One of my favorite gaming experiences of the last generation of consoles was Guerrilla Game’s 2017 hit, Horizon Zero Dawn. Bolstered by a thrilling post apocalyptic world that melds the primitive with the high-tech and a breakthrough performance by Ashly Burch as the outcast Aloy, HZD established a character and setting with seemingly limitless potential that had me anxiously awaiting the inevitable sequel where they could really run wild with things. Five years later, could the sequel deliver on the promise, or would it falter under the weight of its own expectations?
Horizon Forbidden West is without a doubt the prettiest game I have ever seen. Whoever did all the sun and moon lighting effects deserves to make whatever the CEO of Guerrilla Games earns. I know the game is on PS4 as well, but this felt like the most next-gen experience I’ve had on my PS5 yet, eclipsing the previous winner – Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart.
The combat in the original was already going to be hard to top, but taking down giant robot dinosaurs and angry cultists and rebels managed to be even more face meltingly-awesome in Forbidden West thanks to a heavier emphasis on elemental weaknesses, improved melee attacks including combos and the very cool resonator blast, and even more fun robots to take down. The battles seem to fit any style from those seeking a slower stealthier approach to those going in fully kinetic guns blazing meaning I never got bored.
I never necessarily felt a connection to any of my weapons in the original, but thanks to the ability to craft upgrades in this one, I found myself having favorites and working toward maxing them out. This really helps your weapons scale with you as you level up and the enemies get harder, and it allows you to focus on getting a healthy stable of elemental attacks at the ready. The sole downside is that Coils did get nerfed a little bit to make room for the attribute altering upgrades.
Pouch Handling Updates
One of the biggest annoyances in the original was constantly running out of space in your pouch. The sequel handles this cleverly by sending additional items to your stash that you can refill at any shelter or city. This manages to preserve the scarcity aspect while never getting frustrating.
The sense of wonder that Horizon can achieve is never more present than in Aloy’s many adventures in Vegas. Its aesthetic is like nothing else in the extremely colorful and beautiful game, but the real draw is the trio of Oseram performers out there trying to make something of the once majestic city. There are moments that are as loving of a tribute to Vegas as anything Ocean’s Eleven ever pulled off. Seeing that electronic utopia light up the sky in the distance remained a treat throughout my playthrough, and I cannot recommend enough that you do every side quest it offers.
One of the most cumbersome parts of the original was having to make your way back down a mountain after finding whatever you were looking for. Sure sometimes you had rappel points, but a lot of times you didn’t . Enter a Breath of the Wild style glider and suddenly you can lightly float down to wherever you need to go. If I ever do go back to replay this game, I’m going to make sure I figure out badass ninja ways to incorporate the glider into combat.
Starting Not So Anew
Sequels frequently struggle mightily with balancing welcoming in new players and seasoned vets of the series equally. Often times, the protagonist inexplicably loses all of their powers from the first game, and you spend the first couple of hours getting them back. It feels weird and inorganic. HFW does an excellent job of both having you start fresh thanks to a throwaway line about losing your equipment when things went south recently but also has you start with all the abilities you remember from the first like being able to override certain machines. There was enough tutorial without it being too handholdy, and it allowed Aloy to still feel like the Savior of Meridian she is.
Throughout much of the original, Aloy is an outsider, and despite her best efforts to keep it that way in HFW, she ends up with an ever-growing circle of tight-nit friends that are integral to her success. I loved the base mechanic that really emphasized this part of the story by letting you just spend time away from combat chatting your friends up about how things are going. I never would have guessed Horizon would add a dash of Uncharted to its blood, but the many missions where you have a companion along feel like they were inspired by Nathan Drake and his crew of thieves.
Watching Aloy Grow
Many of my favorite moments were when they just allowed Aloy to be a young adult and enjoy a beer with friends. Ashly Burch fully owns the role of Aloy now and delivers another outstanding performance showcasing tons of personal growth throughout her journey. I cannot wait to see where the next game takes this character.
How Interconnected It All Feels
The further I got out West, the more connected it all felt. It’s really quite simple how they accomplished this. They merely added a few little lines of dialogue where the NPCs comment on things you’ve done elsewhere. It serves to not only help you feel like your actions in previous missions matter but also solidifies the experience of becoming a legend.
The Wings of the Ten (SPOILER)
This may seem like a spoiler, but spending any amount of time in the game heavily foreshadows that this is going to happen. Riding atop a Sunwing felt like the ultimate coronation of Aloy as bad ass supreme. I’ll never waste time riding a charger again.
The Double Tall Neck
Of the many side quest types HFW throws at you, the Tallneck related ones were consistently among the most enjoyable, but nothing prepared me for their ultimate manifestation. Late into the game, I encountered a most magical bug where a second Tallneck appeared to get stuck inside of another one. While up close it may have become a bit of a pixelated mess, from afar it was awe inspiring. Nature, it’s just so darn delightful.
The single best weapon in the entire game is a wonderfully simple yet deadly javelin. Achieving the proper wind up and throw while dodging robot attacks felt like an Olympian feet, and the results were worth it. The entire mechanic was up there with the God of War axe in terms of satisfying feelings, and the drill variant proved damn near unstoppable by the time I finished the game.
The Mixed Bag
The Many Threaded Story
There are at least 4 separate main storylines to keep track of throughout the game, and as a result it all feels a little disjointed. You will start to forget some of the major players exist as you won’t see them for many chapters at a time, and because of this, the game is not nearly as tight as the original. While this is unfortunate, the actual overall arc of the story is fantastic and a worthy epic adventure for Aloy.
Too Many Quest Types
I have never seen a more confounding screen than the quest menu. There are far too many things to keep track of that you likely will ignore entire quest trees. In the end, I found sticking to Side Quests, Errands, Tallnecks, and Cauldrons to be the most rewarding while letting other activities like Rebel Camps, Drones, and Souvenirs just happen organically when I inevitably stumbled across them in the densely packed world. I Platinum-ed the original, but I doubt I have the patience to do the same for the sequel.
The Skill Tree
Much like the ability to upgrade weapons, having greater freedom over how you allocate your skill points seems like a major win, but similar to the other bits of bloat that pop up in the sequel, there are likely a few too many avenues to proceed down. The game is not at all stingy with its skill points, and I would find myself often with between 20 and 40 to spend at a given time after an hour or two of questing. Probably about 2/3 of the way through the game, the trees had become essentially meaningless, and I was a specialist in all.
My biggest complaint when replaying the original Horizon was how little you could actually climb. I desperately wanted a Breath of the Wild-style you can climb anything anywhere update in the sequel. What I got was a mixed bag (hey that’s the title of this section!). Yes, there is a ton more to climb and more ways to do so like grappling up to ledges or pulling down rafters to make new paths, but the climbing itself feels extra stilted. Somehow Aloy got super cautious in this game and climbs super slowly. I also found that on some occasions the direction you had to press to keep moving was not intuitive at all.
The finale was actually a lot of fun, and a thrilling conclusion, but I feel like they showed their hand for the inevitable trilogy conclusion a little too much. The original Horizon ended on a fantastic little glimpse of Sylens capturing Hades that left a lot to the imagination, but this game seemed far more interesting in telegraphing where the next one would be going, and in doing so I think it may have burned out one of its biggest assets and groups too quickly.
The Release Date
Does any franchise have worse luck with proximity releases than Horizon? The original launched days before open world genre redefining Breath of the Wild and the sequel launched just a week before the newest open world genre redefining game – Elden Ring. While sales don’t seem to be overly affected by these unfortunate coincidences, my free time most certainly is. I’m glad that I made the decision to take Horizon slow and enjoy it instead of speeding through so I could move on to Elden Ring because that extra effort really paid off. But then I started writing this, and it sat in a draft state for a month because I was obsessed with beating Elden Ring.
While most of the weapons in HFW are quite fun, the Gauntlets truly and utterly suck. The premise behind them sounds amazing – imagine a really cool Jai Alai glove that is also a boomerang and explodes once you return it enough times! If the developers had delivered on that promise, this would be at the very top of the Good list, but, instead we got an overly weak weapon that only returns to your glove about a quarter of the time. Even the mission that forced me to use it led to me finding ways to cheat and use other weapons and merely deal the final blows with it. I can’t believe the same intrepid inventors that made the Javelin fell so hard in their sophomore effort.
Overall, Horizon Forbidden West is a thrilling sequel that feels more like a continuation than a massive evolutionary step forward. It improves on everything that made the original so outstanding and sets the table for more growth and fun with Aloy and friends in the future. Although it features some missteps along the way mainly due to sequel bloat, my time spent playing never felt wasted or boring. I am excited to see where the series goes next, but I also kind of just want to replay the original game for its superior story and pacing.