Music was an essential part of what made Horizon Zero Dawn so special to me. The game didn’t just look great, run well, have a good story, and star a fantastic leading lady; it also had a gorgeous, atmospheric soundtrack that immediately stood out from practically the first cutscene to the ending credits. Hearing that Horizon Forbidden West would include the same sound team, with an additional member even, was a considerable hype factor. I knew the aural experience would be as great as the first game. But I was wrong. The music in Horizon Forbidden West is not just “as great” as Zero Dawn. It’s better in almost every way, much like the game itself.
Let’s start by talking about that venerable sound team. Joris de Man, Niels van der Leest, and The Flight all return to compose for Horizon Forbidden West, and their involvement means that the game’s music sounds like a natural continuation of the music in Zero Dawn. Joining these three (well, really four — The Flight is a duo) is Oleksa Lozowchuk, whom you might know from the Dead Rising series. Lozowchuk is responsible for a little over a third of the soundtrack, and I must admit, I wasn’t initially sure about his involvement. But after hearing his work in the full soundtrack, I realized I was wrong to worry. In fact, he’s responsible for some of my favorite pieces on the album, and his work fits in perfectly with the returning team. So now I find myself hoping that he’s on board for the next game in the series.
But it’s not just composers that we need to talk about. Julie Elven returns with her ethereal, haunting vocals, and several other performers who each bring something beautiful to this soundtrack join her. First, there’s Melissa Kaplan, featured on a handful of tracks, sometimes on her own but often with Julie Elven. Without spoiling things, these two vocalists each represent a major character in Horizon Forbidden West. When these two sing together, such as in the fantastic “Trinity,” the soundscape they create is so powerful that the music itself tells a story. The fact that they chose to have these two characters represented by vocalists who sound similar but are still distinct is not only a brilliant sound design choice but also an example of how music is truly a core component of this game.
Another vocal performance that deserves mention is the Canadian group Musica Intima in “As Before, We Are.” This is an a cappella piece that plays in the agrarian Utaru tribe’s capital city up until a certain point in the main story. It’s a lovely, soothing song with in-game lore behind it, but even if it didn’t, I still think it’s incredibly cool to have a piece like this. A cappella is such a fun way to sing, whether a song is original or a cover, and it’s not something you often hear in video games.
Finally, Horizon Forbidden West features a captivating opening song, “In the Flood.” Performed by Ariana Gillis, this piece brilliantly combines a somber tone with evocative, meaningful lyrics and an understated yet powerful accompaniment. I was so entranced by this song that I had to rewatch the opening credits several times before moving on when I played the game. As good as this piece is, I think I like the closing credits version even better. “In the Flood (Lovisa’s Version)” is the original version of the song, composed and sung by Lovisa Bergdahl, a sound designer at Guerrilla Games. The lower key, acoustic accompaniment, and personal lyrics transform the song from a character anthem to something that feels intimate and sad, and I can’t get enough of it. It’s also very cool that Guerrilla chose to feature something created by their own team and that they showcased the composer’s own voice.
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s talk about the rest of the music. As mentioned above, this is a very atmospheric soundtrack, just like Horizon Zero Dawn. You can expect to hear lots of natural instruments like strings and woodwinds, but there are also more obscure musical implements and even some original contraptions the music team used to help give the score a sense of place. It’s not all organic instruments, though. Given Horizon Forbidden West’s heavy sci-fi influence, there are plenty of electronic sounds and synthesizer work. Some of it is featured in areas where it would make sense to hear more artificial music, such as the cauldrons and various old-world ruins. (See pieces like “Restricted Access” and “The Sky Remade.”) But you can clearly hear it throughout the soundtrack, weaving in and out with organic instruments in ways that create interesting textures and remind you that this is a world populated by giant machine dinosaurs.
There are three basic categories of music on this soundtrack: cutscene, exploration, and battle themes. Cutscene music is plentiful, rich, and gorgeous. This is an area where Oleksa Lozowchuk’s work really captivates, as his contributions are lovely, emotional, and thematic. For instance, when the main story sends you into Utaru territory, most of the cutscenes reference motifs from either that stunning a cappella piece or another vocal piece sung by one of Aloy’s new companions.
Another intriguing element of Lozowchuk’s cutscene music shows up in “Lost in the Keg” and “Gravesinger.” These pieces play during two dialogue sequences with some of Aloy’s companions, but instead of one single melody that loops during the conversation, each dialogue option has a distinct mini melody, and each mini melody connects to the others in a completely natural way. Listening to the soundtrack by itself, you wouldn’t even know that this is happening, and you might not even notice in the game unless you’re paying close attention. It’s such a cool, cinematic way to compose video game music, one that I’ve never really encountered before. I’d love to see more of it in future games.
Of course, Joris de Man and The Flight are no slouches either. “Mother of All” is a great piece with some emotional callbacks to the first game, and “Figments of Time” is a fantastic blend of classical-esque melodies and sci-fi synths. The endgame tracks on Disc 5 are also plenty epic, particularly “Unshackled” and “Breached.”
Moving on to exploration music, there are some wonderful pieces to enjoy. Dozens of tracks accompany Aloy’s journey in Horizon Forbidden West, and they effortlessly capture the magic of the game’s setting. “Riddles in Ruins” is one of my favorite pieces across the entire album. As you might expect, it plays in some of the ruins you stumble upon, but you first encounter it in a flooded mine, where the mysterious, echoey nature of the music stands out. Sticking with the water theme, “Rusted Sands” is an utterly gorgeous string and guitar piece that plays in a sunken city surrounded by desert. The music is exceedingly peaceful and relaxing, making it the perfect companion for exploring an underwater ruin illuminated by holographic light.
Horizon Forbidden West also has several mounts you can ride to speed up traversal, and unlike the first game, there is now a selection of music that plays when you travel via your trusty steed. Keen listeners might recognize the opening portion of “In All Its Splendor” from the 2021 State of Play demo, but Guerrilla saved the best parts of that track for the full game, namely the lovely strings at about a minute in and the pulsing low tones around the three-minute mark. “No Footfalls to Follow” is another standout piece, with more lovely but melancholic strings that dance through a key shift and a synth-assisted crescendo. In some respects, it’s almost a shame that these tracks are relegated to mount riding since you end up not hearing them as often as the rest of the exploration music.
When Aloy is not braving the wilds or delving into ruins, she’s exploring Horizon Forbidden West’s many settlements, and the largest ones have their own themes. Chainscrape, the first town you come across, is particularly notable because it has a gigantic brewery cranking out ale for its Oseram inhabitants. “A Wager Over Barrels” plays when you’re inside this brewery, and its percussion-based sound makes it a memorable and fitting piece for the locale. Starting with the sound of stomping feet or fists pounding on tables to set the beat, the track then adds in what sounds like barrels and pans struck to create rhythm and melody. The whole piece is a great example of using organic or found instruments to create music that feels natural for the area where it plays, almost as if it could pass for the typical sounds of a busy brewery full of rowdy patrons enjoying their booze.
Another settlement track that fits its setting nicely is “Shelter from the Storm,” which plays in Aloy’s base of operations. Said base is an abandoned facility from the old world, so it makes sense that the piece starts with a futuristic and otherworldly feel to it. But just as Aloy and her companions bring in plants and decorations to make the place feel homier, so too do the initial synths give way to warm strings and even a little piano work toward the end. The synths are never totally gone, though, which is fitting both for the overall theme of the soundtrack and for an area that is ultimately still artificial.
Last but certainly not least, we have battle themes. This is perhaps the most-improved aspect of the soundtrack compared to music from the first game, which I described as a “weak link” and “fairly forgettable” in my review. There’s nothing weak or forgettable about “Guardian of the Deep,” a pulse-pounding boss theme featuring swirling, almost classical-like strings and vocals from Julie Elven. The classical strings, as I call them, are an element that Oleksa Lozowchuk likes to use in a lot of his tracks, actually. “Shoulders of Giants,” which plays when fighting Thunderjaws and Stormbirds, has a similar kind of sound that makes the track memorable, even when you’re listening to it on its own.
I think that is the key difference between the battle music in Horizon Forbidden West and its predecessor. Most of the battle music in Horizon Zero Dawn wasn’t enjoyable to listen to when separated from the game, but here, it’s a real treat. “Storm on the Rise,” featured in the 2021 State of Play and used in smaller encounters in game, has such great energy and a desperate melody perfect for frantic encounters against multiple aggressive enemies. I love the strings in “Far From Rest,” and the main melody in “The Edge of Battle” stuck with me long after I finished the encounter where it plays.
Some of these tracks demonstrate how even battle music can reflect and contribute to the atmosphere of an encounter. “Coiled Strike,” for example, plays when you fight the giant snake-like machine known as the Slitherfang, and I love that there are so many little elements that immediately make me think of a rattlesnake. “Blade on Blade” has a robust, pulsing baseline that sounds so different from the other battle tracks, which is fitting when you consider the enemy you’re fighting while it plays.
One of Horizon Zero Dawn’s weakest moments was its disappointing final boss battle, and the music that played during this sequence was also nothing special. Horizon Forbidden West improves in both areas. I won’t spoil the encounter, of course, but the boss theme, “Second Chance,” is an excellent combination of several character themes and what almost feels like a reference to “Hold the Ridge” from the first game. “Second Chance” isn’t my favorite battle theme, simply because the rest of the battle music is so strong this time around, but it’s great to have final boss music that actually sounds like, well, final boss music.
Now I’ve been gushing a lot about this soundtrack, and it does indeed deserve the praise overall. But as much as I love it, there are a few issues that I think are worth mentioning. The main problem is that, just like the soundtrack for the first game, the organization of Horizon Forbidden West’s soundtrack is…well, I’ll be charitable and say really weird.
The first disc contains “the most iconic themes” from Horizon Forbidden West. This includes music from all of the three categories I just went over, and they definitely are some of the most memorable, standout tracks on the album. Disc 2 is largely exploration music. Discs 3–5 mostly include cutscene music in chronological order, interspersed with some exploration music. And Disc 6 is largely battle music, with a few exploration themes.
Just like the first game’s soundtrack, this is a peculiar way to organize the music, but at least the Zero Dawn album was a bit more internally consistent. It feels like either the exploration music should have been grouped together, or they should have just interspersed all of it with cutscene music as in discs 3-5, instead of putting most of it on one disc and then scattering the rest around the album.
The first disc is the real outlier, though, and the oddest thing about this soundtrack. First, its very existence as a sort of sample platter of the most important themes is just odd considering the way the rest of the soundtrack is organized. All of this music could have fit into the other discs, so why is it pulled to the front of the listening experience? Second, the track order within the disc itself feels incredibly random. For example, track 5, “Echo of You,” plays before the final boss. The next track, “Unity,” plays much earlier in the game, around the midpoint, and the track that follows it, “Mother of All,” actually plays even earlier in the game.
Finally, there are two tracks on this disc — “Look Deeper” and “This Place, This Moment” — that are essentially abridged versions of cutscene music repeated later on the soundtrack in full “extended” versions. This is confusing because it’s not like the abridged versions play anywhere separately from the full versions in the game, so why not just have the full versions on this disc and be done with them? Lest you wonder if it could be a way to save space on the disc, it’s not. This is an entirely digital release. There is no physical version of this soundtrack, so there’s no need for the publisher to consider storage constraints.
The only real explanation I can conceive for this oddity is the release structure of the soundtrack. The first two discs were released only to streaming services on February 25, 2022, and then two more discs were released (again streaming only at first) every two weeks until the full album became available commercially a month later. Because the soundtrack was released piecemeal, I guess the idea was that the first disc should contain the most important tracks to tide people over while waiting for the rest of the album. But this is a “solution” to a problem that Sony itself created by releasing the album the way they did, and given that it only took a month to release all the music, I just don’t see why they thought this was a good idea.
Quibbles aside, this is a great album to have in your collection. There’s so much beautiful music on offer here, even if the presentation is a little weird. If you’re a fan of the soundtrack from Horizon Zero Dawn, you will love the seven and a half hours of music from Horizon Forbidden West. I’d go so far as to say that even people unfamiliar with either game will enjoy this soundtrack. It makes for great atmospheric accompaniment to reading, studying, or just plain relaxing. Here’s hoping that the next game in the series isn’t far off and that the whole expanded sound team will return for a third outing, because I want more!