Aloy is a character that carries the weight of the world on her shoulders, and the stakes are higher than ever in Horizon Forbidden West. Not only are the world-ending threats ramped up even further, but the amount of attention and expectation for her second game are through the roof. So, does Horizon Forbidden West live up to the hype?
As preparation for Horizon Forbidden West I gave Horizon Zero Dawn a fresh play through. It’s nowhere near as good as I remembered; the combat is clunky, the facial animations are poor and the characters are very one note. However, this repeat play shows just what an improvement Forbidden West is. From the acting to the combat and the animation, every aspect of the franchise has had a massive upgrade.
Obviously the graphics, sound and animation have all been improved – especially when playing on PS5 – but it’s surprising that one of the main areas of improvement is the writing. Zero Dawn had Aloy following a rather typical “Chosen One” plot and she did this by watching holograms of board meetings from thousands of years ago. Interesting but hardly propulsive. After Forbidden West’s hour long prologue, which serves as a bit of a plot recap for the first game, the game lets you and Aloy focus on rather more immediate concerns. That’s not to say plot threads from Zero Dawn are forgotten, far from it, but they are now mixed in with local politics, tribal warfare and an occasional romantic interlude.
The lore is incredibly dense. There are a lot of cut scenes and tons of exposition and the script must have been absolutely huge, but it’s delivered with wit and empathy rather than dry recordings of business meetings. There are almost one hundred voiced characters, all of which sound and act like people rather than vessels to advance the plot and characters now have complex relationships with each other. They can also react to the way the story is unfolding; talk to one character before another and the second NPC will reference the other conversation. There are many returning faces from the first game, but new characters are equally important. Angela Basset is clearly having a whale of a time playing Regalla while Alva, a character from a later part of the game, is just an utter joy the entire time she is on screen.
Aloy herself has grown considerably in the six months since the conclusion of Zero Dawn and has evolved from a blank faced teenager to a right sassy pants with a bit of a potty mouth. She’s surprisingly funny and there are some moments of laugh out loud humour in the game – Erend having a little dance to a techno MP3 is a highlight – but some of her character progression does seem a little far fetched. Despite only really learning about AIs, cloning and all the world’s other technology a few months ago, she knows more about servers and firmware upgrades than a trained Microsoft professional who has been studying for decades.
There’s some spectacular battles that you’ll have to test yourself in, utilising the many new weapons and experimenting with new fighting techniques. Aloy now has combo moves and there’s a new Valour system that builds up as she fights – fill the bar and you can give Aloy a temporary boost in combat and some natty face paint at the same time. The combat’s core does still revolve around stealth game takedowns and shooting specific sections of the robotic creatures, so if that didn’t click with you in the first game it’s unlikely this will change your mind, but it’s quicker and more fluid that the original.
Along with new weapons Aloy gets some some new toys including a Pullcaster which can be used to open passages and move certain objects, and which doubles as a grappling hook that can be used to reach some platforms, and the Shield Wing which allows you to glide to safety from the highest mountains. On the harder difficulty levels you will need to start using these in battle, zipping up poles to gain a vantage point and gliding over your enemies to strike at their weak spots.
With the large number of weapons, traps, combos, and Valour surges, plus additional support from NPCs who often join you through parts of your journey, you can customise each fight to your style, even to the point of stealthing your way through many sections if you so wish.
As you head West, the types of mechanical beasts you can fight expands, the original set are still feature, but are joined by new creatures based mammoths, kangaroos, boars, hippos, snakes and an exceptionally cute but deadly variety based on meerkats. The number of parts you can rip off the creatures has also increased, expanding the crafting options by needing specific parts from different machines. Workbenches are now needed to upgrade weapons and armour and you will also need to craft overrides for each beast.
Climbing has also been improved and your Focus now sends out a pulse that highlights every rock and ledge you can grab on to, but it’s still limited and you can only climb where the developers want you to, which I found a bit frustrating. One puzzle had me stuck inside an old house where I needed to reach the upper level but the wooden walls – which clearly any human should be able to climb – were not available to clamber on. It’s a shame that moments like that rip you out of the story and remind you that you are playing a video game. Assassin’s Cred Valhalla and other games have spoiled us.
The underwater sections make a nice break from the combat, as Aloy is practically defenceless. They are introduced in a location you’d least expect and change the tone from a spectacular brawler in to a tense game of cat and mouse as Aloy hides from aquatic machines in the amazingly named ‘Stealth kelp’. The music and lighting are excellent throughout the game, but really shine here as the glowing eyes of beasts emerge from the depths.
Put all of these additions together and it can feel like an amalgam of third person action gaming and PlayStation’s greatest hits. There’s nothing particularly new about opening trunks of wrecked cars to scavenge for supplies a la Days Gone or The Last of Us, or to pushing blocks around for puzzles as in Uncharted, but it all comes together to make a whole that is richer than the first game.
The map itself is huge with many more features dotted across it compared to Zero Dawn, which was often just vast areas with machine sites every hundred metres. It probably takes 30 minutes to run across the main play area but you can fast travel or use an override to tame a beast and ride them. There’s new collectables, plants to harvest to cook for stat boosting food, hologram puzzles, secret areas, fight pits, racing, ancient buildings and more to discover, and while there is a lot to do, it doesn’t feel overwhelming. You will want to complete some side missions to level up, but a run through of the main story takes around 35-40 hours on normal difficulty and there’s many more hours of play beyond that if you want it.
The amount of accessibility options are impressive and include a custom difficulty level, HUD customisation, assistance settings which allow you tweak how much the game slows down when using the weapon wheel, and an excellent co-pilot mode that allows a second person to help the main player.
Forbidden West is also one of the most diverse games I have ever played, as characters from all races and skin tones can be found throughout and they are not grouped together. Every tribe has a mix and that includes representation for the thicc boys, and indeed thicc girls. Sadly I have yet to meet an LGBTQ+ character. One NPC does have a line that could suggest they are non-binary but it’s a blink-and-you-will-miss it moment, but perhaps I have yet to encounter the rainbow warriors.