I had a moment early in Horizon Forbidden West where I was summiting my first Tallneck. To get on the viewpoint, I climbed an old radio tower as the sun went down and the stars came out. As I glided onto the Tallneck, a moment of sheer wonder overtook me. Here was something beautiful – something that had been crafted to be spectacular. That a team of artists had put this much effort into what was at its core an observation tower that would open up the world, struck me with a sense of awe. I had a moment in gaming that I haven’t felt for a long time.
I could only wonder, if this is what one small element, what would the rest of the game be like?
There’s an immense sense of wonder and awe exploring the West. I’ve pondered the question on how big an open world game should be (and this is big), but my belief is that an open world game should only be as big as you can fill it with meaningful quests.
To play the Horizon series straight through the main plot without completing the side quests and errands takes away from the story. For that reason, I can’t give a full review of the game right now, because it will take me months to get through Horizon Forbidden West in the way I want to play it: meticulously.
What I can say after 22 hours of gameplay, is that Horizon Forbidden West is absolutely stunning. I have no qualms in recommending it wholeheartedly. It is as much about the art of gaming as the experience of play, and for that it is an exceptional game. While there are a few minor issues, the game builds on the last and expands the world and gameplay significantly.
Horizon Forbidden West’s Story
While the game kicks off with a recap of the previous game’s events, if you haven’t played Horizon Zero Dawn, you should do so first, in order to understand the relationship dynamics that shape the sequel.
After defeating Hades and stopping the destruction of the city of Meridian, Aloy is tired. You can see it in how her face has aged in the few months since the last game, from carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders. But she can’t rest. Gaia is unbalanced, and a blight has, uh, blighted the landscape. Something is wrong with Gaia, and she needs to be restored.
If this sounds like the start of Captain Planet, you wouldn’t be wrong, but I was willing to go with it. After all, the Horizon series has always been a love letter to planet Earth, and why we should save it.
But in trying to save the world again, she’s ghosted all her friends after the last battle, preferring to slip away unnoticed. WHY WOULD YOU GHOST PUPPYDOG WITH A MOUSTACHE EREND I ASK? Anyway, feelings for that big lugnut. Her fierce independence is both her greatest asset and her greatest weakness. Her worldview was completely shaken in Horizon Zero Dawn, and it’s good to see that the original game and final battle has had significant consequences for her. Aloy has been changed irrevocably.
Leaving behind Meridian (and the Sun King’s longing glances), Aloy must journey west to help cure the land. Oh, and Sylens is back causing mischief, and there are moments in this game you’ll be shouting at the original trickster through the television. Even 1000 years later you can’t escape dickheads.
Coupled with this sense of wonder is the absolute love and friendship her companions bring. You want to save the world because you want to save the people in it. You become so devoted to the fate of the Carja, Tenkath, and Nora, that Aloy’s mission is your mission.
Part of this is due to the nuance of characterisation, both in the writing and animation. It’s in the smile that Aloy gives Erend on seeing him for the first time in a long time. It’s in the way the Sun King nervously flicks away his advisors. It’s in the crestfallen face that Petra pulls when Aloy doesn’t want to catch up, and her joy once she does. The characters of Horizon’s world are so richly realised that it’s hard not to see them as your friends.
It goes without saying, but the graphics are glorious. We’ve been waiting for the day where the quality of cut scenes matches the gameplay itself, and Horizon Forbidden West is it. I felt like I was playing a Pixar movie. If you spent a lot of time in photo mode in Horizon Zero Dawn, just wait until you play this.
The gameplay starts in a familiar place if you’ve played the earlier game. But there is a lot more depth to the system, even if it feels similar on a surface level. Aloy is at her best with ranged weapons, and it’s the expansion of the range of upgradable weapons that is a little mind-boggling. Spears, shredders, bombs, tripcasters, sit alongside a variety of bows. For the melee oriented, she has a spear, and her attacks can be upgraded with the addition of special combos and powers in the skills menu as you level up.
Play is also more dynamic – no more switching from the menu to craft some arrows, then going back into gameplay. No, this is all done through the weapons wheel on the battlefield, and you’ll be crafting arrows while running for your life and hoping you don’t get shot down by lasers. It’s so much more fast paced.
They have also moderated the more overpowered elements of the previous game. No more surrounding yourself with traps and bombs and making a cosy little nest for monsters to stroll into. There are limits to how many traps and trips you can place. Inconvenient for the player, but a more challenging game experience. It forces you to use the environment and elemental attacks more.
Elemental attacks work both ways, in devastating effect. You can quickly become overwhelmed with multiple attacks from different directions. Roll is very much your friend, as are those little blue health berries. But be careful not to run into your own traps, because they’ll explode on you.
Exploring the Forbidden West
One of the most upgrades on the previous game is the depth of the climbing experience. You can climb almost anywhere, and pressing the focus button brings up a wealth of climbing trails. I particularly liked the way they were highlighted in the environment. Where tower climbing could be tedious and repetitive, there are unique puzzles to solve to open up towers and tallnecks.
The way that the map opens up with new skills is akin to that very early Zelda masterpiece, Ocarina of Time, and more recently, God of War. Many of these towers and paths are gated early in the game, but gradually open up. It forces you to take your time with the story and progress things evenly. If you find yourself unable to open something up, I’d recommend proceeding with the main storyline to get the tools you need.
Swimming is another new feature, and one that opens up secret spaces below the earth’s surface. While you can explore caves early on in the game, it only opens up with time as you gain new skills to dive deeper into the water.
Other cool things
And if you’re a fan of games within games (read: GWENT!), the battle chess Machine Strike has you covered. It’s a challenging strategy game on a table that mimics different environments, and you play with wooden machine pieces. While I haven’t delved into it very much (maybe because I lost), it is one of the more thought out games within games I’ve seen.
Another thing to mention – in my 22 hours of gameplay, I encountered one bug. And it wasn’t even a game stopping one. Simply that I couldn’t speak to an NPC with the triangle button, which might just be my own fault. I’ve played most of the major PS5 releases in the past year, and I haven’t seen something this polished.
Any bugbears with this game are so minor in comparison to its excellence.
- On PS5, interacting with people can sometimes be difficult as the triangle button doesn’t always register when you’re close to them. Or the timing on it can be a little off.
- I found myself going to old favourite weapons: tearblast sharpshot arrows every time. Perhaps there were too many options with the weapons for me to figure out what to upgrade and what to leave. You’ll find yourself looking at the stats a lot.
- Climbing can be a bit frustrating if you get stuck in a rock or an odd spot.
And that’s it. Those are my three minor quibbles. I had to try to find things to improve here, it’s that good.
Wonder is hard to come by these days. We’ve been through a pandemic for years. During this time, we’ve battled illness, loneliness and depression, lost loved ones. In many ways, Horizon Forbidden West is a panacea for these dark times.
Whenever I review a game I ask myself, how do I feel playing this game?
Playing Horizon Forbidden West, I feel like a kid booting up my N64 at Christmas to play Zelda Ocarina of Time. High praise, but this time, the comparisons to Zelda, Final Fantasy, and Okami are warranted. Horizon Forbidden West is a spectacular game about the power of found family, and an easy contender for Game of the Year.
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