REVIEW – It’s been five years since PlayStation and Guerrilla brought us the first chapter of Aloy’s adventures with Horizon Zero Dawn. It was an open-world action-adventure game that seduced us with its immersive universe, despite its very classic design, incredible quasi-impeccable graphics and punchy open-world gameplay. It didn’t have it easy, though, as comparisons with Zelda Breath of the Wild, released by Nintendo a few days later, meant tough competition. For Forbidden West, the goal was “simple”: to outdo the first game in every way, on both PS4 and PS5. Has this huge challenge been met?
Horizon Zero Dawn may have been released five years ago, but Aloy didn’t wait that long to go on an adventure. Six months separate the events of the first game and Forbidden West. The heroine used that time to try to destroy Hades: a kind of giant computer virus powerful enough to wipe out all life on Earth. So, yes, at the end of Horizon Zero Dawn, Aloy thought she had successfully completed her mission (Guerrilla gives a brief summary before the game launches). Still, she didn’t count on the “kind” Sylens, the wandering scientist from the previous episode, who managed to extract part of the dangerous entity, causing storms and the appearance of a dangerous red plant. At the very beginning of Horizon Forbidden West, Aloy finally thinks she has the solution, but – here’s the twist – she’s out of luck: she must go to the “forbidden west” to save the world. The reason it’s “forbidden” is because it’s dominated by the Tenakth tribe and their big machines.
A lavish universe
Remember that exciting and unforgettable moment in Horizon Zero Dawn when you stumbled across the first Great Neck (a fusion of a diplodocus robot and a radio antenna tower) or the first large-scale pile of rubble? Well, in Forbidden West, that feeling is almost constant. Studio Guerrilla Games gives the post-apocalyptic world a masterful, Dantean second part with this sequel. Quite simply sumptuous, each area of Forbidden West tells its own story, but with a mastery and attention to every moment detail that surpasses even that Zero Dawn offers.
As a reminder, Horizon is set in a world where the “ancients” once ruled – the equivalent of our modern-day inhabitants – but with much more advanced technology and powerful machines. Almost everywhere you go, you’ll find great piles of metal and ruins, remnants of a bygone era. All this in a lavish natural setting that makes perfect use of the landscape of the western United States. The experience of exploration is at once inspiring, fascinating and genuinely diverse.
How big is the world of Horizon Forbidden West?
In case you were wondering, Horizon Forbidden West is far from the biggest open world yet, but it’s undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and polished. Guerrilla says this new playground is “slightly bigger” than Zero Dawn. Which is fine: Forbidden West offers a much denser, more varied, and carefully designed experience. Don’t expect something as impressive as Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, though.
Of course, in addition to the hard work of Guerrilla’s artists, technical aspects also play an essential role. Whether you’re playing in 4K on PS5 or PS4 Pro, Horizon Forbidden West is simply superb, and even on the 2013 PS4 Fat, it looks excellent and stable – though obviously less impressive – in 1080p. The consistency of the three consoles is quite exemplary, even if the PlayStation 5 version wins out, with the addition of DualSense bringing convincing and pleasing ‘next-gen’ vibrations. The latter, for example, has been given such subtleties as the feel of the grass vibrating as Aloy sneaks across it – to highlight just one of the many realistic vibration sensations. On PS4 Pro / Fat, Aloy’s adventures struggle with longer load times, more aliasing and less successful volumetric lighting. But the most important thing is there. These versions are more than satisfying at the proper resolution and 30 frames per second (the only mode offered on PS4).
Horizon Zero Bug? Well, not really…
I have to say that on PS5, the title is not perfect. Performance-wise – 4K / 60 fps – there’s still a lot of aliasing in areas with a lot of vegetation and during cutscenes. But there are also minor issues with sound, crash and image.
One major audio problem persists even after the latest patch: on my dedicated Sony Pulse 3D headset, PS5, I heard certain sounds as somehow distorted, muffled or of poor quality – I was particularly annoyed by Aloy’s muffled speech in his constant monologues or in parts of the dialogue, which was often barely intelligible. Sure, there are subtitles, but it’s still annoying that once I understand English, let me concentrate on the fantastic graphics and Aloy’s beauty during the dialogue, or the incredibly elaborate environments during the adventures, without having to read the subtitles. Supposedly, turning off 3D would solve the problems, but I didn’t want to lose the 3D sound if I had 3D headphones like these.
The other annoyance was the “shaded” aliasing, a graphical bug that can be observed at the edge of the faces in the dialogues and is also quite disappointing.
Finally, there are pop-in bugs that I didn’t experience in the first part: some of the distant landmarks are drawn late by the engine, as in the older Unreal engine. This is really only noticeable to the trained eye and is quite rare, or mostly only experienced at the beginning of the game.
The recently released patch fixes some of these, but unfortunately not all: the muffled-sounding Aloy bug, for example, still exists.
It’s no secret that Horizon Forbidden West will keep you glued to the screen for a long time. It will take around 20 hours to complete the primary mission, more than twice that to complete all the side missions, and nearly 60 hours to reach 100% playtime.
Speaking of missions, another strength of the Guerrilla title is its narrative. Horizon Forbidden West is not only stunningly beautiful but its story and dialogue are just as professional. The latter is a point that was often criticised in Horizon Zero Dawn and which has now been fully corrected. Forget the static, bland set-ups during dialogue: in this second episode, almost all dialogue – even the most innocuous at first glance – is accompanied by cinematic, spectacular camera angles. This detail highlights Guerrilla’s very precise writing, which is both funny and touching, and the excellent redesign of the faces (though still a little inexpressive in many cases) and the work done on the costumes of the various tribes.
Even with the technical glitches mentioned above, the immersion in the universe is almost flawless. Also, the main mission walkthroughs are amazingly spectacular – like the action sequences and choreography of a Hollywood sci-fi movie, even the side missions are a real treat. The latter are, on the whole, very well done story-wise, sometimes approaching the quality of the big adventures, often with variety and great dialogue.
The subplots complement the main plot perfectly: Horizon Forbidden West is exciting and twisty from start to finish. The plot rarely stops and often manages to surprise the player, whether it’s an unexpected twist, an exciting and original gameplay phase or a gameplay innovation that can open up new paths. Only the ending is a bit random and disjointed: it clearly lacks a scene to bring a real ending point.
As for the characters, there are clearly good and bad faces and extremes, but still, all of them are believable and likeable or hateable enough. Aloy, already adorable in Zero Dawn, is now an even more charming heroine. Her powerful and charismatic personality comes through in every dialogue, especially in her conversations with her peers.
In Horizon Forbidden West, the red-haired huntress is no longer alone. Varl and Erend from the first episode, for example, will be essential allies, even if they don’t accompany her regularly in the game. In fact, after a few hours, Aloy and her companions settle down in a base reminiscent of Red Dead Redemption II’s camp. The place evolves as you go along, with new rooms, dialogue choices and lots of funny bits here and there. All of this adds to the sense of true teamwork with a great adventure and elaborate story.
Beyond the narrative, the experience of discovery has also been significantly improved and enhanced. Horizon Zero Dawn had some tight locations, with extremely linear, somewhat “schoolboy” climbing stages. This is no longer the case in Horizon Forbidden West. The Guerrilla title includes several new features that make exploration smoother and more flexible — starting with the climbing options, which have been significantly improved. So no, you can’t just climb up any surface as you can in Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla or Zelda: Breath of the Wild. That kind of acrobatics is limited to particular points, which you can see thanks to Focus, which can now quickly scan the area around Aloy. Guerrilla has therefore decided to “limit” – or rather “control” – this aspect of the game by leaving the terrain free for environmental puzzles, where you have to make your way through ruins to get an item, for example. In our opinion, this is a good choice. Still, it can also lead to frustrations, for example when the exterior or interior architecture of a building seems perfectly suitable for climbing at first glance. Yet, you can’t get a grip on it. Another minor issue is the accuracy of the climbing system, which sometimes leaves something to be desired.
Link, can I borrow your paraglider?
Other new features include the famous Zelda: Breath of the Wild-style paraglider, the Ailgide, which lets you conquer the air – until you land. I hasten to add that the paraglider works much better than in the last Dying Light 2 I tested.
But the grappling hook is also a great little tool that can hoist the heroine onto a ledge or a pillar (or even pull debris to clear passages through the rubble). Not forgetting the underwater phases, which are also quite well done, but overall a little behind the previous ones.
These are welcome additions that make the exploration much more enjoyable but don’t call into question the still very classic open-world structure, which is almost unchanged from the previous episode. The progression scheme remains linear: accept a mission and follow the pointer on the map, even if there are efforts to move away from this model, especially during a specific part of the main adventure. Horizon Forbidden West is thus an open world with a structure that is already well known yet so well developed that it represents an achievement in this much-used genre. The smallest detail, carcass or ruin, makes you stop at the side of the road, in places that almost always hold treasure. Not to mention the points of interest marked on the map, most of which are taken from Zero Dawn (hunting grounds, camps to attack, crucibles), but still, each offers some new adventure, some interesting new thing, some thrill.
As for the clashes, Horizon Forbidden West once again focuses on the machines, and they’ve been given a lot of attention. Their animations and design are more convincing than ever, both for new and familiar “species” (or rather, machine types). Aloy can rely on her new moves in combat: the heroine’s agility is at the heart of the action phases. Horizon’s arenas now have grappling hooks for your grappling hook (which creatures can destroy), useful if you want to get out of combat, gain altitude, and then activate Ailgide. These “flybys” allow you to observe the battlefield, allow you to hit a crucial piece of machinery, or go far enough to replenish your ammo supply – crafting on the fly is still an essential part of the game. It makes battles in Horizon Forbidden West more fun and dynamic.
Aloy’s excellent animation work is also to be commended, making the fighting all the more enjoyable. Finally, it should be mentioned that stealth is once again possible, and this part of the game is also relatively polished, although, of course, this part of the game is not even comparable to Splinter Cell or Metal Gear Solid.
Focus on Focus version 2.0, which makes the fight even more exciting
As well as instantly scanning the area around Aloy and revealing climbing holds (but also objects of interest for crafting), Focus now also allows more advanced analysis of machinery. In Forbidden West, you can quickly navigate your way around monster weak spots and even lock them down one by one, so you don’t lose sight of them in the heat of battle. This is handy if you want to keep an eye on chain reaction or weapon triggering. The whole thing is even more of an invitation to prepare for battle and keep a close eye on the creatures. For those unfamiliar with Focus, this gives Aloy a lot of information about many things through augmented reality.
But, as they say, the best defence is a good offence: Horizon Forbidden West definitely improves your chances of beating the machines. First of all, thanks to some new weapons – we wouldn’t have said any to a bit more choice – but above all because the entire arsenal can now be used as a secondary weapon.
Eventually, your bow will be able to fire arrows at enemies in exchange for a bit of stamina, for example, or fire a devastating explosive shot. All of this has been compiled into a new skill tree that is much more complete than the previous ones. You can specialise in one of six classes, with spear attack, bow attack, trap setting, infiltration, resistance or hacking being your favourites – or you can develop them all in parallel. With enough experience, you can even unlock “Bravery bursts”, a sort of big bonus that, depending on the class you choose, dramatically increases Aloy’s power (more effective attacks in melee, on machine parts, even turning invisible). After endless and extremely long gameplay, it will even be possible to learn all six skill trees to become a pro at everything. It’s worth it because all of this offers real skill progression over the course of the adventure, which gives you an extremely significant boost in combat and makes the gameplay more enjoyable. We’re particularly thinking of the improved spear combat, which is enriched in combos and choreography. The icing on the cake is the addition of workbenches, a new feature for improving weapons and armour. In short, the title of Guerrilla has everything you could want.
This West is “not to be missed”!
Building on the already excellent first episode, Horizon Forbidden West has not only managed to surpass it but has also reached the top. The game is a true achievement of the Guerrilla Games studio formula and the “classic” open-world genre in general. It’s exciting from start to finish, with a sumptuous artwork, a dazzling world, better written and directed, a compelling, twisty, engaging story, and far more enjoyable in terms of combat and exploration.
The game is almost flawless in every way, and you can see the incredible attention to detail in every moment. What’s more, Horizon Forbidden West even has the luxury of performing brilliantly on PS5, PS4 Pro and PS4 Fat thanks to exemplary cross-generational work. We can only regret the somewhat rushed ending and the lack of significant new features and bugs mentioned in this article. However, nothing spoils the great adventure that awaits in the “forbidden west”.
+ A vibrant and lavish universe
+ More enjoyable discovery, professional story
+ Exciting, adrenaline-pumping and tactical combat
– Some bugs and other technical problems
– A somewhat rushed ending
– The lack of real novelty
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Guerilla Games
Genres: open-world action-adventure
Publication: February 18, 2022