Horizon: Forbidden West Review (PS5) – Because Aloy is still metal

When Horizon: Zero Dawn rolled off the assembly line in 2017, it was a shiny, dinobot-hunting odyssey that showed us Guerilla Games’ true mettle. It was such an en pointe first stab at many things outside of the team’s wheelhouse. The Decima engine looked a treat, despite needing to be radically changed to support a massive hunter-gatherer world.

The biggest feather in the headdress, however, was a fluid stealth/combat system that played like a fast-paced, lethal game of Operation against herds of dinobots. In layhunter’s terms: shoot the right organs to win prizes and kill faster – miss and you’re going to get zapped.

At the centre of it all was Aloy, an endearing protagonist who was resourceful, intelligent and steeped in an ancient apocalyptic mystery. Looking back, that was probably the most addictive part of this package – the need to slowly excavate answers from this kooky 31st-century shitshow.

Why is humanity now a bunch of scattered tribal elements? Who were the Old Ones? Why are anthropomorphic machines who don’t even eat meat trying to take a chunk out of my arse?

Horizon: Forbidden West Review

It all made sense in the end though. Like many of you, I found the dialogue-heavy juice of that ARPG to be very much worth the 30-odd hour squeeze. That said, and given Horizon: Forbidden West picks up a mere six months after those revelations, it’s impossible to deftly dive-roll around Zero Dawn spoilers. Newcomers should fast-travel away now.

To those of you who remain, I can say that I’ve been all up in Horizon: Forbidden West for roughly 14 days before launch. With that sort of lead time, I took it upon myself to do a blind Ultra Hard difficulty completion. I’m fatigued, but also fully equipped to point out the hits and surprising misses of this hotly anticipated sequel.

At the machine core of Forbidden West’s quest is yet another doomsday – an Old World plague of life-destroying lantana is branching out to choke off humanity. The off switch that needs to be flicked resides out in – you guessed it – the banned lands left of here. Here’s a quick expectation adjustment for you; though the State of Play footage, advertising keyart and, hell, the main title screen all show tantalising glimpses of that Western shore, you won’t see it for bloody ages. That’s end-Gamesville. A massive cross-country caravan of courage stands between you and there.

If you think that will be easy, you’re California dreamin’. Sadly, I’m not authorised to say much more about the plot than that. I can, however, try to impart an overall feeling of sameness – a reduced sense of wonder and mystery. When it comes to the cool secret about this broken world, the ravager is already out of the bag. Guerilla tries to weave in additional layers of Old One threats and lore, the odd new tribal quarrel to unravel and some shadow games with long-time meddler Sylens. But yeah, in all instances no solid, central villain is ever produced.

Horizon: Forbidden West fares better in terms of collectable allies, the most exciting of whom I’m not allowed to talk about. Your small entourage will grow to a pretty even mix of new faces and old friends brought along from the…uh, Permitted East. The dialogue here is well-written and I bonded quickly with most of them. It was a pleasure to go the extra mile and solve their personal problems in dedicated side quest chains.

They keep to your central base of operations and, script-wise, your lengthy (and optional) chats with them soon become a calming oasis of common sense. The memo about the true nature of this world hasn’t reached the Forbidden West. Your quest has you butting heads with nonsense spouting religious nuts and neuve corporate overlords with armies as vast as their delusions of grandeur. In short, they’re people you’ll often feel like reaching into the TV to slap.

Having to be the incredibly patient babysitter to another nation of ignorant weirdos feels like deja vu. Fortunately, there’s an uptick at around the midpoint, when new revelations provide an actual new mystery to poke at. But yeah – overall, this follow-up journey just isn’t anywhere near as enticing and satisfying as discerning Aloy’s destiny and the reason for robosaurs.

I’m certainly glad I went on this new walkabout. But by the end credits, I felt that the new car smell and a bit of the old magic hadn’t returned for the next leg.

When it comes to mechanical improvements – figurative as in combat enhancements and literal as in bigger robots to maul you – Horizon: Forbidden West delivers a mixed animal skin bag. Honestly, if you’ve been tracking the previews, you know of all of the new stuff that’s been bolted on.

Guerilla has expanded the skill tree from four disciplines to six, and that’s a total of 126 perks versus the 44 we got in the original. There’s been a renewed focus on making melee combat more viable. The basic idea is that you can buy into a skill that lets you power charge repeated whacks into an energy pulse that makes a key bit of enemy armour light up in an explosively volatile state. The problem; at this point, you still need to get some distance and/or some of those bullet-time archery perks to create a window for a ranged shot to said weak point. All told, this is a valiant effort to make fisticuffs relevant, but the devastating AoE attacks of dinosaurs (particularly in main path boss fights) make super-close-quarters a poor path to choose.

In terms of ranged combat, I did like the new Spike Thrower as an arced means to put some explosive hurt on hard to target spinal weak points. There are interesting new tactics to be found in the part tearing Shredder Gauntlets and high rate of fire Boltblasters.

That said, I stuck mainly to my sharpshooter bow and a handful of power-shot Valor Surge techniques. Long story short, Aloy now has a super meter that builds when you hit weak points, a Valor Surge is a pre-equipped super technique that comes with a fancy activation animation and a lot of DPS output. You can unlock 12 of them as your skill tree journey branches ever downwards – they can also be pumped up to be three times as potent. These, along with the simple means to tag desirable parts purple, elevate the already addictive combat.

Traversal-wise, Aloy ascends faster and with a surety, the original lacked, but not to the degree people might be hoping for. The best inclusion is the Shieldwing that allows you to Mary Poppins glide off cliffs and over enemies who may then be death-from-aboved. An unlimited O2 diving mask also opens up underwater tomb raiding. Thes typically weave in stealth sections but are curtailed by a lack of combat options and underwater currents that are a level designer leash.

Lastly, I consider myself a fan of the Pullcaster, a dual-purpose bit of kit that lets you contextually rip open new traversal paths, drag puzzle boxes or zip upwards to dedicated grapple points which, sadly, are rarer than robot hen’s teeth.

When it comes to climbing, the most frequently cited flaws of the original game, improvement has been made, though it’s still not where it needs to be. There’s also been some misinformation spouted about how ubiquitous it is – one particular quote from the Game Director Mathijs de Jong to IGN being the main culprit. In that interview, the phrase “climb anywhere” was used in relation to any area outside of a human settlement.

Understandably, that possible misquote got fans gee’d up for something resembling Breath of the Wild. For the uninitiated, it’s the game that lets you have a red-hot go at scurrying up virtually any vertical surface, stamina meter and rain slickness permitting. Horizon: Forbidden West is not this. Not even close.

The best I can say about climbing is that you now have a HUD pulse that paints canyon walls, mountain faces or buildings with either red crosses or yellow lines. The latter are handholds that are in painfully short supply and, despite your best analog stick efforts, have some intention prediction jank. 95% of the time you’ll be confronted with a sea of red crosses – surfaces that act as though Aloy has pairs of buttered moccasins taped to her hands and feet.

With that disappointment voiced, I’m happy to say that this iffy climbing system will get rendered mostly redundant when a summonable flight machine arrives. That’ll take a while, however, so don’t expect to quickly escape the upward slog and the weird animation clipping that comes with it.

Getting to brass tacks, it doesn’t take a focus AR module and a detective’s eye to see that the development of Horizon: Forbidden West has been impacted by the pandemic. I expected to dedicate large chunks of this review toward praising the Decima engine’s move to the PS5, but it’s a visual onslaught marred by rookie errors.

The bold artistic vision is clearly still there. You’ll experience vast, open areas of gobsmacking beauty. I’m talking about stuff worthy of John Williams’ Jurassic Park theme – rolling savannahs and steaming jungles that meet postcard skylines dotted with circling pterodactyls or the odd robodiplodocus.

That being said, in my 30 hours I experienced at least as many instances of a micro loading bug that black-screens everything for a second – like your TV has just lost HDMI input. A pre-launch patch came along to address this, which I installed. The same, easily replicable problem still persisted.

Do not mistake me here; with additional patching, Horizon: Forbidden West is still a top-tier game that’s well worth emptying one’s pouch of metal shards to purchase. In no time, I fell back in love with the hunter-gather loop and the methodical nature of its machine murdering – I have no doubt you will, too. Those epic, sometimes 20 minute long fights I had with the 40 odd cast of megafauna machines…man, I’ll be telling my grandkids about some of those one day.

Basically, I still think the emergent battles you stumble across in Horizon: Forbidden West are the end boss fights that lesser games wished they had. If you hold gameplay to be your chiefest concern, as I do, then this safer than expected sequel still absolutely hunts.

Horizon: Forbidden West was reviewed on PS5 using a digital code provided by the publisher.

Horizon: Forbidden West
Reader Rating0 Votes
Well-voiced characters
A greatly expanded array of robos to hunt
Fantastically fluid combat / stealth loop
Climbing is slightly better…
…but it’s still antiquated for 2022
Story doesn’t eclipse the mystery of the
OG Micro-loading bug
Adam Mathew
Adam Mathew
I grew up knowing and loving a ludicrous amount of games, from dedicated Pong console onwards. Nowadays you'll find me covering and playing the next big things. Often on Stupid-Hard difficulty. Because I'm an idiot.

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