Horizon Zero Dawn's sequel is a thrilling and captivating return to heroine Aloy's world.
There's a part of Horizon Forbidden West, about two hours into the game, that made me think: yes. This is the game. This game absolutely rules.
It's a cinematic introduction to the titular Forbidden West: a gathering of the Western Tribes – the Tenakth. As the name of the game implies, the Tenakth aren't the most welcoming. They loom over our heroine Aloy with fearsome, colorful body paint and mohawks, glaring at us, the outsiders. They growl threats of violence and death at Aloy if she dares continue her quest into their territory.
But that's quickly thrown aside as a new, bigger threat appears: antagonist Regalla, played by the incomparable Angela Bassett. Regalla is a machine-riding rebel leader with one thing on her mind: death to the Carja and death to those who dare parlay with the Carja of the East.
Of course, the appearance of Regalla results in a fearsome clash as the meeting between the Tenakth and Carja is ambushed, and we're left fighting for our lives. A good portion of this scene plays out in a cutscene, but it's thrilling and dangerous. An intense change of pace from the somewhat meandering (but brief) opening tutorial where you're eased into Aloy's world after five years.
Once you hit the ground running in the West, the real fun begins.
Horizon Forbidden West picks up six months after the events of Horizon Zero Dawn. Despite her victory at the Battle of Meridian, the war is not yet won. The corrupted AI Hades may have been defeated but a blight threatens to suffocate all life. The powerful machines that rebuilt the world following a robot apocalypse clearly have a few kinks left.
Our mission is simple: unearth the ancient machines and AI to reboot the biosphere. The ol' turn it off and on again. Naturally, Aloy is the only person that can do this. Of course, there are many obstacles in Aloy's way. Along with a brewing faction war among the tribes of post-apocalyptic North America, there are also mysterious individuals who have other plans in mind for Earth.
Former outsider Aloy takes on the role of lone wolf hero, burdened with a glorious purpose. And look: It wouldn't be easy to be basically the only person who is able to save the world twice in one year from an ancient and existential threat.
Less than a year earlier Aloy was an exile, shunned from her matriarchal Nora society. Now, Aloy is The Hero, idolized by everyone and surrounded by people who love her– maybe even a couple of people vying for her heart (something that is incredibly funny to watch). These kinds of pressures would be a lot for anyone – and at first, Aloy reacts by keeping her friends at a distance, rejecting help and comfort lest they end up suffering because of her.
On the surface, it's very "Strong Female Character," a trope I despise. In the early hours I found myself wanting to shake Aloy, yelling "Let them love you! " But ultimately, Aloy is still that little exile girl who is getting used to the concept of just being an accepted member of society.
Themes of belonging and the importance of connection frequently pop up, hammering the point home: You Cannot Go Through Life Alone. It gets tiring, but Aloy thankfully comes around. Which is just as well because, as it turns out, she literally cannot do this alone.
Aloy's companions bring warmth and comfort to the game. In the first game, side characters drifted in and out as Aloy went along on her quest. Now it feels more like an ensemble. You establish a home base in an old Project Zero Dawn base, collecting friends and allies along the way. Old friends Varl and Erend set up camp, along with Zo and Kotallo, new Utaru and Tenakth friends, and Alva, an academic from the mysterious Quen tribe from across the great ocean.
It has a Mass Effect vibe that, at first, felt forced and against Aloy's lone wolf persona. Eventually, it evolves into a nice addition to the game. It's a place for Aloy to come home to. It's fun to overhear companions' conversations as they try to make sense of the "Old Ones' world." We hear Zo trying to explain the concept of soda to Varl, Erend's newfound love of sports and death metal, and Varl's hatred of stuffed animals. It's also very fun to think about what kind of culture was saved and is now being consumed by these tribal people a thousand years into the future.
From a gameplay perspective, it's nice to have a place where everything you need is in one place: storage cache, workbench and the new override fabrication station, where you can create new overrides for different machines.
Horizon Forbidden West is, without a shadow of a doubt, an incredibly gorgeous game. The West brings with it a number of new environments: the desert of Las Vegas, snow-capped mountains, lush redwood forests and a now strangely tropical San Francisco. Each biome is captivating and wild with settlements, ruins and plenty of opportunities for hunting machines.
While the story of Forbidden West is a bit more straightforward and less plagued with the mystery and endless twists of Zero Dawn, it's dense with incredible world-building. The West, despite reports of being wild, unfriendly and dangerous, is far more fleshed out than Aloy's home in the East. It's fun to explore every corner of the world, because you truly don't know what's over the hill.
The best environments are San Francisco and Las Vegas. Both cities now lie in ruin, with a significant amount of the cities submerged underwater. Which is great, because Forbidden West makes incredible use of its new swimming mechanics. Diving underwater unveils a completely different world, one teeming with life and color. A breathing mask ultimately allows you to swim underwater indefinitely – which is useful, as there are entire levels set there. I don't want to spoil anything because I want you, dear reader, to experience it with fresh eyes, but Las Vegas is stunning. I highly recommend going back to Vegas and completing side missions there; you won't regret it. This game has the most enjoyable swimming experiences I've had since playing Indiana Jones and the Emperor's Tomb with my dad when I was 10 years old.
The combat in Forbidden West is super satisfying. Taking down giant machines and blasting out weak spots was one of the highlights of the original, and it's back with a vengeance in the sequel.
A wide range of weapons return, like the classic ropecaster, tripcaster and blast sling, alongside new additions like the throwable and explosive javelins – the MVP weapon of the whole game. All the weapons are upgradable, as are the outfits, which are beautiful and deadly. You can even customize outfits with plant dyes you find around the world.
Decking yourself out with the most elaborate outfits and weapons is only half the journey. Putting it all to use is where the sparks fly. Elemental weapons are so much fun and so effective. Using them feels really intuitive – there's no huge learning curve involved. It's incredibly satisfying to scope out a machine and plan your attack, watching the dopey creatures wander right into your traps. The haptic feedback on the PS5 controller is a great addition to combat, adding more weight to each hit and pull of the bow. Combat with humans is slightly less visceral, but at the end of the day I prefer it that way. There's less human-to-human combat and, when it occurs, you have the option of working your stealth skills which is always fun.
While the systems are more or less similar to those of the last game, additions from the new skill tree and special weapon moves add variety to the combat. One minor criticism: You can't really lock onto enemies during combat. At least, I couldn't find a way to do it. Most of the time it's fine, but when you're fighting a rebel or a fast-moving machine it would be really helpful to stay locked on.
I played Forbidden West on the PlayStation 5. For the most part, it was really smooth sailing. The visuals on the PS5 are beautiful. The lighting, the water, even the way snow and sand are animated – it's a sight to behold. I'm not a huge photo mode person, but I found myself indulging in order to capture all the breathtaking vistas I came across. In terms of bugs, I didn't really encounter much. There were a few instances of Aloy's hair defying physics and water glitching while I was swimming, but Aloy's hair is a character itself and nothing felt remotely close to game breaking.
I loved this game. Full disclosure: Horizon Zero Dawn is one of my most favorite games of the last decade. I have been looking forward to the sequel for a long time, but it far exceeded my expectations. The main story took me about 40 hours to complete, and I felt like I got a lot out of it. There are lots of great side quests, errands and jobs to do too.
The story is enthralling from beginning to end, with enough twists and surprises to keep you hooked. The ending, while not as emotional as that of the first game, effectively lays the groundwork for a potential third game really well. In that respect, it falls victim to Penultimate Installment Syndrome, a disease I just made up, where – you guessed it – the penultimate ending doesn't really stand alone, but rather is used to tease what is coming next. That's not so much a negative, it's just how it is. And it still works.
Regardless, this game was well worth the five-year wait. It's gorgeous and fascinating, and I can't wait for you to play it. Now if you don't mind me, I'm going to research experimental memory-erasing procedures in the hopes of experiencing this game for the first time all over again.