Review: Horizon Forbidden West flies close to the sun, but ends up flying away
Sony’s new exclusive makes a debut for game of the year, taking the best parts from previous games of the year, writes Sam Brooks.
The last decade, Sony has bet on Horizon Zero Dawn. The game, from developer Guerilla Games, whose hit Killzone series died a slow, silent death, didn’t look like a hit. It was an open-world, post-apocalyptic, teenage-led game with a scattered focus on combat, crafting, and exploration. It should have failed.
Yet, against all odds, it was a success. Horizon Zero Dawn remains one of the best-selling and most beloved games of its generation, becoming the biggest new intellectual property for the PS4. The game wasn’t perfect, but it had a compelling setting, an engaging story, and enough rewarding gameplay loops to keep players hooked. It’s no surprise that we have a sequel.
With Horizon Forbidden West, Sony is not betting at all. There’s no doubt this game is going to be a massive hit, and very little doubt it’s going to help the company move more consoles – that’s the best argument for switching to the PS5 since launch.
Forbidden West begins shortly after the first episode. Warrior Nora Aloy saved the world from another apocalypse, but now she must venture west to stop society’s complete collapse once again. Before long (I mean 10 hours – this game is huge) things are getting much more complicated, and it’s more than the fate of society that’s at stake, it’s the fate of the whole world.
It’s a game that does what gamers expect of it and what Sony expects of it. It’s more Horizon, with better graphics, smoother gameplay, and enough to do that you can spend months of weekends on it and not go through everything. It’s a very, very good sequel to Horizon Zero Dawn that I bet will be a lot of people’s favorite game of the year.
Horizon Forbidden West is the definition of a safe bet. What’s more interesting, to me, is where Horizon Forbidden West chooses to punt.
The biggest risk Horizon Forbidden West takes is, frankly, flying too close to two suns. These are the two hugely successful plays that Horizon Forbidden West conjures up, both in terms of where it hits true and where it misses the mark.
The first is The Witcher 3, arguably the best and most beloved game of the last generation. Since that game, there hasn’t been an open world as dense and developed as Horizon Forbidden West. Every little task, and there are hundreds of them, contributes to the world. Side quests can take up to half an hour each, and each one adds more depth and texture – whether you’re bringing flowers to a man’s grave in the name of an old flame, rescuing a young child of a dinosaur robot or shoot arrows at countless ravaging monsters.
While that feels overwhelming, and even though I’ve spent almost 50 hours in this game, there are still large swaths of the map I haven’t explored yet, it ends up giving the story a lot of stakes. more important. We are invested in saving the world because it is something we have already put so much time and effort into.
The other side of the coin is that it is very easy to lose track of this main story and the rhythm of the story stops. A key character in the first game disappears for up to 10 hours straight, and it can be difficult to maintain a solid narrative line. I played the game over a series of days over a few long weekends; I expect most people to play it piecemeal over a much longer period of time. Here, the good distracts from the great – a bunch of fun little things to do is far less satisfying than the depths of a clever, gripping story. But, there is worse to complain about a game than too much to do.
Another thing this game shares with The Witcher 3, at least at launch, is the amount of bugs and graphical quirks. The bugs are often negligible, and I imagine a day one patch will fix many of them, but sometimes entire quests fail and the game needs to be restarted. Bugs are expected in a game of this size, but when you’re served something this good, even the slightest flaw feels bigger in relief and, unfortunately, the amount of ‘minor flaws’ is disappointing.
Graphical quirks are more frequent and bothersome, however. All in all, this is the PS5’s most impressive game to date. The problem is the mo-cap, which, considering the dozens of actors, is abundant. When firing on all cylinders, Horizon Forbidden West has some of the most gorgeous and authentic facial motion capture ever, by far the closest thing to looking at real human faces I’ve seen in a game. But thanks to the length of the game, it’s hard to ignore the many repeated expressions and movements. I’ve seen Aloy close her eyes, look to the side, and give an identical exasperated hand wave more times than a player can count. Impressive and authentic the first time around, but 50 hours later it feels like watching a community theater actor tug from an ever-shrinking bag of dramatic stuff.
The other game that Horizon Forbidden West comes close to is Mass Effect 2, a near perfect sequel to an already beloved IP. Like that game, Forbidden West builds on the strengths of its predecessor to create something even more impressive, but that’s not where the similarities end. Horizon Forbidden West also takes a dark turn that seems to herald a more depressing third installment – I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say it’s not the end of the Horizon series.
So with all that quibbling away, how does the game hold up as a standalone experience? First, the gameplay. It’s simple, but it’s an improvement over the original game in every way imaginable. Combat feels more visceral, exploration is much simpler, and every effort has been made to make it accessible regardless of your gaming ability. It’s a remarkable achievement for Guerilla Games that everything in the game feels fun; even busy work is enjoyable and rewarding.
But second, the writing is so much stronger here than it was in the first game. The dialogue is sharper (at one point Aloy and Frenemy Sylens shoot each other like old drag queens) and smarter at all levels. Best of all, much like Mass Effect 2, the game isn’t afraid to struggle with the often simplistic good/bad binaries of its predecessor. The ethics of revolution and tribalism are brilliantly criticized here – where does tradition take precedence and where is revolution deserved? Regalla, a violent and gratuitous tribal leader, is wisely crafted, and the seriousness that acting legend Angela Bassett lends him is deserved.
Forbidden West isn’t afraid to take ideological risks either. At a time when triple-A games seem to be sawing off all their political edges – the amount of ostensibly apolitical shooters would shock you – Forbidden West seems to genuinely want to take a stand. One of the game’s central themes is misinformation – how people interpret things for their own gain, how they fill in the gaps with assumptions and guesswork, and the inevitable end point of that. It’s a stark reflection of the real world, where misinformation seems to be its own intellectual pandemic, and Forbidden West argues that it’s as potentially dangerous as it is medical.
It’s exciting and relieving that Horizon Forbidden West is a great game. That it can be great while emulating two of the best games ever made is an impressive achievement, and one that will likely pay Sony ten times over. But what excites me most is that a game made on a scale like this can still have soul, and even more impressively, can feel like its own thing, not just a pale imitation. Forbidden West’s range may exceed its range at some points, but hey, that’s what hotfixes are for.
This reviewer played Horizon Forbidden West on PS5 and completed the main story. It’s available on PS4 and PS5 now.