On the Saturday I started playing Horizon Forbidden West (PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4) for this review, I was expecting a package from Barnes & Noble. So I decided I would start the game, but then take a quick break after 10 minutes to see if the mail had arrived. Except that when I did take that break, it wasn’t 10 minutes that had past, or even 15, it was well over an hour. It was then that I realized what I had both suspected and hoped about this third-person action / adventure game: it was as effortlessly fun as its predecessor, Horizon Zero Dawn.
Set six months after Horizon Zero Dawn
— which itself took place a thousand years after an extinction level event turned the Earth into a nature preserve for human-eating robot animals — Horizon Forbidden West opens with Aloy trying to find a back-up for GAIA, the master control A.I. program that was left in charge of re-terraforming the planet after humanity’s aforementioned extinction. A disease called The Blight has infected Earth’s plant life, threatening all living things, and Aloy believes GAIA may be able to cure it. But as she quickly realizes, her problems aren’t just botanical.
As with Horizon Zero Dawn, Horizon Forbidden West combines a variety of familiar gameplay mechanics and sci-fi tropes into a coherent and action-packed adventure game driven by a compelling story. Combat, for instance, pairs the archery aspects of Shadow Of The Tomb Raider with the dodging of Outriders, the hack & slash attacks of Ghost Of Tsushima, and the stealth kills of, well, far too many games to mention.
Similarly, Aloy’s rock climbing skills recall both Tomb Raider‘s Lara Croft and Uncharted‘s Nathan Drake and Chloe Frasier, and are tested in just as many interesting ways. Aloy even takes cues from Batman, as she not only has an Arkham-style scanner called a Focus she uses to track people and solve mysteries, but she can run just as swiftly and silently when crouched.
Horizon Forbidden West also
— like Horizon Zero Dawn and countless other open world role-playing games — has the genre’s usual mix of main quests, side quest, and errands; a leveling up system that rewards your perseverance with improved skills; looting, scavenging, and hunting for supplies and crafting resources; a conversation mechanic; Far Cry 6-esque encampments to invade and occupy; and random combat encounters that make getting from point A to point B more dangerous than when you do it in real life. At least I hope so.
Even the overarching story in Horizon Forbidden West combines elements we’ve seen elsewhere. H.G. Wells had a primitive society living amid the remains of a more advanced one wiped out by an apocalypse in his classic 1895 novella The Time Machine, while other moments of West reminded me of Star Trek, The Matrix movies, and Star Wars (“Endor” is beautiful this time of year). Then there’s the idea of destroying all life to kill an existential threat, a concept previously explored in the Halo games (which is rather ironic given how the Horizon series is made by Guerilla Games, whose first Killzone game was touted as being “a Halo killer”).
As for what’s new in Horizon Forbidden West — aside from the story and the various missions it prompts Aloy to go on, of course — let’s start with the new robot animals she can hunt, and be hunted by. Bristlebacks, for instance, are like big boars, while Burrowers are like the raptor-esque Watchers, except they can dig into the ground and come up beneath you. And then there’s Leaplashers, which answer the age old question we’ve been debating since the time of Plato: What would happen if a kangaroo on a meth bender fucked a coke-addled tauntaun?
this sequel gives Aloy new ways to take out these ‘bots. Not only can she craft acid arrows, but some nice ladies made her a Spike Thrower, which flings spears that explode a moment later. Both of which are effective — especially against human enemies — with the spears having the added kick of a delayed reaction.
Horizon Forbidden West also gives Aloy fun new ways to get around. Her Pullcaster, for instance, is like the grappling hook Batman uses in his Arkham games if Batsy’s only worked in very specific places. Which isn’t to imply it isn’t handy — especially since Aloy can also use it to pull down damaged walls or pull boxes she needs to climb on — it’s just not as versatile as, say, Spidey’s webshooters in Spider-Man: Miles Morales.
She also has the Sheildwing,
a reusable parachute / paraglider Aloy can use to gracefully glide from the top of a mountain or from one platform to another. Then there’s all the swimming she does, way more than Horizon Forbidden West, which gives her ways to explore caves whose entrances and passageways are underwater. Combined with the kind of jumping and climbing she did before, these additions make for some challenging but satisfying platforming parts.
There’s also a greater variety to the kind of random things you can do as you wander around. Though they do tend to be variations on a theme. You’ll occasionally run across abandoned ruins that require thought to explore fully, as well as drones that you can jump onto to bring down, but only if you can get really high.
How often you’ll run across these things remains to be seen, though. Another change in Horizon Forbidden West is how your inventory is managed. If you gather more resources than you have room for, the excess automatically goes into your stash box, which, like the crates in Resident Evil Village, are all magically connected, but only located in certain places. Which means you’re not constantly running back to town to sell stuff like you do in Borderlands 3 and a zillion other loot-happy games, and thus not potentially running across locations you haven’t been to yet.
Then there’s the epic and engaging story that drives Aloy throughout Horizon Forbidden West. While it, as I mentioned earlier, pulls tropes from numerous sci-fi sources, it combines them in an intriguing and unique way. And then it takes an unexpected but not out-of-place turn that had me wondering who came up with it and can I send them a basket of congratulatory muffins.
Now, as much fun as Horizon Forbidden West may be
— and it’s a lot — it’s not without its flaws. It’s rather odd that you usually use the “X” button to jump, but occasionally have to use the “O.” There’s also these irritating missions in which you’re supposed to line up an image on your Focus with structures in the real world, which are made even worse when you give up and try to do something else with your Focus but can’t because the image won’t stop coming up.
I also wish they’d gotten rid of how you have to use a fast travel pack if you want to fast travel somewhere without first finding a campfire. As opposed to, y’know, not charging you.
Then there were the technical glitches, including some glitched missions like the one in which a guy refused to accept that yes, I got the thing he asked me to get.
But like the other issues I mentioned, these irritations are minor or easily avoided. Just ask that guy.
Which is why,
on the Saturday after the Saturday I started playing Horizon Forbidden West for this review, I gave myself plenty of time to play before the mail was due to arrive. By this point, I’d been playing 31 hours — and wasn’t close to being done — and yet I still found myself losing all sense of time as I scoured the Forbidden Lands for…well, you’ll see.