Exactly five years ago, a brand new IP made its debut on the PlayStation 4 system, one that would immediately capture the collective consciousness of gamers all over the world, while being hailed by many critics and media institutions alike as either a game of the year contender or winner. Be it due to a combination of its lush and vibrant post-apocalyptic world, wide opportunities for exploration, addictive combat system, its colorful yet complex cast of characters, or the introduction of a memorably beloved and empowered protagonist in Aloy, there were many reasons for fans to enjoy the title that would eventually become one of the crowned jewels of the Sony Interactive Entertainment portfolio: Horizon Zero Dawn.
Five years have passed since then, and times have changed. With the advent of PlayStation Studios and the high bar that was raised for the brand’s single-player adventures thanks to the likes of Ghost of Tsushima and God of War (2018), expectations are higher than ever for whatever comes out of their creative wheelhouse. And after a long time of waiting, the anticipated follow-up to, arguably, developer Guerilla Games’ magnum opus, Horizon Forbidden West, has finally arrived.
No doubt, the biggest question on every fan’s mind coming into this is: does Horizon Forbidden West exceed all expectations set by a game that already set a high bar for itself back with Horizon Zero Dawn?
Emphatically, after spending time with the game, they definitely did, and then some.
Horizon Forbidden West takes place following the ending of Horizon Zero Dawn, six months after the war in Meridian as she navigated the vast lands to discover the source of a mysterious red plague that has negatively altered the world’s flora and fauna. As she would later find out, this would be the beginning of something bigger than even she would have realized at the beginning. In order to save the planet, she will have to go through the titular “Forbidden West” in search of answers. She would meet allies and enemies, old and new, as once again, Aloy has to go through both human and machine threats in the course of her journey
One common theme you will notice in this review is how Guerilla managed to highlight what already works on the first game, and improve upon this foundation for the sequel. True enough, the five years of development really show how much exploration and activities you can do besides the engaging story content, which in itself can take a good chunk of your time.
But first, the story itself. If Horizon Zero Dawn tells of Aloy’s origin story, her road to acceptance within her world, and her rise to becoming the Savior of Meridian, the sequel can be considered a fulfilling follow-up that wraps around everything that the story has built thus far. From settling the cliffhanger from the first game to further exploring the in-game lore, this journey is a fulfilling ride full of twists, turns, and ultimately, satisfaction, which fans of the series would appreciate. Personally, there is one part in the game’s main story quest that somehow, unexpectedly tugged my heartstrings because of the touching symbolism that was shown, and you’ll know it when you see it. That’s how impressive the story is, and I really encourage fans to give it a try, if only for the story alone. It really helps that Ashly Burch has continued to nail the Aloy character so well that even after five long years, it felt like we came back to her journey like it was yesterday.
However, it is still a sequel, and you are expected to have understood the story of the first game to fully appreciate the sequel’s story. While there is a minor summary of the first game at the beginning, finishing the first game is highly recommended before getting into the sequel, especially with its revelations playing a significant role. Thankfully, if by any chance you have not played the first game yet, it is available on both the PlayStation 4 and PC. That said, if you do decide to jump into the sequel immediately, that’s okay! Just know that you have been warned when it comes to occasional references and lore established from the first game.
It is clear that the developers wanted to make the world more vibrant this time around, and it shows with the return of characters from the previous game to introducing new characters and groups within the Forbidden West. From returning characters like Sylens, Varl, and Erend to newcomers like the complex Zo and the vicious leader of the Tenakth rebels, Regalla (played by the great Angela Bassett of Black Panther and How Stella Got Her Groove Back fame), Aloy’s journey is greatly complemented through her interactions with these characters, and how they all influence her growth during the story. Likewise, the new tribes that play a major role in the story, the aforementioned war-inspired Tenakth and the peaceful Utaru, further drive home the diverse nature of the Forbidden West, and how their characteristics and cultures help build the vibrancy of this brave new land that Aloy would venture forth.
Of course, like with many sandbox-style games, the journey is just as integral as the destination itself. And in my time spent going through the various stories and side quests Forbidden West has offered, there is really way more going on as compared to the previous game, even if the overworld map is a bit larger in estimate from the previous game. The side quests feel just as integral to the main quests in the sense that there is so much weight and effort given to these tales, making them just as important as the main scenario quests. The wilds are so vast, you may very well end up suddenly saving someone and initiating a quest, having to explore vast ruins, stopping enemy camps, and collecting important materials used for strengthening Aloy and her weapons, among others. While it is a time sink, going off the beaten track has made for a fulfilling experience that is definitely well worth the price tag. It never felt dragging when I was exploring the Forbidden West as time went on because of how fun the game is, both mechanically and design-wise. As a matter of fact, the last time I had this much fun playing in a sandbox-style title was 2020’s Ghost of Tsushima, and that’s already saying something.
Besides these side quests, there is also a plethora of new activities that can be done besides activities carried over from Zero Dawn, such as an arena mode where you can battle various opponents, and their take on a popular in-world minigame called Machine Strike, which can be simply described as their own version of a strategic collectible game, somewhat akin to Gwent from The Witcher and Final Fantasy VIII’s Triple Triad. Honestly, there is really just so much to do in this game that the content and what you can do alone is already worth the full price.
Full disclosure: the game was reviewed on the PlayStation 5 version, which means there is quite a good number of things to talk about in regards to what I experienced playing with the current generation console. Of course, this means in this review, I cannot attest as to what particular differences there are with the PlayStation 4 version, especially when you consider that this game was originally supposed to be a PlayStation 5 exclusive until the decision to make this multi-platform within Sony’s ecosystem.
When you compare this to the likes of PlayStation 5-only titles such as Ratchet and Clank: Rift Apart, the Demon’s Souls remake, and Returnal, there is quite a bar to meet on a technical level. Nevertheless, the experience on the PlayStation 5 system has been enjoyed across the board, with virtually no loading times, the option to switch between performance and resolution modes (both of which are great to experience and is up to your own discretion on how you want to play), excellent use of DualSense functionalities (i.e., adaptive triggers, haptic feedback), and a good number of accessibility options to make things easier for players that require additional assistance as necessary, which is always a step in the right direction.
Personally, the sensation of using the bow with the adaptive trigger’s resistance felt satisfying, as is the sensation of rumbling from the feedback at certain moments of movement in-game. I know I sound like a broken record when it comes to this topic, but honestly, this is a marvel achieved with the advent of the DualSense, which really matters when it comes to immersion and is definitively the best way to experience this game.
There is also so much to be said not just about the graphical improvements the game went through, but also the little things: the facial expressions, the body movement when someone is talking, and how natural these characters come across during scenes. With certain games, sometimes, being able to accentuate the characters’ feelings through visual cues, expressions, and movements can be somewhat of a challenge, much less all three of these dictating a character’s emotions, but I honestly feel like they were able to meet this challenge, and perhaps they’re being able to develop this game without the intervention of crunch culture or any equivalent of the sort during the last five years allowed Guerilla Games to show what games as an entertainment medium can do. That, my friends, should always be commended.
Now, I did encounter one issue in my time reviewing the game: there were random blackouts that occurred rarely for around a second or two, which is not really a hindrance at all during my experience. But it is something that has been encountered and may be addressed via a Day 1 patch. Otherwise, my experience has been relatively mess-free.
Remember what I said earlier about how this game improves on what was already established in the first game? Boy, was this doubled down in the game’s mechanics.
The tried-and-true combat system that defined Horizon Zero Dawn makes its return for the sequel, but this time, they added multiple new layers to its combat system to make things more dynamic.
New enemy machines such as the Bristleback, the Slitherfang, and the Tremortusk bring new challenges and different approaches to combat, joined alongside a wide cast of new and returning machines that encourage you to come prepared, especially when it comes to dealing with their weaknesses. To that point, while past weapons such as the reliable bows types (Hunter Bows, Sharpshot Bows), tripcaster, and blast slings make their return, new weapons in this game encourage you to go out of your comfort zone and experiment on what works. Personally, my favorite new weapon in the game is easily the spike thrower, which is pretty much a high-damaging javelin that delivers the numbers, especially when hitting the right machine parts that you aim to break. Other new weapons such as the shredder gauntlet and the bulky yet powerful boltblaster are fun new additions and can be handy in certain battles. All of this is compounded by the fact that there are also new ammo types to consider such as acid and adhesive, encouraging you to plan ahead against enemy weaknesses. With the ability to assign six weapons in your weapon wheel, with all weapons carrying different ammo and elemental types, you will always find yourself discovering what the right approach would be. Since you really do not want to be on the receiving end of a beating from a group of enemies that can easily overwhelm you, you will want to consider your weapon and gear before every fight.
Melee also got a significant overhaul in this game, to the point that it can be viable not just against humans, but also against machines if needed. The addition of new melee combos, skills, and even a knockback-style jump from an opponent’s body to follow-up with a bow shot are welcome additions to what is perhaps one of the relatively weaker aspects of the previous game. This new approach to melee combat leads us to another new mechanic: Resonator Blast, which rewards continued melee assaults with an opportunity to deal major damage on a human enemy’s glowing body part. Implementing this new kind of risk-reward mechanic in the game brings another new dynamic for players to consider against human enemies, and not just limiting themselves to using only their projectiles, thereby saving ammo and precious resources.
Upgrading opportunities are plenty in this game. Gear can easily be upgraded through workbenches scattered all around the land to the point that, if improved enough, upgraded gear from earlier parts of the game can carry you to higher difficulty levels until you can find the gear that has a better upside in the long run. The skill tree system from the past game has expanded from three trees to a whopping six, all with their own unique traits: Hunter (for projectiles), Warrior (for melee), Trapper (for trap efficiency), Survivor (for health and healing), Infiltrator (for stealth), and Machine Master (for perks related to machineries). All of these trees have their own unique upgrades, unlockable Weapon Skills available per weapon type, and most importantly, another new system: Valor Surge, a unique buff that activates when you fill up your Valor Surge bar through various feats performed during combat. Different Valor Surges have different benefits that can turn the tide of a battle, from added range damage and health regeneration per shot to easier chances to break machine parts. I cannot tell you how many times a well-timed Valor Surge has saved me when I was getting overwhelmed, so again, as many of the additions implemented in this game, it is a welcome inclusion.
But for all of the welcome changes and improvements mentioned throughout this review, the biggest one, perhaps, would have to be the inclusion of two new story-required items that would significantly change the way Aloy fights and travels: the Pullcaster and the Shieldwing. Simply put, the Pullcaster is Aloy’s version of a grappling hook that can pull out obstructions while exploring, and the Shieldwing is her version of a glider. This may not mean much at first sight, but these two brought some major changes in how you approach combat, particularly, how the Pullcaster acts as a swing/launching pad so you can do aerial ranged and melee strikes, with the Shieldwing gliding you to safety if things don’t go well. These new key items make for new ways to deal critical damage to enemies while being able to avoid enemies easier.
For how much these two new key items help enhance the combat system, they are just as important when it comes to your ability to explore the vast lands, structures, and mountains of the Forbidden West. While we’re at it, one of the reasons why I’ve taken a liking to the exploration aspect of the game is due to how much improvements came into how you explore your surroundings. You can now swim into deep waters, which is a nice new touch to a game that, honestly, should have been included in the first game. Climbing mountains are easier to do now due to its freeform system where you can easily navigate your climbing path with minimal obstructions. If you need to go down a mountain faster and with less risk, the Shieldwing can easily glide your way to the ground. See a spot where you can use a Pullcaster to grapple your way from one area to another? Use that, and make your life easier. Exploration is so good, it is arguably reminiscent of how exploration works in Breath of the Wild, a comparison that I know I should not take likely. And if you know what that feels like, then you have a good idea of how good the exploration mechanics work in this game.
There are plenty of other features and scenarios for players to explore, but these are best left for the player to find out for themselves and be surprised.
We’ve already covered the production-specific features in the game such as haptic feedback, adaptive triggers, and the option to choose between performance and resolution modes. But they did also add various accessibility options to customize the game experience for players, such as the option to include waypoints for ease of exploration to your next goal, make certain button-related functions easier to activate, or even adjust the slowdown when you use your weapon wheel to choose your next weapon. It is always a good thing to keep these accessibility options available to a game such as this and follow the footsteps of other AAA games that put the wellbeing of the player at the forefront. And yes, it does have a photo mode, so I’m very sure people will have a good time with that.
I played the game using the PlayStation’s Pulse 3D headset to know how it feels as compared to playing the game through TV speakers, and you can tell that the game maximizes the use of its 3D audio throughout exploration, combat, and cutscenes. So if you have a good 3D headset, go ahead and give it a go! You won’t be disappointed.
When you are responsible for improving what was already one of the best games of the 2010s, it certainly feels like a Herculean task to go above and beyond to make its sequel better than the last. Thankfully, five years of hard work and dedication has resulted in a game worthy of being a must-have for every PlayStation owners’ library.
Horizon Forbidden West is a hallmark masterpiece that meshes its vast and beautiful environments with an expansive and engaging story, fantastic design, and an improved combat and exploration system that surpasses its predecessor. With so many side quests and activities available, you can spend hours upon hours just further exploring Aloy’s world and its diverse culture while immersing yourself in the stories of the people she meets.
You can make the argument that Horizon Zero Dawn is a game deserving of a 4/5 score. If that’s the case, no question at all, Horizon Forbidden West gets a 5/5.
Horizon Forbidden West will be available on February 18 on the PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5