Horizon Forbidden West review

By Kes Eylers-Stephenson,
I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. I've seen four-storey machine snakes sideswipe buildings while spewing acid. I watched sunsets spill shadowy night through redwood forests, lit only by the red beams of terraforming machines. All those moments will live in time, with a dropped jaw, for any gamer sitting before the majesty of Horizon Forbidden West. Guerrilla's sequel to Horizon Zero Dawn is something exceptional — not because it goes bigger, but because it looks inwards at the fascinating details of this world and paints every space on the canvas with even more perfectly executed strokes. The continued adventures of Aloy in a world that humanity destroyed — with the only hope of survival being a complete reboot — is startlingly well-realised and is heavy on deep lore. The third-person action is addictive and terrific, while battling an array of wildlife-themed machines remains the perfect combination of both fight and puzzle. The exploration is some of the best in video gaming, set against a world constructed using the most sensational art direction and highest graphical fidelity on PS5 — this is one of the most beautiful games ever made. If there are minor quibbles to be had with Forbidden West, they are immediately whisked away by this extraordinary combination of gameplay, exploration, and narrative that make for an experience that has more than earned its place in the top tier of video games.

horizon forbidden west

We pick up with Aloy on her own adventure to a Far Zenith rocket facility, looking for a copy of a biosphere rebuilding AI introduced in Zero Dawn called GAIA. The Far Zenith's were a collective of some of the wealthiest individuals on Earth pre-Apocolypse who were trying to construct a spaceship to escape their incumbent death. Their ship might have failed after exploding, but the facility might hold a few clues to resolving Aloy's present issues. The most pressing concern is getting GAIA back and getting the terraforming of Earth back on track. More powerful Apex machines have been popping up causing death and chaos wherever they are, as well as something called "The Blight" — a strain of red forestry that is destroying habitats and crops wherever Aloy looks. She knows there are only a few months left before humanity is destroyed, so off she goes trying to work out a way to stop it with GAIA. The trail leads her to the Forbidden West, where a huge open-world comprising of numerous deteriorated American states waits to be explored. There are tribes more dangerous than in Zero Dawn, rebel factions that want to end you and your mates, and plenty of new machines to scan and destroy with your bow and arrow. The main story is 60 hours long, and I would guess that it will take 70 hours in order to 100% the game if speeding through.

At every turn, Forbidden West takes a look at what Zero Dawn did, and prioritises going deeper rather than going bigger. That design philosophy succeeds overwhelmingly. Combat is the perfect illustration of this. You will be fighting a lot of machines in this game, but you won't ever tire of pulling back your drawstring and unleashing a devastating shot. Guerrilla has added even more varieties of machines, big, medium, and small. Each could be a stronger Apex version or defined by a different elemental type like frost, acid, fire, and so on. Every machine has weaknesses, strengths, weak spots, and armour to tear off, so you must taper every fight to one of the many varieties on offer. So, Aloy comes armed with bows with different ammo, slingshots with bombs, tripcasters that fire wires that explode, spears to throw... the variation in the situation is handsome, to say the least.

horizon forbidden west

That makes combat a puzzle every time you go into battle. On harder difficulties, you will have to do a lot of thinking in order to get a result. It is game design at its peak. All of the machines are designed magnificently. New elephant-like Tremortusks, huge bat-like Dreadwings, and even the retuning Thunderjaws are all cool as hell. They are an achievement in illustrating scope, too. I nearly cacked my undies while fighting a Tremortusk the first time — suddenly seeing it was the size of a two-story house was scary. I was woefully ill-prepared for its plasma tusks firing at me, then it charging across the battlefield before I had ducked out of the way. Dodging, shooting, setting traps, firing heavy weapons, or turning machines on themselves are all viable ways to play. It is utter genius. There is so much variety, so much fun to be had, and so many different ways to play.

New Valour skills are essentially activated by a meter that you build by playing well. Valour skills could be used in any situation. One cloaks you with stealth tech, another gives you a bow shot so powerful it'll knock down most opposition. They are a great little addition to an expanded repertoire. You also have Concentration skills that are unique to your weapon type. So, you could be knocking up three arrows on a bow or be able to throw a spear into the ground like a mine. The skill trees aren't innovative, but everything is useful in some way or another. Indeed, it's not just lip service; you can actually taper your skills to your playstyle in one way or another. Guerrilla keeps building on the preexisting architecture to make combat even better and more technical than its predecessor, without adding anything redundant.

horizon

The human enemies return, and these encounters tend to be a fun way to test the expanded stealth and melee system. Stealth has you sneaking around the obviously-very-red-and-thus-safe-bushes looking for opportunities to do critical strikes or land headshots. The melee has many combos to chain together and is full of hidden depths I didn't even notice until about a quarter of the way into the game. Seriously, you can pull off some mad damage with a bit of training, instead of wanging your spear around like a hosepipe. Combine all of the above with a clean movement system that is fluid and inch-perfect... this is special.

If combat is one side of gameplay, then the other is movement and climbing. With the inclusion of the Pullcaster (grapple hook) and the Shieldwing (glider), Guerrilla has made exploration a dream. Speaking to the interwoven gameplay elements, both can be used in combat for a bit of attacking verticality, or to avoid an attack here and there. Most of the time, though, it will be used to launch Aloy up and off of cliffs. Climbing is still a case of following the trails of yellow highlighted zones and then using your Pullcaster to yank yourself higher or your Shieldwing to get over huge gaps. Climbing through a facility, up a mountain, or gliding down a gully is still plenty of fun. However, the set pathways offer little in terms of puzzling and still have to light up with HUD elements to let you know what you can actually climb most of the time. That can be a bit linear, but it is totally offset as a spectacular vista opens out, or you break into a secret data centre and a mystery is revealed.

horizon forbidden west

Underwater exploration is a new addition and it is incredible. Entire underwater sections have been built and Guerilla plays with the mechanics of rising and lowering water to great effect. It looks stunning and it plays extremely well — another phenomenal addition to the series. When everything is working in sync — the climbing, additional gizmos, and swimming — and Guerrilla level designers are combining them in odd ways with environmental puzzles and unusual methods of going from place to place, this feels like a proper adventure. Again, is it done by making you do more? No. It is done by offering up more variety in the underlying systems and pushing the player around the world in the most ingenious ways possible. That effort rewards the player with enchanting moments of discovery.

The story is front and centre of Forbidden West, but my word is it dense. Aloy's tale is full of homegrown terminology from the first game, stuffed full of characters from the pre- and post-apocalypse, with many culturally disparate warring tribes and deviant AIs. It is utterly obscene just how rich with detail this world is, which is both the major success and a minor detriment of the game. The central tale that plays out has twists and turns aplenty (I literally don't know how to talk about any of it without spoiling anything), but is predominantly anchored by Aloy and a returning cast of characters. Around every corner is a nugget of character or world-building and it is to the credit of the narrative designers that they make it all work.

Horizon Forbidden West story trailer screenshots

Aloy is a joy. She is strong-willed and speaks with actions, rather than words. All the way through, she is fixated on stopping the malevolent threat while being weighed down by her own expectation for herself to succeed. Interestingly, the story focuses on Aloy letting go of this lone wolf sensibility and learning to delegate responsibility. A Nora boy called Varl, whom Aloy saved at the start of Zero Dawn, relentlessly pursues Aloy, trying to help her with his calming and centring naivety. Erend, a warm and kind Osram man who prefers using his hammer to anything except homebrewed ale, is also brought back into the fray.

These three, along with all new people I don't want to spoil, form a motley crew of folks trying to save what is left of humanity. Every performance is a killer, every moment of talking is a joy to listen to, and every character has a hidden depth gifted gravitas by the actors involved. Everyone is performing exceptionally well — there are two more recognisable faces in there too, one being Lance Reddick's return as slithery Sylens — but it is Ashley Birch who steals the show as Aloy. She manages to imbue our flame-haired hero with a strong sense of determination derived from care along with just enough sass and impatience to floor you at nearly every turn. Aloy, along with three of four of the supporting characters, will sit with you well after the credits roll.

horizon forbidden west

The story at large is very compelling. It feels like a mish-mash of a lot of the most interesting well-worn sci-fi ideas at times — like AIs gone wild, an egomaniac-lauding capitalist society, terraforming, and nature-versus-technology — so it is always comfortingly familiar. The post-post-apocalypse setting is really what helps cradle the narrative into something innovative. Everything has already fallen apart, giving a morose edge to nearly everything Aloy is doing while recovering information about lives lost, taking down failing robot-spewing factories called Cauldrons, and trying to find an overgrown spot in city ruins. The Blight is probably the strongest main threat in the story, especially given that Aloy will see the results everywhere she explores. As terraforming fails, famine lies around every corner, tribes fight for control over fertile land, and everyone blames it on something different. Some believe it is due to the failure of "land gods," others are too busy wrapped up in old rivalries to notice, some are actually trying to resolve the situation but are going the wrong way about it. This incoming threat helps elevate a lot of the fantastic character and setting work done on the micro-scale.

There are a few lulls in the story, though. Around a quarter of the way in, another main narrative thread gets picked up (and takes precedent over the Blight portion of the narrative) that is initially an absolute killer hook. This particular moment raises all the philosophical and practical questions needed to keep you glued to your screen. Unfortunately, over time, it becomes slightly trite and trope-ridden in a game that otherwise manages to avoid such issues. As a vessel to other fascinating spoiler-filled plot points though, it isn't a game-breaker and might be more because of my personal taste. The story takes a little while to get going as the opening few hours are a retread of old ground and with shortcuts to get Aloy where she needs to be. Once you are on the path, though, this is a non-stop rollercoaster of dystopian fiction that won't let your mind escape until you finish.

horizon forbidden west

Little collectable voice notes, holograms, and hidden messages are sitting on collapsed desks, nestled in the undergrowth, and in the holo-lit labs everywhere Aloy goes. No doubt, these small slivers of story help you get to grips with the tiny details that make Horizon so fascinating. However, the amount of collectable lore is bordering on the unintelligible. Names will pop up in quests that you won't recognise if you haven't been reading everything, and the number of moving parts — normally an important minor character from the past making a piece of innovative technology, but something went awry and people were affected — can be too much for a brain to handle when it is done twenty times over. The writers are clearly excited for you to see it all, but the execution has you sit and read the screen or be monologued at in a conversation wheel for substantial chunks, constantly. The game is often so elegant with its world-building that you can forgive a tell-don't show sin here or there, but this minor critique is coming from a guy who spent three days writing a character list for the Game of Thrones books and exploring every conversation in The Witcher 3 and Dragon Age. I like lore, but stop making me press pause on my playtime when someone could read it or talk while I wander around.

Side-quests are plentiful, popping up in every village you pass through and in the wilds you explore. All of them are great fun, giving you a fun cast of characters and an activity that can be finished in ten to 20 minutes. Most importantly, they help colour the people and tribes you meet. If you want to get a feel for the world of Horizon, you really should be doing these in between every mission. Each helps you care about the people you are trying to help, gives you a blast of the wildly different tribe cultures, and are normally funny or emotionally charged. Mainlining the main plot missions would be a bit of a waste of Horizon's exceptional world, as everything you can see or play through builds on this incredible tapestry.

horizon forbidden west

Quests are a fantastic way to explore the diverse open world, too. Now, talk about a show stopper. Post-post-apocalypse America has loads of different biomes to see, all populated with the aforementioned quests and side activities. There are deserts with secrets lying beneath the surface, snowy mountains with cowardly leaders under siege, redwood forests with defunct facilities, and even more besides. You won't ever tire of the places you go, and you won't see huge sections of the game if you only stick to the main paths. That makes the Forbidden West a place that is exciting to explore, driven by player guided curiosity. There are activities to do here, but they haven't varied much since the first game or from most other open-world games. Collectables abound, mostly feeding into the lore in some way. There are Cauldrons, those factories producing machines, and exploring them to their fullest will net you overrides for all the different types of metal creatures. There are hunting grounds, melee pits, and an arena to practise your combat skills. There is the new board game, Strike, that has you playing a variant of Chess with pieces shaped after machines on a playing field with different terrains. Many hours will be lost to Strike, I am certain.

When you are finding things naturally, Forbidden West is clearly operating at the highest level of open-world design. It encourages exploration in ways that make the moment-to-moment sing with fun. Things like outposts full of soldiers, or viewpoints that are actually huge walking machines called Tallnecks are mainstays from the traditional open-world formula, but they somehow feel like a perfection of these tropes. Horizon's secret, again, is that it mostly looks inwards at how these tropes could be improved. Rather than make more markers, it will make each activity more impactful. Rather than make you climb 15 viewpoints, it will give you five big Tallnecks with puzzles and insane climbs. Rather than make a map fifteen times bigger, it will give you more variety in location and verticality. Rather than make exploration fast and meaningless, it will give you a method of travel so cool I don't know that it will ever be topped. Honestly, in my opinion, the range and depth of this open-world outdoes Ghosts of Tsushima by no small margin. At some point late in the game, though, Horizon does become guilty of just cramming the map with markers and HUD pings as the game goes further and further West. It's unfortunate, given that it is generally so manageable, but I did find a few activities drift into the stale — but only after 50 hours and I don't have much left to do. It's also worth noting that the review process doesn't give you time to breathe, so I imagine most players going through Forbidden West at a normal pace might not find the same fatigue.

horizon forbidden west

The HUD is definitely a point of contention from the first game. I still find myself annoyed that it isn't pared back a little further, allowing the game world to fill the screen to the max. I was playing in Explorer mode (without the markers), but even so, I was pinging open my Focus — an augmented reality device from the old world that Aloy has worn since she was a child — to frequently decipher clues or find where things were. Unfortunately, on occasion, that means you end up following markers or neon pathways rather than anything ergonomically placed in the world. That is especially true of the overwhelming amount of useless loot markers that seem to be jammed in every corner. However, you can use the menus to remove a few permanent fixtures of the HUD and access some of the helpful accessibility options. The Focus works well in fights, highlighting machine parts and so on, it is just sometimes a bit intrusive during exploration and blocks your view of the gorgeous world.

Underlying every other element of Horizon, though, is the fact that this is one of the prettiest games I have ever played. In fact, its only competition is from fellow PlayStation Studio Naughty Dog. Yes, running in 4K and 60fps on PS5 grants it staggering clarity and smoothness. Yes, the mo-cap and character animations give life to everything you do. Yes, the art design for things like the details of the armour, the architecture of the towns, and the glory of wide-open plains are second to none in open-world videogames.

horizon forbidden west

On PS5, it is the depth of detail that has genuinely made me pause whatever I was doing: things like moss on the trees, ferns waving in the wind, or algae swaying underwater as a big Shellsnapper turtle wafts through. The way a snowstorm chucks up the snow around you will make you feel cold, or the desert whipping up trails of sand makes you feel the blazing heat. One step further than all of that is the lighting. On PS5 you can see skin be given a soft hem light that makes small hairs on faces shimmer, or light filter through the water surface and scatter into the depths. Forbidden West uses HDR to emphasise the bright and diverse colour palettes and the darks of underground facilities and labs. Having seen it run on a PS4, the art direction is still there, but the very life and soul of the world is missing. It can't handle the lighting, the depth of the detail, or the particle effects. I implore you to play this on PS5 or hold off until you can get your hands on one. This is a game of nearly-unrivalled beauty.

It's not even just about the looks, either. The sound is stunning in 3D audio, the Dualsense rumbles with tremors in combat and while climbing, and the music is on another level. Every place you go has a unique theme. Everything feels naturally scored too; like you are getting your own unique soundtrack and different musical notes at just the right time. The ambience is so spectacular that the first time I walked into a pub at a spot called Chainscrape, I had to stop playing for a bit just to bask. There was light streaming through cracks in the roof, smoke furling from a central fire caught by sunrays, conversation and bustle sounding off around you, all set to a marching beat playing the background... no game will make you feel this excited about a pub.

Horizon Forbidden West

The only other issue is the volume of bugs, despite playing 20 of my 60 hours with the launch patch. I had had pop-in and black screens in the middle of playing while the world loads. I have had to restart quests because something didn't trigger, invisible cities, and crashes. I never lost progress or had save-busting moments, but there were restarts and momentary jolts a few times. When the game is in full flow, everything is fine, but sometimes the curtain of beauty does break. I also had a terrifying SSD crash pre-patch that forced me to hard reset my console back to factory mode. Now, I don't know that it was Horizon specifically, but what I am saying is that it was running in the background when I put the PS5 in rest mode and I have never ever had this issue before. There was no warning message or anything, I just booted the console and everything I had on the system was gone. Again, I don't know that it was Horizon, but it is a bit conspicuous that the game crashes a lot and then that happens to a perfectly fine PS5. This being said, the game runs really well most of the time.

The trophies are pretty much what you would expect. Main missions, side missions, a certain number of kills, a few collectables, and a few miscellaneous bronzes. You know the drill. Nothing is missable. However, when I finished the game I couldn't see any new quest markers on the map. I don't know if the quest holders still exist and they just aren't labelled, because my outstanding quests in my log are still around and work fine, or if I have just missed the chance to complete them. In any case, I would recommend making a manual save before the last three main missions to mop up every quest you can, even if they don't directly affect trophies.

horizon forbidden west combat


Summary

Horizon Forbidden West is incredible. Very rarely do you get to experience a game world with this much depth, a story with this much intrigue and grand scope, or gameplay systems that work so perfectly in harmony. With iconic protagonist Aloy at its core, the story is a dystopian adventure that will leave you breathless. This is all underlined by the fact it is one of the most beautiful games of all time. The places you will go, the diversity they offer, and the rich details of sound and sight are beyond anything I have ever seen before. The open-world formula never quite exceeds the marker-filled map, but is made more enticing by the gorgeous ambience totally unique to this series. Slight issues with the main narrative and the HUD aside, which will be down to taste, there are concerns over its performance even after it has been patched. Those are minor concerns, though. Horizon Forbidden West is a game to buy a PS5 for — I cannot wait for you people to see what I have seen.
9 / 10
* Kes spent 60 hours fighting machines, climbing walls, and drooling at sunsets in Horizon Forbidden West to a completion percentage of 60%. Along the way, he unlocked 38 of 59 trophies. However, his PS5 nearly combusted along the way, so this isn't reflective of how much he should have earned. A review copy was provided by Sony.
Kes Eylers-Stephenson
Written by Kes Eylers-Stephenson
Associate Editor Kes is our resident expert in PlayStation news. He writes about upcoming exclusives like The Last of Us and God of War, PS Plus and PS Studios news, and his favourite games — The Witcher 3, Assassin’s Creed, and The Outer Wilds — before an evening swim.