After a bit of “Bla Bla”, I opened my Horizon Zero Dawn review with the following statement.
Best. End-of-the-World Story. Ever.
In the later parts of the review, I summarized the overall experience like this.
Horizon Zero Dawn feels excellent. It is one of those games that makes you feel empty once you beat it and put down the controller.
Both quotes express an extremely high bar of quality that Forbidden West is going up against. I am delighted that Guerrilla Games did not disappoint and delivered an incredible sequel that improves the experience in almost every aspect. Aloy’s second adventure has a couple of downsides resulting from modern Open World side activity design. However, compared to the exceptional setpieces you encounter during the main missions and the core gameplay, these are minor gripes you might choose just to ignore.
Forbidden West ups the ante further regarding the elements that matter to me in a modern (action) adventure game. It will be a benchmark in storytelling, character, and mission design. Zero Dawn was already excellent when it came to cutscenes. Lacking were only the dialogue sequences with other characters. Forbidden West changes this dramatically, and it looks and feels so much more organic now. Other key gameplay elements have also improved, like overriding Tallnecks or exploring Cauldrons. But more on that later.
Lucky me, I did not have to wait five years to enjoy this game as I did with Zero Dawn. However, were I inclined to get the absolute best experience, I probably would still have to hold out that long. A PlayStation 5 continues to be unbelievably hard to come by in Germany. But not to worry, there was no need for me to get into a crouching position again and hide in the shadows while I watched somebody play on YouTube. Horizon Forbidden West still looks and plays great on the PS4 Pro. Keeping in tradition with my first Horizon review, I wrote the first words on April 23, 2022. I might actually get this review done before the year ends 😅.
The Nerdy Bits
The biggest question I had at launch was how well the game would look and perform on last-gen consoles. Guerrilla surely had to make many sacrifices to get it working at all. I assume everybody still remembers the fiasco that was Cyberpunk 2077 on this aging hardware? As always, Digital Foundry answered my questions and gave me peace of mind. Of course, I would much prefer enjoying the fantastic visual fidelity Guerrilla’s Decima engine is capable of outputting to a screen on a PlayStation 5. It is not necessary for an incredible experience, though.
Horizon Zero Dawn already looks excellent, and especially the world holds up exceptionally well. That did not stop me from dropping my jaw to the floor like a Looney Toon when I took the first steps in Forbidden West. I was stunned by the visuals. There is so much more detail everywhere you look; the terrain, the foliage, the characters. You are also greeted by the vastly improved water system very early on. It all looks so beautiful and is accentuated by extremely vivid colors – a post-apocalyptic paradise. Guerrilla Games are clearly showing off what their tech and visual artists can do. You must see it for yourself to believe it. It is hard to imagine that this terrible piece of hardware that is the PlayStation’s Jaguar CPU can do all the calculations required to feed the actually decent GPU for a fluid 30 fps gameplay from start to finish.
But this is only part of the story. Once you get past the initial shock and find yourself in the first RPG-like conversation, you will notice the much, much, much-improved dialogue scenes. The artists introduced TV show-like camera movement and angles. Gone are the static and awkward camera cuts focusing only on a character’s face. Aloy and everybody she talks to emote, gesture, and move around like real people. Camera angles change during a conversation and now appear a lot more organic and realistic as a result. It is like interactive television. At some point, gestures and movements repeat, of course. There is only so much you can do without motion-capturing every single chat. Nevertheless, it is immensely compelling and one of the big reasons why side quests are suddenly a lot more engaging and worthwhile, a point I will get into more deeply in the Gameplay section.
Characters also have a lot more detail, and I not only mean geometric detail, like clothing or decorative trinkets. Skin rendering, in particular, has improved a great deal. In my review of Horizon Zero Dawn, I have mentioned that skins looked pretty flat. In Forbidden West, you will find so many more nuances that create a more convincing rendition of human skin. A picture is worth a thousand words (and this isn’t even a close-up).
Quick side-note: returning characters appear older, especially Aloy. The artists tweaked a few of her facial features, and in conjunction with the improved skin rendering, she looks a lot more mature.
As was to be expected, the fantastic graphics come at a price. It is not to the detriment of the framerate or laggy controller input. Both are as rock-solid as they were in Horizon Zero Dawn. The most substantial cutbacks are resolution and object pop-in. The output resolution is not the most significant issue per se, but with it comes a lot of shimmering of fine details, like Aloy’s hair, for example. Since this is more or less a constant “static” visual “feature”, it fades into the background after a while. More noticeable is the very aggressive Level of Detail system that tries to show as little geometric detail overall and as much as possible close to Aloy. It is all about not overwhelming the terrible PlayStation CPU. Guerrilla has fine-tuned this and a few other visual techniques throughout the first couple of weeks with patches to make it less noticeable. It is still there, and it is more or less apparent depending on the location. I am highly susceptible to being annoyed by constant pop-in, but somehow it was manageable. Often, my focus was on an area of the screen where it was less pronounced. It is fine once you start enjoying the game rather than searching for technical issues. This tradeoff is clearly worth the overall result. I went back to Horizon Zero Dawn, and the much-increased amount of detail became immediately apparent. Even with an aggressive LoD system, there is more to see.
Horizon Forbidden West has a lot of breathtaking vistas in store. Let me show you a few to wet your tongue.
Remember, I took these images on a PlayStation 4 Pro, a.k.a. last-gen hardware.
The PS4 version is a very tailored experience to get the most visual quality at a constant 30 fps instead of just setting every graphics option to the lowest possible value like you would get in a PC settings preset.
A quick note about loading times: I have replaced the hard drive of my PS4 Pro with a SATA SSD, and I strongly recommend you do the same. Loading times were good with this setup, and fast travel between nearby locations was almost instant.
Last but definitely not least, let me quickly mention the audio presentation. Compared to Zero Dawn, there isn’t a great deal to say. Regardless of which part you are looking at (listening to), environmental/ambient sounds, special effects, music, or voice acting. Everything is top-notch. I already liked the voice actor’s performance in Zero Dawn, and the sequel takes it further. Voices sound higher quality, and I think the actors also stepped up their game. The biggest standout is, again, Aloy. Ashly Burch’s performance is even better than before, and I believe the audio quality is also more consistent. Combined with the improved, more cinematic conversations, this will undoubtedly pull you into the world of Forbidden West and make you care about on-screen events.
The core gameplay loop did not change. Horizon Forbidden West is clearly a “Horizon” game. It has evolved, though, and now comes with an improved close combat system, new weapon types, and a couple more elemental effects. The developers also overhauled the skill tree to fine-tune your preferred playstyle better.
Here also comes the first bit of bad news: it took me a long time to figure out the real benefits of the Valor Surge mechanic and how to incorporate it into my gameplay. I am not an experimenting kind of guy, and the first Valor Surges I unlocked neither looked nor felt impactful enough to recognize the need to use them immediately. However, there are bonuses you can get when you combine skills and weapons cleverly.
The second minor gripe I had at the beginning was the use of active skills. Many of the new techniques Aloy can use are for a specific weapon type. It makes sense, but I also wondered why sometimes she wouldn’t do what I wanted her to – most likely because I was using the wrong weapon. Additionally, switching between multiple skills of a weapon is cumbersome. This functionality is hidden in the weapon wheel and requires you to press left or right on the D-Pad. Try doing that when dodging attacks of a Shellsnapper. On the bright side, Guerrilla thought of “pre-programming” and remembering the skills you like per weapon type. Whatever you had equipped last will carry over to new equipment when you exchange it for a better one. It is merely a matter of understanding the system and getting used to it. Then it is okay. Some weapon skills are mighty, and experimentation is definitely encouraged. I am a bit of a slowpoke with game mechanics, and your mileage may vary.
Let me continue with skills and talk about the overhauled melee combat system. Aloy can now perform a series of attack patterns and combine them into potent combinations. To learn the ins and outs, Guerrilla introduced the fighting pits alongside the
Hunting Grounds for ranged combat. Besides teaching you all the combinations you can employ, the devs also hid a bit of a mystery story. I usually do not engage in skills challenges like this, like I never do Hunting Grounds. Still, I was intrigued early on about who or what The Enduring is everybody keeps mentioning. So I finished them all and learned everything there is to know about the morse code that is melee combat and how difficult it is to use in a real fight where enemies move around.
Instead of pressing particular button combinations, you have to time button presses. That is why it’s like morse code. R1, R1, pause, R1, R1, hold the last R1 and release it into a spinning attack, hold R2 for a powerful backflip with a ranged attack. And more. You can jump over an attacker’s head like Batman in the Arkham games and focus on a second enemy. This is very cool in theory, but I find it hard to utilize in a hectic combat situation against several enemies. In the worst case, you will find yourself in a fight with rebels and machines. In the end, I only remembered two simple combinations that work all the time.
When combat clicks, it feels great. Aloy’s attacks are powerful and impactful. Add the Energy Surge (that I liked), and you are good to go. I think you are okay with just a couple of combos to break a defensive stance and hand out a powerful final attack. Everything else is for a show in the fighting pits and to find out about The Enduring.
I know that I am thrashing on the new features, and it is not my intention to convince you that everything is terrible. I like the new additions, and I am happy they exist. I am convinced that some players excel in these new skills, given enough time and practice. I prefer the minimalist approach and only master enough to be efficient. For me, the added depth is too complicated. Some of the later fighting pit challenges were pretty annoying, despite the dummy opponents not moving or attacking while you practice the moves. The tolerances are sometimes very tight.
Speaking of tight tolerances, I have noticed that button prompts to interact with NPCs or campfires are very finicky. I cannot tell you how often I had Aloy jump-dodge over a campfire instead of triggering the fast travel feature.
Another welcome and significant improvement concerns Tallnecks, Cauldrons, and the new ruins you find across the map. Tallnecks and Cauldrons are a returning gameplay element, and both are vastly augmented. Tallnecks in Zero Dawn were merely a slightly different spin on the Far Cry outposts that unveil more of the map. In Forbidden West, every Tallneck is a puzzle and multi-step mission itself. The Frozen Wilds expansion already experimented with this design. These machines aren’t giant walking towers anymore, to which you must find the nearest high-point for jumping onto them. It’s a challenge now, and every Tallneck is a distinct experience. The same applies to Cauldrons. Each of these dungeons is different. Granted, a Tallneck still has to be climbed, and in a Cauldron, a powerful enemy has to be bested. However, Guerrilla’s designers showed their brilliance and creativity in designing these missions. It keeps you as a player on your toes and engaged. As much as I prefer to know what I am walking into, I was delighted every time.
Here is a small anecdote for the developer’s attention to detail while I am on the topic of Cauldrons. These machine factories are more complex this time around, and one of the new mechanics is balancing on moving robot arms. Aloy still firmly sticks onto the designated climbing spots as if she had magnetic boots. But during a robot arm’s movement, she flails her arms, trying to balance herself while making the appropriate grimaces.
I believe the secret highlight of the game are the new Ancient Ruins puzzles. Ruins are a pleasant and calming distraction from the challenging and hectic combat sequences. They are like a miniature version of a Tomb Raider tomb. No machine or enemy is bothering you as you try to solve the ever more complex puzzles the further you progress in the game. I also believe there is just the correct number of ruins to discover. There are enough to entertain you for a while but not too many, so finding one is a special occasion, not a chore.
Like with all challenges or collectibles in Horizon, once you finish them all, a reward awaits at the end. Some are legendary gear, and some only award you the opportunity to buy common or legendary machine parts (this is the worst reward for collecting all types of something). Collectibles are one element of Forbidden West’s Open World design, and in this aspect, the game falls prey to some of the typical Open World activity flaws.
Forbidden West introduces a few skill-gated obstacles for which you obtain the required tools during the main story. These locations appear as the dreaded question mark on your map. Occasionally, it is something interesting, like imaging drones, and many times it’s a blocked path that opens a small cave or another compartment where you can loot a few resources. This does not add any depth to the game, and it stands out as a sore spot compared to everything else you can do. I like how the obstacles mentioned above are utilized in the Ancient Ruins as part of the puzzle. It encourages you to return to a previously visited location, like the Tomb Raider games. As a single location on the map without any purpose other than wasting your time, on the other hand, that’s a Ubisoft-style Open World design everybody is complaining about. Guerrilla, please add an interesting story element to this or simply remove it in the next iteration of this series. There is already a lot of exciting content in this game that renders meaningless question marks unnecessary. Your world may be too big if you need to place generic loot on the map.
A significant distinction from Ubisoft games is the structure of side missions. Granted, they always play the same in their core loop, with a challenging fight at the end of each one. But the presentation and the way you get there is what sets it apart from Assassin’s Creed side missions (from the two games I have played, i.e., Origins and Odyssey). NPCs are not simply puppets and a means to give you a task to do. Because of the fantastic cinematic presentation and writing, you form a connection with these NPCs. Their story feels important, and if you enjoy good character interaction, you want to help them. You want to know how it turns out and see subsequent cutscenes and dialogues because they are that good. Horizon Forbidden West got me invested in side quests like no other game before it. Side missions usually consist of multiple phases, which means you rarely are done after completing the initial objective. It is a real story experienced over many interactions and various tasks to complete.
The only other gameplay element that I want to mention is the crafting system. I already complained in Zero Dawn that finding all the resources for pouch upgrades can become tedious. Forbidden West adds many more resource types to make it even more complex. To Guerrilla’s credit, they have added a region marker for all required resources when you create a job. I believe this was not the case in the prequel (but I am not 100% sure).
(Pro tip: create jobs once in a while early in the game. That should keep you upgraded while exploring more of the map.)
Weapons and armor can now be upgraded too, and depending on the gear level, more upgrades are available. This way, you can partially push a lower-grade item past the stats of a higher-grade one that has one or two upgrades. This is a pretty cool feature until you get to the legendary stuff. I understand that upgrading the highest quality equipment is probably a task for enthusiasts and completionists. The amount of resources required is pretty rough, though. Some items require you to farm the same machine twice or three times for a single level-up. Now do this for three to four levels, going back to the same enemy over and over again. I have upgraded a couple of legendary armor sets to their fullest, and both primarily relied on Tiderippers, Frost/Fireclaws, and Slitherfangs. These are challenging enemies, and I have lost count of how many I had to disassemble for the upgrades – ignoring the fact that it became pretty boring after the third time. The game thankfully allows you to change the difficulty setting and enable “Easy Loot”, eliminating the need to shoot off parts you require and loot them from the dead machine corpse instead – as long as you have not destroyed it during combat.
Long story short: higher quality equipment upgrades should be a bit lighter on the necessary resources and maybe introduce more variety in the parts needed for a single item. Another option would be to provide fewer but more meaningful upgrades.
Story and Characters
Many launch-day reviews concluded that Horizon Forbidden West is an excellent game, but the main storyline has its weaknesses. Yes and no. I concur that it is not as brilliant as Zero Dawn. How could it be? Zero Dawn fulfilled a completely different purpose. It was about Aloy’s origin story and world-building to lay the groundwork for future titles. Forbidden West builds on top of this foundation and evolves it further to add a new flavor to the tried and true tribal-culture-with-deadly-machines setting. Aloy’s most recent journey is about growing up and learning that she cannot do it all by herself. The story is about friendship as much as it is about defeating an enemy. You will find fewer exploration opportunities of Old World ruins to uncover past secrets as part of the main plot. But that is okay since there is other interesting stuff to investigate.
The biggest issue most reviewers had with the story was its substantial reliance on science fiction elements. In your first conversation with GAIA several hours into the game, there was a lot of talk about a “heuristic processing matrix capacity”. At this point, I understood what reviewers were complaining about. This phrase is repeated over and over in this one conversation alone and is probably the sole moment of weakness of the writing team. Putting that aside, it is still a Horizon game with all its tribal culture and worshipping of machines, Artificial Intelligences as gods, and other Old World remnants. It is more about the here and now and a more advanced threat than before. This is where the science fiction aspect is brought forth further. Remember, the world of Horizon is already littered with Skynet-like killer-robot-dinosaur-machine equivalents. For all intents and purposes, the Horizon franchise is already a science-fiction franchise. Forbidden West only takes it a step further, so it is not an exact repetition of its predecessor. After I got over the heuristic processing matrix shock, I enjoyed it. Like in the first game, many moving parts add additional flavor to Aloy’s primary goal of finding a cure to heal mother nature. It is still a Horizon game through and through. The sci-fi aspects concentrate on the story and have almost no impact on the core gameplay loop. You are not suddenly running around with laser weapons all the time if that is what you are afraid of.
Horizon Forbidden West’s most significant improvement stems from its portrayal of characters and their interactions with one another. I have always liked character-driven narratives. Let me give you a couple of examples from past game reviews. I took this snippet from Dragon Age Origins in 2015.
When it finally came to selecting the four warriors that were to fight the dragon, all group members expressed their last thoughts and Morrigan’s part, once again, was so emotional it really conjured up mixed feelings.
For one, it was an overall dire situation with the main city being overrun by a Darkspawn horde led by the Archdemon. There was chaos and death everywhere. The city was in ruins and fires were burning all over the place. People were screaming and the sound of war was around every corner. Then there was the emotional burden that a beloved character would vanish into thin air when all is said and done, with your hero’s unborn virtual child. No other game had me feel like this before. I was caught in between wanting to finish this sucker off and not wanting to do it at all.
Here is what I had to say about The Witcher 3 in 2017. The Witcher 3 totally lives off its characters, their personalities and how they interact with each other. You will get attached to Geralt and his bunch and start to feel with them. It’s like an interactive TV drama that sucks you in. Geralt’s journey is very long and he meets so many people along the way, all of them with their own complex situation. This game is so incredibly rich. And although everything is scripted, your decisions in dialogues do have weight. Some choices definitely impact how the game ends, especially how you treat Ciri.
Because of its much-improved depiction of conversations, Horizon Forbidden West sits on top of all those games. But that is not all. Guerrilla Games went the extra mile and implemented a “follow-up system” for side characters. What does that mean? When you have finished a quest for or with an NPC, you often get the opportunity to go back and check in with them about how they are doing. This is depicted by a black exclamation mark on a white background instead of the green exclamation mark for quests.
This feature elevates side content to more than just fire-and-forget tasks with which you spend time and gain experience. And that is in addition to the fantastic content you are getting anyway – people matter.
Now that Aloy starts learning to trust her friends instead of doing everything on her own, you also get to spend time with them, talk with them, and do companion missions. This is not a revolutionary concept, of course, as the quoted Dragon Age series already implements that (or the Mass Effect games). It is a logical next step considering all the changes regarding NPC interaction and Aloy’s path as a person. It forms an ever-stronger bond between her and her companions, and you (or at least I) as a player are more invested than ever.
Why am I so insistent on emphasizing the character relations and interactions? Why is that such an essential element for me? Like in real life, you prefer spending time with the people you like and get along with. Take GTA 5, for example. It has incredible writing and unique interactions, but everybody is a lunatic or a jerk. I hated those people, never related to them, and never cared about them, so I never got far in that game. Red Dead Redemption 1 is a similar story. John Marston is a good guy. Almost everybody he comes in contact with isn’t. They are either very egoistic, a huge ass, or both. I finished RDR, but it was hard to bear the further it went on.
While there are despicable characters in Forbidden West, the core ensemble is very likable, and you get to interact with them even outside of missions. I wanted to do companion quests, even though some came at a moment when the main story progressed briskly. I just cared. And I cared about the side content, too. Not for completeness’ sake, but for “meeting” people and going on an exciting adventure.
Once again, I will present a few rapid-fire thoughts in this section.
- NPCs walk or run as if they 💩 their pants. Very reminiscent of Assassin’s Creed.
- The introduction to Machine Strike is superb. I prefer and expect a fully voiced and scripted tutorial over some dialog boxes popping up here and there. I never played more than the tutorial game, though 😜
- You can learn about rebel outposts or other smaller events from random people in the world. Nice idea.
- Rebel outposts and camps:
- No more alarms. More forgiving in case of an error, but also less challenging.
- Leaders in rebel camps always stand with their back to Aloy. This makes it ridiculously easy to take them out.
- More copy-paste than bespoke setpieces, like Cauldrons or Tallnecks.
- Aloy is sweating in the desert.
- Raindrops splash on Aloy’s armor.
- Erend, at one point, refers to the Punk band you learn about in the Frozen Wilds expansion.
- Erend finally tells the story about his sister that was promised before the proving in Zero Dawn.
- I did not enjoy the Arena. Too many annoying enemies at once and not enough room to run away. I cannot imagine having any fun at higher difficulty levels than Story – where I did not have fun.
- The new climbing system looks odd at times but makes traversal more enjoyable. If no climbing spots are available, Skyriming up a mountain works often enough, too.
- Shieldwing immensely simplifies getting off of mountains.
- Diving missions augment the solid-ground gameplay. Luckily, only the right amount of underwater content has been implemented since I dislike the limited movement and vulnerability.
- As soon as overriding birds for flying was available, everything seemingly became a flying mission.
- Sunwing does not aid in combat – although it has the capabilities. It’s just an air taxi.
- Too much Bikini armor (ignoring the tribal garments of the Tenakth). One of the legendary melee combat armors only has a bra for upper body protection. How does that make sense?
- Only a few garments look as badass as the final armor from Zero Dawn (the one Aloy starts with in this game, only without the shield).
- Ignoring that, every armor is very detailed and fantastic. There is more variety than in Zero Dawn.
- Some quests cannot be interrupted. I found myself trapped in a story mission without really intending to do one. As you may know, Horizon’s main tasks tend to take at least an hour of your time.
- Aloy cannot seem to stand straight. She is always bent backward.
- Aloy cannot stretch her legs while walking. It is almost like cutscenes in Dragon Age Inquisition or Mass Effect Andromeda.
- Aloy’s six-pack is gone. Wrong design decision given her training and likely style of nutrition. No women I found, no matter how strong her physique, has a six-pack.
Famous Last Words
If it has not become clear yet: I love this game. Like its predecessor, it creates a feeling of emptiness after you have beaten it and put down the controller. The difference this time was that I went back and finished the last open side quests (ignoring Hunting Grounds or Racing). I simply could not get enough of that incredible storytelling. I even beat the game on Normal difficulty this time. I turned it down to Story for farming armor upgrade resources, I must admit, but I played all main and side content on Normal. It took me just a couple of minutes shy of 100 hours to achieve 94% completion according to the PlayStation dashboard and about 88%, if the in-game statistics can be believed.
In my Horizon Zero Dawn review, I lamented about the roughly 60 hours it took me to complete that game, including its DLC. And I didn’t even finish every quest I found. In Forbidden West, Guerrilla added much content I did not care about, like Machine Strike, Racing, and all the useless question mark locations. I understand the usefulness of the Fighting Pits and hunting Grounds, especially since the first is combined with a small story arc (as is the Racing mini-game). Forbidden West can go way beyond 100 hours if you do everything. I know it sounds like a complaint, and there is a little one hidden, but I really enjoyed the vast majority of my time playing this game. And that is despite the unwanted additions. The rest of it is just so excellent. I believe the world could be a bit smaller, relinquish the useless loot, and remove the rebel outposts. These would be my wishes for part three of the series.
Viewed in isolation, Horizon Zero Dawn was and still is an incredible game – even compared to other games of a similar make. Now throw Forbidden West into the mix, and the previous darling suddenly appears old and creaky. I went back into the world of Zero Dawn, and the leap in production quality that Forbidden West brings became immediately apparent. This is the new benchmark in quest design, presentation of conversations, and character development. I am currently playing Cyberpunk 2077 now that the next-gen patch is out. CD Projekt Red certainly has a knack for storytelling, but I don’t think Cyberpunk can compete with Forbidden West. It is much harder for me to return to Cyberpunk than it was with the Horizon games. I could not get enough of it, especially Forbidden West, and I had to restrain myself not to play too many hours in a row. Otherwise, I’d risk stressing my creaky wrists too much, holding a controller the whole time.
I wholeheartedly recommend you give Horizon Forbidden West a try. Stop waiting if you have been holding out because you were afraid it would only be enjoyable on a PS5. On the PS4 Pro, it is still gorgeous and plays as good as its prequel. It would be a waste to let this one pass by only because of this stupid component shortage and disgusting scalpers.
I definitely want to go back to the Forbidden West and enjoy this adventure a second time. The next experience will be at its best, though, either on a PS5 or maybe the PC version. Whatever is available first 😉.
Today is May 4, 2022, roughly two weeks after I started the writing process. Given that I am also in the middle of moving into a new apartment, I think I am relatively quick with my progress. All that is left is some editing and refinement.
I hope you enjoyed my review and opinions of Horizon Forbidden West. Thank you for reading this 5400+ words long blog post to the end.