Horizon Forbidden West is a visual delight, but a step back in gameplay
★★★★ | Is 'it's alright' enough?
(Horizon Forbidden West is out on February 18th. The distributor provided a review code.)
Horizon Forbidden West is disappointing on many fronts. It is also a very good game.
These contradictions go hand in hand over the course of the fifty-plus-hour main campaign. Often, the incredible highs of Guerilla Games’ epic adventure outweigh all complaints. But sometimes, and often in crucial moments, the letdowns are too big to ignore.
Forbidden West starts a few months after the end of Zero Dawn. Aloy and her friends have stopped the coming armageddon, but only for a brief moment. Her uneasy alliance with Sylens, the brilliant but ruthless master of machines, leads her on a hunt for a rogue signal that awoke Hades, triggering the devastation she stopped. The further Aloy chases Sylens’ footsteps, the clearer her goal becomes. To find answers, she must travel far to the Forbidden West, an arid expanse of warring tribes and lost megacities.
The abrupt opening sets the tone for what’s to follow. Where Zero Dawn culminated in seeing Aloy’s hard work and blossoming friendships all come together in a triumphant conclusion, Forbidden West throws all that out the window in the first minutes. Aloy has forsaken her friends, leaving them without so much as a word about her plans. Suddenly, she’s alone again, angry about her place in the world.
What’s worse is that Aloy is kind of a jerk this time around. She’s snippy and grouchy, and there’s really no way to play her as the compassionate crusader of justice like last time. There’s also very little done to explain this, even though some plot points clearly pave the way for it. She’s Elizabeth Sobeck, creator of Zero Dawn, reborn, and as such carries the weight of knowing what will happen on her shoulders.
But where the first game weaved a terrific narrative around this burden, Forbidden West treats it as an annoyance. The story offers ample opportunities for self-reflection, but loses focus under mountains of exposition and hurried pacing.
Similar contrivances weigh down the otherwise interesting narrative. Forbidden West introduces no less than six villains in its early hours, none of whom get the attention they deserve. Sylens, the intriguing counterpoint to Aloy’s optimism, disappears from the narrative entirely after the first hour. A grief-stricken warlord waging a civil war against their former tribe is nothing more than a villain of the week.
By the time the inevitably tragic twists and turns start popping up, they’re so underdeveloped they lack any punch or weight.
Forbidden West is disappointing on many fronts. It is also a very good game.
Forbidden West is an open-world game that feels like it hates being one. More than a few times I felt its restrictive grasp stifle the joy of discovering things for myself. The issues are most noticeable when you don’t expect them. Accessible areas are walled off and quests won’t trigger until the arbitrary dialog is triggered.
One mission had me at the base of a slightly inclined hill, where a character complains they can’t get through to the other side. “Can’t do anything about this,” Aloy mutters. But, hang on, I could easily just climb over the hill, right? Nope. No matter what direction you come from, any progression halts with a dire “can’t enter this location” text.
It’s not even the only time that this happens. Forbidden West is so intent on making you follow a linear story that it sacrifices exploration for it. You’re constantly given new gadgets to explore, but any opportunities to do so are swiftly taken away for no reason.
For example, early on in the long tutorial, Aloy picks up a grappling hook. The same one that made Halo Infinite so satisfying to explore. But you can’t use it for anything but pre-designated locations, and those are few and far between. There’s potential for fun acrobatics at every turn, but Forbidden West is adamant you can’t enjoy them.
Similarly, a delightfully Zelda-esque umbrella gives you the ability to glide surprisingly long distances. Jumping off mountains is one of the purest joys in the game. But, and you probably guessed it, you’re bound to run into invisible walls here as well. Want to jump into that rebel base and surprise them from the sky? Sometimes it’ll work, other times you’re here too early. There are a bunch of stories you first need to complete before coming back.
These choices are as infuriating as they are perplexing. If Guerilla Games wanted to focus on their narrative, why not make Forbidden West a linear experience? Why take away the joys of discovering loose threads and combining them later on?
If Guerilla Games wanted to focus on their narrative, why not make Forbidden West a linear experience?
Much of the core gameplay revolves around finding MacGuffins scattered about the landscape in Cauldrons, the dungeons which create machines. You can, in theory, approach any of them how you see fit, but it always feels like the game drags its heels if you do so.
On my first run, I headed straight for the very last point of interest on the map. Scaling a mountain nearby, I decided the easiest way to my destination was by gliding. Halfway through my descent, I bumped into an invisible wall with a disclaimer that I’m not allowed to go there. Nearby cliffs proved impassable, despite looking exactly the same as others. I had no choice but to follow the pre-determined path to a scripted encounter.
Funnily enough, by the time I left said Cauldron, I stumbled on another scripted moment on the way back. Instead of reacting to it in a way that registered my actions elsewhere, Aloy began reading pre-scripted lines wondering who these people were and what could be ahead.
Forbidden West is full of moments like these. Bits that don’t seem to connect to one another. Taken by themselves, they’re all fine and intriguing, but if you happen to do anything out of order, the seams become apparent very quickly.
Meanwhile, the actual gameplay loop has progressed very little from Zero Dawn. Aloy’s focus, allowing her vision of things hidden and forgotten, is now more of a crutch than innovation. Every mission leans heavily on it, and not a second goes by that you don’t need to check something with it.
Most quests boil down to a similar structure. Aloy arrives at a place, scans it with her focus, and then follows highlighted points or paths to the next fight. There’s no chance to discover things for yourself, and some places will even retract information until it’s time to come back to collect it.
Navigating the world is similarly frustrating. Some places can be scaled without an issue, others will randomly appear blocked. You can never tell which is which without the focus, and even then it’s entirely random whether Aloy actually chooses to climb there.
On a technical level, Forbidden West is impressive and has style and vision to spare.
On a technical level, Forbidden West is impressive but held back by aging technology. On a PS5, it runs beautifully in performance mode, rendering the game at a lower resolution but higher framerate. Higher fidelity is available, but I found the experience unplayable at 30fps and below. Especially in cities, 4K resolution causes heavy stuttering and frame drops, which take away from the spectacle.
It’s a good thing then, that Forbidden West has style and vision to spare. The world of Horizon continues to impress unlike any other. There is an unprecedented scale to things at every turn, and relics of the past are breathtaking. Husks of beasts and behemoths loom in the distance and discovering battlegrounds of worlds past never ceases to elicit awe.
But the experience is also very buggy, even after a day one patch. During my time with the game, I experienced numerous crashes and glitches that forced me to load up older saves. Dialog repeats itself or won’t trigger at all, characters disappear when they shouldn’t, and enemies stall. At one point, a sound cue bugged out to the point that I had to restart the console entirely for it to go away. You name it, Forbidden West probably has it.
Luckily the great cast of voice talent makes up for a lot. As Aloy, Ashly Burch brings back the weary sarcasm to the part that made our hero so beloved in the first place. John Hopkins continues to excel as Erend, the loyal friend way out of his depth. Lance Reddick could read a phone book and make it sound exciting. Newcomer Noshir Dalal steals the show as Kotallo, a brave warrior whose relationship with Aloy is one of the few exceptionally great moments in the game.
Sadly, heavy hitters like Angela Basset and Carrie-Anne Moss are entirely wasted in nothing parts. Basset, in particular, deserves way better. Her character promises so much in the early hours, only for the plot to treat her like a peripheral without agency or development.
If it sounds like I’m being hard on Forbidden West, I wouldn’t argue with you. I want to love it for all the things it does right. Because those things set a high bar that others should follow. The world of Horizon is meticulously thought out and brilliant. The visuals are next to none. There is beauty and sorrow in its visual storytelling that I love with every inch of my body.
But, at the same time, it’s a world peppered with the shallowest of gameplay. It offers a huge amount of errands and busy work to do, but none of it is interesting or varied. Like a Ubisoft game, Forbidden West is as wide as an ocean but shallow as a puddle.
There are more weapons, armor, skills, foods, and perks this time around than before. But I found myself using only the bare minimum of them. Not because I didn’t care, but simply because they’re not necessary. It leads to too much fiddling between menus, which in turn detracts from the experience itself. There’s no reason for Aloy to send materials to her magical stash, forcing players to return to villages and hideouts to restock, when otherwise she can carry hundreds of kilos of gear without issue.
Similarly, the plot, which is bigger and more ambitious this time around, is also messier and more unfocused. The characters are, still, lovable and well-written, but they also get less room to breathe. By the halfway point of the game, I began to worry there was simply too much to wrap up by the end. As the credits rolled, it felt like a season finale that was missing two or three episodes.
Is Forbidden West fun to play? Yes. Despite my complaints, it is a blast. I wouldn’t have spent 60+ hours with it if it wasn’t. I might still go back to finish everything, as I did with Zero Dawn. There is a pull to this world that can’t be denied. If you’re a fan, you will enjoy Aloy’s newest adventure.
But it must be noted, that Forbidden West is also a sign of the times. An aging piece of gaming that, design-wise, shows wear and tear in places already. By the time the inevitable sequel arrives, I hope it’s something daring, new, and entirely unexpected.
Until then, Forbidden West is good, potentially great, but too stuck in its old ways to break new ground.