It might be a bit hard to believe, but it’s been five years since the original Horizon Zero Dawn was first released on the PlayStation 4. Five long years since we first stepped into the role of Aloy, and joined the young Nora Brave on her quest to save her beautiful yet fractured world.
And with each subsequent year that has passed since that point, we have seen bigger and more ambitious games that have continued to push the envelope further than ever before when it comes to writing, world-building, and gameplay. A brand new generation of consoles has also rolled out during this time, allowing for much higher graphical fidelity than ever before.
Now in 2022, we finally have a chance to revisit the beautiful post-apocalypse that players first jumped into all those years ago with Horizon Forbidden West. And although this new entry basically utilizes the same core formula as the first, it improves on the foundations so significantly that it might as well be a completely different game. This is, without a doubt, what a perfect sequel looks like.
To start with, it has to be mentioned that the story of Horizon Forbidden West is a direct continuation of Zero Dawn. The game makes little to no concessions for new players when it comes to the next step of that journey, and it expects you to have a proper grasp of the numerous different events that unfolded when Aloy first began her adventure. No amount of in-game refreshers or exposition will get you fully up to speed, and so it is highly recommended that you play through the first game before jumping into this one. Or if that’s not possible, then a YouTube video summarizing the events should be your second option.
Either way, the game picks up some months after the defeat of HADES and follows our young protagonist as she searches for a way to restore the artificial intelligence GAIA to power once more. Her path eventually leads into the Forbidden West, where she hopes to find the answers she seeks to restore balance to the world, but things hardly ever work out the way we expect.
The West is a land ruled by the Tenakth tribe, which is currently in the midst of a civil war. Two different splintered factions are embroiled in a struggle for power, one of which has learned how to control the wild machines that inhabit the world. Aloy must now get involved in the lives of these people, all the while trying her best to help restore some semblance of order to the world. And what starts off as a fairly basic story about petty squabbles between people, eventually grows into an all-encompassing Science Fiction epic that far exceeds the scope of the original. It’s more ambitious if not all that much more mysterious.
On her journey, Aloy is now joined by her old friends Erend and Varl. These two are characters who had supporting roles in the first game, and now they return once again to help ground our lead and give her some form of human connection in this new land. But that’s not how it always goes. Because as much as Aloy’s friends try to help her and stay close, she pushes them away. She has always been alone in the world, and she believes that her quest is a solitary one. And herein lies one of the greatest strengths and weaknesses of the story of Horizon Forbidden West.
This is a game about the resilience of humanity and the power of companionship and friends in a broken world. So seeing Aloy grow a bit as a person and develop deeper connections with various different characters is a real highlight of the game. This is not a particularly original plot point, but the excellent character writing really helps sell the emotional aspect of this growth, as limited as it is.
But on the other hand, Aloy spends far too much of the game being her old lone-wolf self, hesitant to accept any help from outsiders, and simply being far too stubborn for her own good. By itself, this can be a decent characterization for a protagonist, but we’ve already spent all of the first game going through this exact same story beat. It was charming at first, but it goes on for a bit too long.
Apart from Aloy though, all of the side characters shine brightly when it’s their turn in the limelight. Forbidden West features a colorful roster of individuals, each of whom feels more believable than the last. Their personalities are as varied as their appearances, and at no point did I ever feel bored or annoyed while talking to them.
They feel truly human, and that’s a feat accomplished thanks to phenomenal voice acting and motion capture that’s comparable to some of the best this industry has to offer. The simple gestures characters make with their bodies, the way faces shift and change, it’s all leagues above what we saw in Zero Dawn.
Gameplay And Combat
While the gameplay in the previous game was by no means perfect, it was still solid enough that traversing the environment and fighting robot animals never actually got repetitive. On the contrary, it was one of the few open worlds where I actively sought out machines to fight even when I didn’t have to because it was simply so much fun. Well after I had completed the main campaign and put in a further 20 hours into side content, I still kept coming back to pick fights with random Thunderjaws.
In Forbidden West, the developers have taken that same basic gameplay loop that defined the previous game, and sharpened and refined everything to as close to perfection as possible. On top of this, they’ve also added a bunch of new surprises and gameplay mechanics, such as face paint, that keep exploration and combat fresh dozens upon dozens of hours into the playthrough.
To start with, Aloy still has access to her trusty Focus, which allows her to analyze different objects and clues in the environment and gain information from them. It comes in handy during certain quests, allowing you to scan footprints and track targets as the situation calls for it. Its most frequent applications however are during freeform gameplay, as you can use it to locate loot or highlight climbable surfaces in the world.
Before initiating combat, you can also use the Focus to scan different machines and pinpoint their exact strengths and weaknesses. You can get an idea of how they’ll behave, what resources they’ll drop, what their vulnerable points are, and even which parts of their bodies are detachable. Using this information, players can plan each encounter beforehand and quickly ensure that they’ll never be caught off guard.
Speaking of machines, this game has an absolutely stellar selection of enemies that includes both returning creatures and some brand new ones. Our favorite so far is the flying mount Sunwing. Most of these exhibit their own unique set of behaviors and animations, and slowly learning how to fight each of them is an absolute joy. To switch things up, even more, some tougher machines also have unique Apex and Elemental variants that are not only much harder, but also have their own set of attacks and abilities. These force you to think differently than you normally would for that particular class of enemy, which makes beating them much more rewarding.
When it comes to weapons, the game features an impressive amount of choice in what sort of gear you bring with you. There are different classes of bows that can fire multiple types of arrows that either deal damage, strip parts, etc. Tripcasters can be used to create traps that trigger when enemies walk into them, while Ropecasters can tether enemies to a spot. Blastslings deal massive elemental damage quickly, while the slower Spike Throwers can absolutely devastate foes with a charged attack. There’s simply a lot on offer here, and players can mix and match to create their own perfect loadout.
A robust selection of skill trees also allows you to invest points in abilities and boosts that further enhance your gameplay experience. Some of these are simple enough, like the ability to boost your attack power or break an enemy’s guard. While others are more specialized, like the ability to place more traps at the same time or notch more arrows on your bow. And these are only the ones that actively deal with fighting. Others improve your health and stamina recovery, and some even make your critical hits more effective.
A new set of ultimate abilities known as Valor Surges switch up the gameplay even more. These are extremely powerful moves that can only be used when you build up your Valor Meter by playing the game tactfully. Once that’s done, you can unleash one of 12 different Valor Surges that range all the way from massive boosts to damage, to an area of effect attack and even a cloaking device that makes you invisible. These are absolute game-changers, which is also why you can use them sparingly.
Now if all that wasn’t enough, the melee combat has also been improved with new moves and combos. It’s also much more weighty and impactful, to the point that it actually feels like a valuable part of your arsenal. Attacking with your spear is now an actual viable choice you can make, instead of simply relying on it as a last resort.
And oh, you can still override machines to bring them over to your side. Yes, you heard that correctly new prospective players, you can dominate robots in this game and get them to attack your enemies for you. I can’t believe that with all of the improvements that Horzion Forbidden West makes, the taming of the robot animals is the least impressive part of it all.
World And Art Style
We’ll talk more about the graphics specifically a bit later in the article, but I have to say now that Horizon Forbidden West is hands-down the most beautiful game I have ever seen in my life. And that beauty doesn’t simply come from its graphical fidelity either, it has a lot to do with the phenomenal art direction and attention to detail when it comes to constructing its world. Seriously, I cannot put into words the sheer awe it inspires in me to see a game so utterly committed to its vision of the post-apocalypse.
From ruined cities to lush green jungles and abandoned sandy beaches, everything has been brought to life with so much love and detail that I often found myself staring at new areas I came across for minutes on end. This is not an exaggeration, I have literally put my controller in my lap and leaned back in my chair with my hands on my head more times while playing this game than I care to count. Watching the Tallnecks walk around is almost therapeutic, and visiting vista points gives a glimpse of the past.
There are areas in the game that overlook such incredible vistas, with pools of water shimmering below and misty mountains in the distance, that sometimes I found it hard to believe that this was an actual game that I was playing. The surreal feeling is when you explore underwater using the diving mask. Walking through this world’s jungles made me feel lost and alone, and traversing through its deserts made me feel small and insignificant. These are not emotions that most open-world games can evoke from players, but they’re ones that Horizon Forbidden West elicited from me.
And this level of detail is even greater in the many different human settlements you’ll visit in the game. Each of these areas not only looks unique and believable, like people actually live and congregate in them, they actually feel old and alive. As if they have stood long before Aloy was born, and that they will still be standing when she is long gone. They aren’t lifeless in the way most towns in open-world games are, and there are some truly spectacular locations that aren’t worth spoiling in this review.
Visuals And Performance
As I mentioned above, this is the most visually stunning game I have ever played in my life. The character models, the textures, and the machine designs are among some of the most impressive I have ever seen. You can stand next to a wooden structure and count the number of grains it has. Standing in an open field, the detail is so high that you can make out each and every blade of grass.
But what truly stands out among all of them, is the incredible lighting. The way it streaks through branches, or how it illuminates the fog it touches is nothing short of astounding. Hell, even seeing the sun obscured by clouds or reflected in a body of water is enough to make your jaw drop.
In terms of performance, Horizon Forbidden West has both a Resolution and Performance mode on the PlayStation 5. In Resolution mode, the game runs at native 4K resolution at 2160p, but it is still locked to 30 FPS of course. On Performance mode the resolution in lowered to 1800p, but you get to play at an incredibly smooth 60 FPS instead.
Now I always suggest that if a game manages to run at 60 FPS, then it’s worth taking the hit in visuals for a more smoother experience. And although that’s true for this game as well, I cannot help but be impressed by how utterly gorgeous this game looks in 4k, especially if you have a decent TV or gaming monitor. So this is maybe the first and only time that I will ever recommend that players should maybe consider playing in Resolution mode if they want to experience what this hardware is capable of.
Now as far as the PlayStation 4 is concerned, the resolution you get all depends on the model you have. A PlayStation 4 Pro runs the game at 1800p, while a base model PlayStation 4 only manages 1080p. Both versions of the hardware are also restricted to 30 FPS, which is a shame to see from the Pro.
Horizon Forbidden West Verdict
After 5 long years of waiting, the Horizon series has returned to showcase a first-party exclusive that is worth buying a PlayStation 5 for.
This is an incredibly beautiful game that stimulates the imagination and makes you feel excited to simply explore the open world. The lighting, the textures, the models, everything looks so utterly fantastic that you want to walk around for hours simply observing the locations.
The story is also great if not all that mysterious anymore. The voice acting is on point, and the facial animations and motion capture are miles better than what we saw with the last game.
Additionally, The core gameplay is the same as the last game but refined to perfection with a suite of new tools and mechanics that breathe new life into the formula. It’s a testament to the work the developers have put into this game, that combat never gets stale even dozens of hours into a playthrough. This is truly a phenomenal game.
- Fantastic Combat.
- Great Story.
- Diverse Selection of New Machines.
- Colorful Characters.
- Great Voice Acting And Motion Capture.
- Amazing Lighting And Visuals.
- Fun New Weapons And Tools.
- Game Starts off Slow.
- Aloy’s Character Arc Is Repetitive.
Horizon Forbidden West Rating – 4.5/5
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