Horizon Zero Dawn took many by surprise when it was released back in 2017. The ambitious new IP from Killzone developer Guerrilla Games had players fending off a variety of animal-like machines with bows and arrows while uncovering the secrets of the past on a gorgeous post-apocalyptic Earth. While it was not without flaws, the stunning visuals, engrossing story and lore, strong female protagonist, precision-based combat, and lovely soundtrack all combined to form one of the best games of the year. Five years later, we have a sequel on our hands that is bigger and better than ever. Though there are some technical issues that need to be addressed, it feels like Guerrilla Games has taken another ambitious leap and crafted something truly special.
Horizon Forbidden West is set six months after the events of the first game. Aloy is on the hunt for a way to fix Earth’s rapidly destabilizing biosphere, which has started blighting the land and creating devastating superstorms. After a few early setbacks, she discovers that the solution might be located in the titular Forbidden West, which stretches across the American Southwest all the way to the California coastline. This region is home to several tribes, most notably the military-minded Tenakth, and tons of dangerous new machines, so it has quite the deadly reputation. In addition to these threats, there are rebels and mysterious figures whose motives and methods see them clash with our heroine on several occasions, often culminating with spectacular boss fights.
One downside to the story is that the old world lore feels a little more subdued than in the first game. But that was almost certainly inevitable given the Earth-shattering revelations in Zero Dawn; part of the fun in the first game is figuring out the magnitude of the apocalypse that befell the Old Ones, and there’s really no putting that genie back in the bottle for a sequel. The upside is that the present-day story is much stronger this time around. And there are still plenty of surprises to be had in Horizon Forbidden West, including revelations that provide additional context to the tale of humanity’s ruin. The other downside, unfortunately, is that the antagonists could have used a little more development. They’re sufficiently interesting with the amount of focus the game provides them, but I wish they had gotten more screen time; as it stands, you end up learning more about them from other characters than through direct interaction, which is a bit of a shame.
While I won’t say much more about the story to avoid spoilers, I really like how the game gives Aloy a chance to grow. Her personal journey in the first game was about learning who she is and where she comes from, and in Horizon Forbidden West, it’s about learning to share the burden placed upon her by virtue of her birth. After spending so much of her life as an outcast in one form or another, it’s hard for Aloy to let other people in, but getting to know her companions once she does is a real treat, and the process serves as the emotional core of the game. There are some beloved characters from the first game who make a prominent return, but I really fell in love with the new companions, particularly Kotallo, a Tenakth warrior. Overall writing and characterization are excellent, and even secondary characters in both the main story and side quests are endearing.
Speaking of side quests, they are one of the most improved aspects of Horizon Forbidden West. While I certainly didn’t mind the side quests in the first game, they are fairly forgettable and most of the characters introduced aren’t very interesting — with a few notable exceptions, like Talanah and Vanasha. In Forbidden West, not only are there a ton of side quests, but the vast majority are fun to complete, feature more personable characters, and offer worthwhile rewards such as skill points, or even new weapons and armor. There are still a few duds here and there, but I often found myself thoroughly distracted from whatever main quest I was supposed to be working on thanks to all the secondary content in the game. And it’s not just side quests, either. There are salvage contracts to undertake, vistas to unveil, optional ruins to explore, and even a strategic board game to master. At times, it can be a little overwhelming — and if you try to do everything, you’ll soon find yourself overleveled — but Guerrilla Games has done a fantastic job of making exploration enticing simply for the joy of discovering the unknown.
One of the other most improved aspects of Horizon Forbidden West is also the one that will likely be most immediately obvious to players: the visuals. Zero Dawn was already an incredibly beautiful game, so it comes as no surprise that the world of Forbidden West is absolutely gorgeous. Still, it must be said that the locales you can visit are breathtaking and varied. From wooded valleys nestled between snowy mountaintops to dense jungles that give way to sandy beaches, there is just so much to see, and the art design is through the roof. It’s not just about the game looking pretty, though; it also feels more lived-in this time around. Settlements are full of NPCs going about their business, but they don’t just walk around aimlessly. Blacksmiths and armorers work with metal, cooks prepare food, warriors spar, and farmers tend to crops, to name a few. I found myself walking around new settlements not just to find shops and pick up quests, but simply to see what people were doing.
The most noticeable improvement, however, is in cutscenes. While Zero Dawn’s character models looked great, most cutscenes were a static affair of what basically amounted to talking heads. Guerrilla Games made improvements in The Frozen Wilds expansion, which had characters move around the environment and gesture more naturally, but Forbidden West takes things to a whole new level. Motion and facial capture are used much more extensively throughout the game, and the result is that characters animate and emote in a much more lifelike manner. Facial expressions in particular are quite realistic, capturing every little grimace or smirk. Add in great performances by the main cast and much more cinematic camera work overall, and Forbidden West is a real looker of a game both in and out of cutscenes.
Audio is equally impressive. I’ve lost track of how many gorgeous pieces of music I’ve heard while roaming the wilds, and combat themes sound much improved compared to Zero Dawn. Ambient noises and sound effects are also top notch, and I appreciate that the game gives some granular control in this area, as explosions can be quite bombastic. The one audio issue I noticed during my playthrough is that ambient dialogue tends to be narrowly focused to a small area around Aloy, meaning that it often sounds muffled until you get close enough to the speaker. I’m not sure if this is an issue with the game itself or a side effect of there being no surround sound options, but it’s a little unfortunate because there’s a lot of chatter and strong voice acting getting stifled.
When you’re not drooling over how good Horizon Forbidden West looks or sounds, you’re exploring the wilds, taking down machines, upgrading your gear, and improving your skills. All of these areas have seen significant improvements that really flesh out the basic gameplay systems introduced in Zero Dawn.
Beginning with traversal, you may have noticed in last year’s State of Play demo that Aloy has some new tools at her disposal. The Pullcaster allows Aloy to…well, pull things to her — very handy for the various environmental puzzles you stumble across — but she can also use it to grapple to ledges she wouldn’t otherwise be able to reach. Combined with the new expanded climbing system — you can’t climb everything, but you have a lot more freedom to clamber up surfaces however you choose — Aloy has a lot of options when she needs to reach the top of a cliff or mountain. Then there’s the Shieldwing, a shiny, holographic-looking glider that Aloy can deploy to safely float to the ground, making getting down from that cliff or mountain a breeze. Finally, Forbidden West adds a whole new dimension to exploration by allowing you to dive underwater. At first, you can only spend a short amount of time beneath the surface, but eventually you can swim around to your heart’s content — which is great because there are lots of caves and submerged ruins to check out. Machines can swim too, though, and your weapons are useless underwater, so stealth often becomes necessary. Having to hide in seaweed may slow things down a little when there are machines guarding that artifact you really want, but then again, the underwater locales are just as pretty as the rest of the game, so you may not mind the extra time to admire the view.
When you need to engage your foes, however, Horizon Forbidden West is in fine form. The basics of fighting machines remain unchanged: by shooting specific components, you can deal more damage, remove parts needed for quests or upgrading gear, and potentially disable certain attacks. There are more optional components you can shoot off this time around, and you can now highlight specific components through Aloy’s focus, which makes it a lot easier to harvest machine parts or detach weapons before they can be used against you. There are also several new weapon types and status effects you can utilize. Some I didn’t find useful enough to rely on regularly — purgewater ammo and shredder gauntlets, for instance, required more setup and coordination to be effective — but others became part of my standard kit once I got used to them, like armor-eating acid ammo and explosive spike throwers. No matter what tools you find yourself gravitating toward, you’ll definitely need all the help you can get to take down the new machines waiting for you. Some are absolutely massive, like the aquatic Tideripper, and most act aggressively, requiring players to keep moving and swap out weapons and strategies on the fly. I thoroughly enjoyed discovering all these new machines and learning how to fight them; it’s impressive how many new varieties have been added, considering that most of the machines from the first game also make an appearance.
Fighting machines is, of course, the highlight of Horizon Forbidden West’s combat, but just like in Zero Dawn, you can also fight human enemies. Their behavior and tactics are mostly unchanged, but Guerrilla Games has completely revamped how melee combat works, so fighting human opponents is a lot more satisfying if you’re willing to get up close and personal. Aloy actually has several different melee combos she can unlock in one of her skill trees, and some of them allow her to reposition herself as needed, either closing the distance with an enemy or jumping away to give her the space to get off a quick bow shot. Melee hits also build up energy in Aloy’s spear, and once it is sufficiently charged, a heavy attack primes an enemy in a particular spot; shooting this specific area with an arrow detonates the stored energy, dealing massive damage with a very satisfying boom. Unfortunately, even with this massive rework of melee combat, fighting human opponents is still a lot less interesting than taking on machines. It doesn’t help that most of your encounters with human enemies are in rebel camps, which for the most part function the same way as the bandit camps in Zero Dawn.
As you level up and complete quests, you gain skill points that can be used in any of Horizon Forbidden West’s six skill trees. Each tree has a particular focus, from ranged and melee combat to stealth and healing upgrades. You can acquire a variety of passive abilities to suit your preferred way of approaching the game, as well as weapon skills that use stamina to perform actions like nocking additional arrows on your bow or throwing a bomb that bounces several times before exploding. Every tree also has two valor surges that can be unlocked and upgraded. These flashy ultimate moves can do things like give you a temporary shield or make you invisible for a brief period, but you have to build up your valor gauge through combat in order to execute them. While they can help out a lot in a fight, I do wish there were a few more active skills — most are buffs — and I also wish that you could swap them out on the fly without having to jump into the skill menu every time you want to use a different valor surge.
In addition to upgrading your skills, you can also upgrade your gear. Crafting has been vastly expanded in Horizon Forbidden West: every weapon and piece of armor can be upgraded multiple times, improving stats and unlocking access to additional ammo types, perks, skills, and modification slots. Skills and modification slots on armor are especially interesting because they can also improve the skills you unlock in your skill trees. This gives players a lot of options to create builds to suit different situations or playstyles. Returning from Zero Dawn is the ability to craft carry capacity upgrades by hunting a wide variety of animals. Thankfully, inventory management has been significantly improved with the addition of a stash in every settlement and shelter. When you collect materials beyond your current carry capacity, they are automatically sent to your stash, where you can retrieve them later if needed. This means the days of unloading piles of materials upon hapless merchants to free up space to collect even more piles of materials are over.
In terms of performance, Horizon Forbidden West is mostly a smooth ride, but there are some blemishes here and there that can detract from the experience. On PS5, players can choose between either higher resolution or higher frame rates. I played almost the entire game in performance mode and don’t regret it for an instant. This is the kind of game that you ideally want to play in 60FPS, and with a few rare exceptions, I almost never noticed subpar visuals while I was out and about.
Of course, with a huge open-world game like this, sometimes things can get a little wonky, but I noticed more bugs than I expected cropping up, even after a day one patch had been applied. The most frequent and distracting issues involve the loading and pop in of assets. Structures — or even just parts of structures — occasionally appear out of nowhere when you get close, and every now and then the screen goes black for a second as the game loads while you move through the world. In cutscenes, characters sometimes just don’t want to make eye contact in various awkward ways, such as strangely looking above or below the head of the person they’re talking to. I also encountered various instances of machines clipping through or getting stuck on the environment, an issue which could be particularly frustrating while riding a mount. Finally, there were a few instances where Aloy just did not seem to want to climb a surface beyond a certain point or else forced me to take an unexpected path up — pitfalls of the new climbing system no doubt, but annoying nonetheless. I’d like to stress that none of these issues significantly impacted my overall enjoyment of the game, but all the same, I hope that future patches can iron some of these bugs out.
The time I’ve spent with Horizon Forbidden West has been an absolute blast. I’ve gawked at beautiful landscapes, engaged in frantic fracases with machines, delved into ancient ruins, laughed at snarky dialogue, triumphed in an arena, gotten my butt handed to me in a board game, and much more. Hopefully, some of the technical issues can be resolved soon, because Forbidden West is special, just like its predecessor. This is one of those sequels where the developers have really upped their game in just about every way, and even though I’ve now finished the main campaign, I still can’t wait to play more of it!