Review : Horizon Forbidden West : Mechanical Beasts & Where to Find Them

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In 2017 Guerilla Games broke away from their first-person shooter series Killzone and dove directly into the third person, paleolithic-centric world with Horizon Zero Dawn. While Zero Dawn solidified itself within the gaming community thanks to amazing gameplay, interesting setting and characters, and top-notch voice acting. Forbidden West deepens the experience while remaining familiar, not straying too far from Zero Dawn’s roots.

Forbidden West does not reinvent the wheel as much as Zero Dawn did, and that is fine. Guerilla Games took what worked previously and fine-tuned it, adding that necessary depth while avoiding the tropes of other famed sequels. Guerilla Games does not just stack elements on top of each other to build something grander; it is all about constructing a wider foundation so that every aspect of the game can rise upward without faltering. While other aspects of the game stand above the rest, it is the main story that does not build up the load-bearing pillar.

To avoid spoilers, I will say that the main story does not do enough to stand out and is perhaps the poorest element of Forbidden West. Zero Dawn was successful in pulling you into the characters and setting. There was a sense of mystery everywhere you went, and you always wanted to uncover more, making progression feel natural. Forbidden West never had that mystery, and spelled things out to you through drawn-out conversations or Aloy outright announcing it. Scruples of documentation remain behind in the world, like what Zero Dawn does, adding that sense of depth to this world. The main difference in story is how each game positions their story and narrative concepts.

Zero Dawn was an emotional story with heart and soul, Forbidden West attempts to pull at the heartstrings again but it fails partially due to predictable plot points and thick layers of foreshadowing. Vast plot elements are so incredibly obvious that when the major surprises do appear, they do not have the resonating impact I wanted. Zero Dawn was about finding Aloy’s place within the world and finding belonging in the face of aversity. Forbidden West does not feel like it has a real theme to it aside from “imposter syndrome sucks” which we never experience through Aloy’s actions or emotions. It all feels incredibly secondary, like we are watching the ride instead of sitting in the front seat.

While the main story is reminiscent of a Marvel movie complete with over-the-top action set pieces, the side content is the true stand-out. Traveling through the massive environment reveals a litany of question marks, as if The Riddler was involved with the production. These highlighted areas of interest make it incredibly easy to divert from the core story and dive into the exorbitant amount of side content which is completely necessary when you think about player power.

You can tell each character’s culture and even occupation by what they wear

While the main story falls short, I cannot give Guerilla Games enough credit when it comes to creating a realistic, captivating world that is lives and breathes along with you. Part of that involves the impressive visuals of each NPC you run into along with the immense talent behind the voice acting and motion capture. Everything down to the pure mannerisms of each individual character adds to that immersive experience that is utterly striking.

I noticed there are some minor, passive details that add depth to the world. For instance, there is a high-ranking character branding a necklace resembling a Wi-Fi symbol. Another character has the same necklace but only has a single dot, noting a chain of command; and this is what I really enjoy about Horizon. It does a great job at creating an in-game culture that feels natural and equally important to those who inhabit the world as our culture is to us in real life. It makes everything seem plausible and grounded. You can tell exactly where these cultures originate from, their goals, and their livelihood just by looking at them and noticing these details.

This character’s necklace depicts a symbol related to Wi-Fi technology

As I mentioned before, you need to do side quests. Luckily, there is no shortage of places to explore or things to do. Forbidden West is a land filled with a ton of things to do aside from that main quest. Side-missions are incredibly interesting and more involved, adding more personality to the world. The problem occurs when you lack the necessary tools to move on in certain areas, forcing you to make a return later between the literal laundry list of tasks to complete. In other words, it is incredibly easy to forget to come back to something simply because you do not have the tool.

There are also a few “time waster” events like a warrior fighting ring, hunting grounds, or a tactical robot boardgame called “Strike,” which I could see turning into a Kickstarter campaign one day. After a while, these side-dishes of content will reward you with more talent points to spend, enhancing your skills further. It is worth investing time within the world and side activities if you are looking to fully explore and immerse yourself within the gorgeous world Guerilla Games built.

Forbidden West seems to have taken various Western parts of the United States and condensed them into a compact America. While the shores are hundreds of miles from the sand dunes, mountainous snowdrifts, and sulked bogs, Forbidden West still feels natural to explore. There is a bigger mixture of biomes that mesh well between the hills and mountain ranges, making exploration incredibly fun, especially if you decide to throw caution (and the story) to the wind.

Several times I have walked over a large hill or made my way through a ravine and come out to a luscious landscape filled with question marks and dangerous creatures waiting to fry me to a crisp with electrical yo-yos. There is always something new to see, places to explore, and the game really wants you to see everything that it can offer.

There are special items that help you progress through the story and secret areas in the same vein as Legend of Zelda, but they are all the same minus two items: the Shieldwing Glider and Pullcaster. This glider is one of the more fun aspects of Forbidden West’s traversal. You will always get the scenic route when jumping off a mountain or building, taking in the vast environment. The Pullcaster grappling hook tool assists in climbing up buildings, open blocked areas, and pull boxes. It doesn’t feel fun to use at any point in the game nor am I entirely impressed with the utility as it is incredibly specific and environmentally dependent. I would like to see the utility similar to Halo Infinite’s Grappleshot.

The other items you get are the same though, as they are used to open blocked areas within the map, and that is it.  If you want to unlock and explore every area within the game before beating it, you need to complete the story up to a certain point. I would argue that it is better if you just get to the game’s “Point of no return” moment and then backtrack to other important areas of the map that you may have had interest in.

Here we have a young Richard Kind

Enough about the story and the details, as Horizon Forbidden West truly excels in combat above all else. New machines accompany familiar ones, inhabiting the West with their monstrous chainsaw jaws, fire sacks, and mechanical reverberations that echo through the lands. Each machine will keep you on your toes with a huge array of tactics that will occasionally catch you off guard. Knocking off parts is still a huge focus especially if you are on the hunt for rarer materials. Some components are only found on the “Apex” versions of standard machines, which are much deadlier and harder to take down, so when attempting to smash-and-grab parts, you will have to strongly consider your exit strategy.

 

Combat feels visceral thanks to the DualSense controller’s Adaptive Triggers. You can feel every drawstring pull accompanied by the pulling sound from the controller’s speaker. Each weapon feels and even sounds different, whether you are pulling back the hunter bow, lobbing a bouncing bomb, or throwing the new spear weapon type at them.

With these combat enhancements, I was wondering exactly how the flashy Valor Surges would fit into the mix. There are different surges that accommodate different playstyles, with some surges adding more defense, health boosts, higher damage output, and more. They do not flow naturally within the battle as I thought, but that does not make it bad. Valor Surges can be activated in the same radial weapon menu. Once activated, your Valor is spent and regenerates over time; quicker depending on how you approach Forbidden West’s new talent trees.

Talent Trees offer a new immersive style of gameplay allowing you to fine tune your style

The leveling system from the Zero Dawn makes a reappearance, granting you skill points as you go through the story. There are several talent trees with abilities that add to the combat experience. Each weapon has their own set of abilities that are directly related to a talent tree. If you focus on the stealth-focused path, you will unlock attacks intended for the sharpshooter bow, and the warrior tree will focus on melee attacks. You can pick and choose where you want to invest your points, but if you want to fully maximize your potential, you need to do side quests. Simply leveling up Aloy through story events will not be enough.

Abilities like Triple Notch return from Zero Dawn but is tied to the Hunter talent tree

Weapon stamina is also a new element that allows you to use the special abilities you unlock within the talent tree. Each weapon has three abilities that you can change on the fly. Some are useful such as the returning hunter bow ability to add up to three arrows within a single attack, while the volley ability does not really get much use as everything is moving around like a caffeinated toddler in a Chuck E. Cheese. Like Valor Surges, you can spec out Aloy with talents that enhance stamina recovery.

While inventory is limited, it is much easier to manage this time around

Your inventory across the board has been expanded in many ways. You do not have to manage your bags as often as you did in Zero Dawn, giving Forbidden West a huge quality of life improvement. You can endlessly loot mechanical carcasses to your heart’s content without worrying about taking breaks to sell items to a strange man in the alps.

You can now swap between six active weapons on the fly. With a handful of familiar and new weapons, everything works to accommodate your playstyle, breaking away from the almost mandatory stealth-action that Zero Dawn relied on. You can still clear out bases silently and never raise an alarm, but there are times where you just cannot avoid an encounter, making stealth tactics unreliable. Although, if you are patient, you can still rely on stealth to a limited amount thanks to a selection of tools such as smoke bombs, traps, and environmental elements. Forbidden West presents a malleable combat style that most games simply cannot live up to.

Having up to six weapons equipped at one time is a huge QOL upgrade

I am awfully torn on the status of performance levels with Forbidden West. While 4K resolution really makes the game pop, the 30 fps makes the game feel a bit jittery. Playing on 60-fps mode with 1800 resolution is not ideal for a game seen as a major PlayStation 5 tentpole title. The problem becomes more apparent when you switch back and forth, making you wish you could have the best of both worlds. Since I am the type of person that prefers a more fluid experience, I went with the 60-fps mode. Despite the personal game settings, I am bold enough to point out the theory involving Forbidden West’s cross-generational power gap and how it somehow prevents the high-fidelity graphics that this generation should be pumping out. When you have games like Far Cry 6, Ratchet and Clank, Returnal, and a even Godfall hitting that 4K60 bar, I cannot help but wonder what is truly holding Forbidden West back on the technical side. Granted, that is a conversation for another time.

As genuinely beautiful Forbidden West is it also suffers from a strange array of bugs. When you go out into the wilds in some points, the environment could look a bit washed out. Background characters pop in and out of the picture and random black screens pop up between actions. Out of all the issues, the random barks are the most annoying aspect of Forbidden West. While Aloy narrates everything in real time to help direct the player to various areas of the map, sometimes her lines will overlay, giving you a nightmarish jumble of incoherent words that still haunt me.

Aloy’s focus can now highlight climbable areas akin to Death Stranding’s pathing technology

Most of the issues reported by the community are being updated as per Guerilla Games’ social media posts, which is great but also upsetting. To go off on a brief tangent, most games released these days tend to need some extra love and care post launch. It is nice to have these updates, generally speaking; but there comes the issue for early adopters and critics (like myself) who walk away from the game with a polarizing experience. Clearly what I say here has the potential of changing in the undisclosed future, and this is the biggest gripe I have with the game and modern development cycle. Forbidden West is great, and it will only get better with even more time. There is a difference between fixing Aloy’s repetitive lines and preventing humorous glitches from taking players out of the experience.

Horizon Forbidden West contains a ton of interesting and new concepts that help evolve the franchise, but it could have gone further when it comes to performance. After sleeping on the story for a while, I still feel like Forbidden West could have benefited from the “less is more” concept and enable players to just go along the path of exploration as opposed to explaining every fine detail through information dumps and exposition. Despite the story being lackluster to me and the performance issues, the combat is still top notch, immersive, and just as good as the first. Guerilla Games laid out the perfect foundation for the franchise, and from what I have experienced with my time on prehistoric robot Earth, I am excited to see what they could accomplish with their follow-up as long as we do not explore places like Gary, Indiana.

 

Final Verdict : 8

     Fun Factor : 9
     Technical Prowess : 8
     Time Investment : 40+ hours
     Replayability : 8

 

Find Seasoned Gaming on Open Critic

For more insight on Horizon: Forbidden West, listen to Bitcast Episode 191!

Special thanks to Sony for providing us with a review copy of Horizon: Forbidden West!

By Steve Esposito

Steve Esposito is a dedicated content creator with a focus on his love for technology, video games, and the very industry that oversees it all. He also takes part in organizing the Long Island Retro and Tabletop Gaming Expo as well as a Dungeons and Dragons podcast: Copper Piece. You can find him on twitter @AgitatedStove

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