[REVIEW] Horizon Forbidden West – A mechanical marvel

Big shoes. Size 14. That’s what Guerrilla Games has to fill after releasing Horizon Zero Dawn. In 2017, the Amsterdam-based studio showed the world that it’s capable of producing more than Killzone. An action RPG in a vast post-apocalyptic open world, filled with robotic dinosaurs, starring a fierce red-headed broad with arching skills? Sure! No problem, man. As of 2022, Guerrilla Games gladly gives it a once-over with Horizon Forbidden West, a direct sequel to the story of this singular individual upon whose shoulders lies the arduous task of saving the earth from total obliteration. Because even with HADES control-alt-deleted, quite a bit of work still needs to be done to save the planet from its inevitable demise. So yeah, there we GAIA again…

Before we begin, a little heads-up. If you haven’t played Horizon Zero Dawn yet, it’s better to start with that first. Definitely worth it and quite essential to understand the plot of Forbidden West. The review also contains spoilers for anyone who has not yet completed Zero Dawn. Consider yourself warned.

Are all the ignorant people gone? Nice. At least I know I’m speaking to people who know what kind of shady shit we are going to discuss next. Remember how Zero Dawn ended? If not, it doesn’t matter. Here’s a quick recap. So… Aloy – Meridian’s outcast Greta Thunberg who is going to save the world single-handedly and who (if we are to believe her voice) doesn’t feel like it at all – has had quite an adventure. The planet is starting to go to shite, all because of a rogue AI called HADES. This HADES is part of an all-encompassing AI named GAIA, a program designed by one Dr. Sobeck and a vital part of Project Zero Dawn. The usefulness of Zero Dawn? Restoring the Earth after its insurmountable demise. Unfortunately, HADES didn’t think that was such a tight plan and corrupted everything.

In the end, Aloy got HADES under control, but not without first ridding half of Meridian of all-destroying robo-fauna. And not without the help of Sylens, a mysterious nomad who gradually provides Aloy with vital information, as well as the technology to eventually shut HADES up. But where Horizon Zero Dawn ends with Sylens’ help, Forbidden West starts hunting him. Sylens – once again played by the magnificent Lance Reddick – has his own plans for HADES – which kinda sucks – and the country is still not all that. A total reboot of GAIA is therefore not such a bad idea, although it turns out that it’s not only Aloy who is preying on this AI.

So this entire vague synopsis takes Aloy to the West (no shit, Sherlock…), where life is far from peaceful. The Forbidden West is called forbidden for a reason. It is swarming with native tribes who prefer to bash someone’s skull with a bar of iron. But hey, Aloy has to enter it. To restore GAIA, Aloy must travel to the far ends of the West to gather the rest of GAIA’s subordinate functions. I won’t go into that too deeply, because it’s a bit spoiler sensitive. Anywho, indigenous tribes with clumsy cranium beaters, one of whom have also learned to tame big-ass machines. You guessed it, Forbidden West, it’s not gonna be a walk in the park.

On the contrary, there is a lot of mortal combat to be done in Forbidden West. Yes, sir. Our once small, inexperienced Aloy has grown into a brave red-haired warrior who makes short work of everything and everyone in her path. Where Zero Dawn introduced us to her arching skills and the Focus – that futuristic triangular AirPod that allows Aloy to see AR-esque shit from the past – Forbidden West builds on these skills. In fact, it introduces very little extra in terms of combat skills. So, nice and familiar. That saves you a huge learning curve that only distracts you from the story.

Yet there is also plenty of new stuff to be seen in Forbidden West. The most striking things are – of course – a completely new game world and a collection of new robotic creatures. That world… oh boy. That is quite the thing to behold. Based on the US states of Utah, California, and Nevada, Forbidden West throws you into all kinds of natural phenomena. From a bone-dry wasteland to snow peaks and from completely overgrown biodomes to a flooded version of Las Vegas… it’s all in there. There’s plenty to marvel at, albeit with a caveat. But more on that later.

There is also no shortage of new mechanical resistance, by the way. Sure, Tallnecks, Striders, Stormbirds, and those stupendously hard-to-defeat Behemoths are all great targets, but you also want to waste those arrows on something new. Well, don’t worry. Many a Burrower, Slitherfang, Clamberjaw, or Tremortusk will make you run for your pocket money, each more challenging than the next. And if you were hoping these guys could be knocked down easily, you’re shit out of luck. The Forbidden West is unforgiving and will make short shrift of any supercilious fool. Unless you’re playing Forbidden West at its easiest, it pays to farm a lot of XP, upgrade your gear and spend some time in the plethora of sidequests.

Well, now I want to come back to that caveat mentioned earlier. Brilliant as Forbidden West is – and it is – there are still some things to note. Some are personal, others more general. Issue one, I’m definitely not a fan of Aloy’s voice. Why does she have to constantly talk like a damn emo, sighing at everything she says? I know, heavy burden, only she can fix it, but still. So much for my personal gripe. Issue two, strange texture pop-ins, to a point where even half of a building’s exterior loads when you are a stone’s throw away. It forces me to say that I played the game 3 weeks before launch and there is a lot of patching going on. The same goes for wonky lip-sync here and there. That didn’t bother me that much anyway. But still, gotta be said.

Issue three, bouncy hair. Aloy has a big head of red hair and that is a beautiful object to unleash ragdoll physics upon. Running back and forth to make that hair bounce in all directions. It’s almost compelling. But there’s also such a thing as too much, and Aloy’s hair is really too bouncy. Especially when a cutscene starts, that hair wants to flutter in all directions for a split second. Also in-game it sometimes produces strange scenes. Like a ginger Medusa. Not nearly as strange as getting stuck in a plant-harvest animation that prevents you from continuing to play, but still. It’s such a groundbreaking improvement that sometimes detracts from your oh-so-beautiful game.

Because for the rest… well… Horizon Forbidden West is just eye candy front to back. There is absolutely no lack of detail. Especially when the bright sun hides gently behind the horizon and plunges the world into darkness – which sometimes went way too abrupt due to a bug – the neon light effects of many a mechanic beast are absolutely breathtaking. Even if you choose to prefer framerate over resolution, which I strongly recommend. Native 4K is great, but anyone who has played the game in 60fps through Performance Mode will not go back to Resolution Mode. Trust me.

Anyway, long story short, we can only conclude the following: Horizon Forbidden West is a sequel par excellence. One as you would expect. The well-known story continues nicely and it is not expected that you have to learn everything from scratch. Still, Forbidden West introduces enough to make it all fresh and fruity again. New beasts, new environments, and a nice cliffhanger at the end… Forbidden West gives you enough to keep you busy for hours. We forgive Guerrilla Games for the beauty mistakes. They’re only people, aren’t they? Not machines.

* Horizon Forbidden West was reviewed on PlayStation 5

Post-apocalyptically good
The Clean
Trusted gameplay, yet innovative in its own way
Absolutely no lack of detail
(Mostly) a visual spectacle to feast your eyes on
Plenty of new robotic fauna to get your ass handed over by
Cliffhanger much?
The Corrupted
Aloy's hair is way too bouncy
Occasional texture pop-up can kill the immersion somewhat
A scattered bug (which can prevent you from progressing, alas)