what pieces of their armour can be broken and any innate element they may possess. A lot of the under the hood improvements Guerilla has delivered are welcome and feel right at home here.
Combat’s been given an infusion; Aloy’s abilities and new attack combos are levels above Zero Dawn’s offerings. Notably, when paired with an investment of the Warrior skill tree, Aloy has some new tricks, and with the added benefit of the Resonator Blast, results with energy build-up from your melee combos.
Tying right into the core of combat are Valour Surges abilities — a new meter that Aloy fills during combat.. We’ve seen Aloy activate an ability that knocks enemies back and one that breaks armour off enemies. New Valor Surges are unlocked through the skill tree with each move serving a specific purpose – an example is the Resonator blast that builds a charge on the spear and creates visible damage points on enemies. Each Valour Surge has a meter you need to fill before it can be used. If you play tactically, you earn bonus XP, boosting your meter.
And with an expanded series of skill trees, the opportunity to alter your playstyle is generous over six investable traits. If you choose to be a Warrior, you focus on melee abilities. Trapper focuses on trapping enemies, Infiltrator focuses on stealth abilities, Survivor prioritizes health/resources, Machine Master unlocks hacks, and Hunter focuses on ranged attacks. Guerilla’s made outfits almost symbiotic with the skill trees, as adding points to a particular tree yields bonuses.
Let’s get Settled
The settlements feel more alive and bigger than I remember. Residents of these small pockets of humanity and the first major settlement you come across, Chainscrape, offer many activities to keep you busy. If you want to practice your skills, head to the training range and learn the ins & out of combat. Sidequests are usually a great source of experience, and often will lead you to areas of the map you might not visit on the critical path.
Aloy can also utilize workbenches across settlements. I unlocked the workbench a few hours into Horizon Forbidden West alongside the other merchants. Acquiring resources from the world and machines will grant you the ability to upgrade weapons and outfits. You can raise attributes and damage points, and new skills and attacks with weapons. It is more elaborate than before.
Chainscrape is but one of several settlements Aloy will visit. Going back to Horizon Zero Dawn, it is immediately noticeable the work that has gone into making the NPCs feel more alive. Side Quests are more meaningful and reward you with worthwhile items. A lot of these activities previously were throw-away sequences to flesh out the main narrative — instead, these sidequests complement the main story.
Oh, and for those wondering, many settlements have Strike available to play. Serving as the in-game board game NPCs play around the world, Aloy unlocks her Strike pieces early on to challenge the residents.
To the Forbidden West
Using the Pullcaster to climb faster and get out of sticky situations, Aloy also now has a Shieldwing, allowing her to descend from heights safely. Aloy now uses a Diving Mask, being able to head underwater where an entirely new world awaits, begging to be explored. Aloy’s Pullcaster works in several ways by allowing her to pull and break objects, and by using the adaptive trigger tension as you pull, you’ll feel the tactile dimensions increase. By giving players the choice to ascend environments and also offering a traversal/escape option, the tool can also be used to launch the player into the air to grab ledges, glide, or more.
In early areas, I encountered a group of Bristlebacks roaming a quarry. In an attempt to be stealthy and try to take the herd out without alerting the machines, I got through nearly the entire group before being discovered. With the Pullcaster, I was able to tap X and grapple to the location and then hit O to gain a speed boost to not only escape safely but was able to slow time down, use a poison arrow to create a chain reaction that killed the rest of the herd.
Vista points are a new interactive puzzle around the map, each one is a rusty tower you investigate with each being a visual environmental puzzle. The image is blurry, giving you a look at the past, and you’ll have to explore the area to find the location and tie it together. These are what I’d consider a more advanced version of Zero Dawn’s Vantage Points.
Guerilla Games has taken the criticisms around Zero Dawn to heart and reworked a lot of the systems for the sequel. While the majority of open-world games have tons of side content that are usually relegated to fetch quests or filler, seeing the developer listen to feedback and rework the systems to offer personal, engaging, and fun side quests are wonderful to see.
On the world map are green exclamation marks, signifying Forbidden West’s take on Tales of Tsushima – missions introducing several colourful characters – each one requiring your help. In one, you might need to prove the innocence of a man accused of murder in one mission or save miners in a collapsed mine in another. The mix of scenarios Aloy encounters across her mission shows the step up in quality that Zero Dawn was missing.
There are also errands where you’ll find missions like learning to play Strike, the in-world board game, or helping the cook in Chainscape gather ingredients — these are more traditional side quests. Learning how to play Strike has left me eager to venture out to each settlement and play against every opponent. The game uses many of the properties found in Forbidden West, like having different health pools for each machine, as well as different terrains that help or work against you depending on the opponent. You move your pieces across tiles and can even overcharge your pieces to deal bonus damage but at the cost of hurting yourself. Strike offers a fun escape for players looking to master a fun in-game activity.
Another thing that stands out amongst a wealth of other positives is the performances. Aloy as portrayed by Ashly Burch is commendable and Lance Reddick eats up the scenery. Newcomers Angela Bassett as Regalla is a force to be reckoned with as one of the leaders of the Tenkath while Carrie-Anne Moss is unapologetically a genre actor that always leaves a mark.
Guerilla has seriously upped the writing for Forbidden West, and that’s not a diss to Zero Dawn – I genuinely believe it is. Every character has a part to play here, and you can tell that by how often the cast is delivering some impressive performances.
Haptic implementation is impeccable and the technology continues to be one of my favourite things about this generation. Guerilla Games works magic in Forbidden West — the way the controller reacts to walking or running, the shocks from combat or the frantic draw of Aloy’s bow — the dance of adaptive triggers delivering immersive gameplay. Settlements come to life while strolling through the market; encountering a herd of Watcher’s only to feel their shrieks penetrate through the controller.
Finally, for those looking to see what sort of visual options you can select in Horizon Forbidden West, Resolution Mode with 4K full graphical option at 30 frames per second and Performance Mode with what looks to be above the expected 1440p and 60 frames per second. I haven’t come across any slowdown and Forbidden Dawn’s optimization is sublime, with another great case of read/write speeds being one of the best advancements this generation. Both options are worth experiencing, but I heavily favour the higher frame rate over fidelity.
Horizon Forbidden Dawn is what more sequels should strive to be. Aloy’s journey is personal on many levels, and Ashly Burch’s performance is easily a highlight. Many of the improvements to combat, navigation, exploration, and visuals make this one of the most satisfying sequels in recent memory and serve as a game with a lot of highs and few lows. Horizon Forbidden West is the rare sequel that not only improves on every mechanic but also creates a lived-in world full of danger and wonder in every corner.
[A copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review purposes.]
Reviewed on: PlayStation 5