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Horizon Forbidden West Perfects the Classic Open World Formula

By: Devin Rardin

PLATFORMS: PLAYSTATION 5, PLAYSTATION 4

RELEASE DATE: FEBRUARY 18TH, 2022

DEVELOPER: Guerilla Games

PUBLISHER: Sony Interactive Entertainment

MSRP: $69.99

ESRB: T for Teen

*DISCLAIMER - THIS PRODUCT IS BEING REVIEWED ON THE PLAYSTATION 5. A REVIEW COPY WAS PROVIDED BY SONY INTERACTIVE ENTERTAINMENT FOR THE PURPOSES OF REVIEW. GAMING INSTINCTS IS AN AMAZON AFFILIATE AND DOES GAIN FINANCIAL BENEFITS IF YOU CHOOSE TO PURCHASE THIS PRODUCT ON THIS PAGE.

Often, a sequel is the series' crowning achievement, the entry that solidifies the IP as a household name. It has the building blocks of the first game and can hopefully improve on what’s good while eliminating the bad. At the same time, the series is still in its infancy and has not reached the point of tiresome redundancy. Look at the success of Assassin's Creed 2 and Uncharted 2: Among Thieves; these games are considered franchise standouts, and both illustrate a proper evolution of a solid, if not a little shaky, foundation. Horizon Forbidden West is the sequel to Horizon Zero Dawn, a third-person action-adventure game that marked a 380 left turn for developers, Guerilla Games. 

As with any sequel, Forbidden West needs to improve on the original while keeping the core concepts that made it so enjoyable. Suffice it to say, Forbidden West is the pure essence of a quintessential sequel. It doesn’t do anything crazy, but it does improve on Zero Dawn in almost every way, making it leagues above its predecessor in open-world design and gameplay. As I said, it's not the new evolution of open-world video games, but it is one of the best versions of the tried and true open-world design. If you like your stereotypical Ubisoft Esque open-world game, then Zero Dawn is the best version of that. If you liked Zero Dawn, then there is no reason not to pick up this sequel; it does everything Zero Dawn did but better with a few new quirks to spice up the formula.

Tribal Politics and Sci-Fi Hububaloo (Story)

Horizon Forbidden West pretends that it hasn’t been five years since folks played the first game and immediately delves into the sci-fi rich storyline that Horizon Zero Dawn left on. As well as the discovery of the AI terraforming system and Aloy’s role in it, Forbidden West also bombards you with characters introduced in the first game. One scene has you talking to old friends as Aloy reminisces about previous adventures and interactions while I’m thinking: “I have no idea who you people are.” It’s a strange disconnect between the character and the player, but Forbidden West quickly launches into new story concepts and characters, so the feeling doesn’t last too long. Suffice it to say, that the beginning may be a little jarring if you have not played Zero Dawn in a while. 

It's worth mentioning that the first game hinged on the mystery of the world, which is, by the way, one of the best conceived and most interesting worlds in games. The humans are in the rudimentary stages of development, while the machines are futuristic monsters with several elemental weapons. These two eras coexist satisfyingly, and that relationship only develops in the sequel. This concept plays out in different religious beliefs as some tribes worship ten brave soldiers from the old world, our world, who fought the machine uprising, while others see machines as gods to serve. Of course, after the events of the first games, Aloy, our protagonist, knows the truth of this world and how it came to be. With that mystery now solved, one might expect that the sequel would not have the muscle to carry the story forward. 

I quickly realized that this was far from the case as the new story threads made the original seem like a mere introduction to the real story Guerilla Games wanted to tell. A blight is ravaging the land, killing the wildlife, generating deadly storms, and eventually causing the world's destruction if Aloy can't stop it. To do so, she must travel west into Tenakth territory, a dangerous world, mostly unknown to the east. One of the most impressive aspects of the story is that the blight is not a random excuse for a sequel, but, instead, it has deep ties to the sci-fi concepts introduced in the first game. The sci-fi storytelling, which serves as the backbone of the experience, makes several crazy left turns throughout the journey; twists that are exciting and unexpected, but always fit into the established lore, only enriching the sci-fi storyline of the Horizon series. 

The other aspect of Forbidden West’s storyline is the tribal politics that Aloy is forced to deal with on her journey to save the world. Humans are always arguing and letting self-interest or deeply held convictions get in the way of union. It also gets in the way of Aloy’s journey to save the world. She is constantly pulled into tribal drama and politicking with tribal leaders. Though this may sound annoying, this aspect of the story is filled with humanity. The characters Aloy meets along the way, even during side quests, are well developed, interesting, and surrounded by the right amount of intriguing drama. Horizon Forbidden West is not an Assassin’s Creed situation where the modern-day storyline serves as an annoying intrusion on the much better story of an Assassin’s life. In Horizon Forbidden West, everything holds its weight from tribal politics to the mystery of the blight. 

This is because both play into each other. As I mentioned before, it's interesting to see how rather uneducated civilizations interact with the machine phenomena surrounding them, creating a slight commentary on humanity and how we formulate our beliefs. On a more minuscule level, Forbidden West’s story is told through the personality and characteristics of Aloy. Forbidden West does take some appreciative steps into Aloy's personality and how it affects her friendships. She is overprotective and headstrong, never putting up with nonsense. The game goes out of the way to introduce self-indulged and greedy characters, and it never gets old seeing Aloy put them in their place. With that said, Aloy can come off as mean at times, even to her friends. Most of the time it's justified, and I’m rooting for her, but other times it comes out of nowhere and seems far from justified.

Near the beginning, she gripes at Varl for growing his beard, causing him to immediately go on the defensive. Despite being a small example, I took offense, since Varl looks much better with a beard. Another, more serious example, is how she interacts with some of the townsfolk and other characters who are being reasonable and nice. One character is super excited to introduce her to a board game. She is enthusiastic and clearly cares a lot about this game. The enthusiasm is met with Aloy rolling her eyes and answering her with clear annoyance in her tone. Although it may sound like a knock, I appreciate how multiple sides of Aloy are shown, which is a more realistic portrayal of humanity. One downside to Aloy’s personality is that she distances herself from her friends and often disregards their pleas to help.

Certain characters confront Aloy about this, and I’m happy the character flaw was explored. In consequence, Forbidden West is more of an ensemble, with certain side characters forcing themselves into Aloy’s journey. Even though they don’t do much of the heavy lifting, they do gather at a home base and provide emotional support. As a whole, I was surprised at how much the story pushed me through the game. I couldn't wait for the newest revelation and loved exploring the humanity of the characters, including Aloy. 

Perfecting the Established Formula (Gameplay)

Horizon Forbidden West

While Forbidden West dives straight into the story, it takes a while for the open world, to get into full swing. It starts with a more linear path and, besides an entertaining boss fight with a machine serpent, it’s a rather slow start. After this, players are greeted with a semi-open world before entering the true setting of the game, called the forbidden West. The beginning is a slow burn, and the game would benefit from some brevity in the introduction, but once it opens up, the magic and fun of the open world will be well worth the wait. 

I’ve already discussed my appreciation for the setting and lore set up in Horizon Zero Dawn, and the open-world environment capitalizes on this design. It’s intriguing and captivating to see fragments of our world in this upside-down take on the future. There are crashed jets scattered along the grasslands and old world ruins made into camps. The current Tenakth headquarters is housed within a dismantled museum that resembles a mix of old and new world architecture. The whole map is filled with similar structures; old-world ruins that make up breathtaking environments. One of my favorite locations is a bamboo-crafted camp that’s built into an array of old radio dishes. I had to stop and take in how creative and oddly peaceful this town was as residents sang, and lush greenery blew in the wind. 

Settings like this keep the open-world interesting as well as the sheer amount of diversity in the environments. You can travel across the desert lands of Las Vegas, the snow-topped mountains, or the machine-infused forests. Each of these distinct settings also comes with a distinct tribe whose culture represents the greater land they are stationed in. The desert tribe is fierce, battle-ready people who often struggle to find water, while the tribe in the mountains are recluses who deny interaction with the wider Tenakth community. The settings of Horizon Forbidden West are distinct in both locales and personality. 

We’ve established that the world is fun to explore, but what about the things you’ll actually be doing within the world? I was pleasantly surprised that the quality of the main questline carried over to the side activities, especially the side missions. Usually, in open-world games, the side content lacks polish or fails to live up to the gameplay and cinematics of the main missions; this is far from the case with Forbidden West. The side content feels so enjoyable because they coexist and play into the main quest; everything flows nicely together, encouraging you to participate in all the content the developers worked hard to create. Side missions often branch off of main questlines, leading Aloy to check on characters after a major event in the story. I can’t stress how helpful it is, as someone who usually loathes optional content, that the side content gracefully fills like an extension of the main content. The missions are also well worth your time, both because they are enjoyable and because of the in-game rewards. Completing one early side missions grants you access to an explosive javelin, one of the best weapons in the game, albeit in its weakest form. Not only that, but the game also keeps track of everything Aloy has done. 

Nothing feels like filler. One time I was casually exploring some ruins, without a mission marker, or a story reason to do so. Later on, I found that a side mission was centered around these ruins, but Aloy boastfully acknowledges that she has already climbed them. It’s a small detail that makes the world more believable and lived in. Another time, a main character commented on the desert tribe, folks that I spent a lot of optional time with. Because I accomplished these side missions, Aloy had a brief conversation about the desert tribe and its characteristics. The last and best enticement for the side missions is that they are well constructed, instead of simple fetch quests. On one mission, I had to check on a camp that had lost contact with the larger tribe. It sounded like a typical side mission, but I found that the entire camp had been flooded. I had to do some puzzle-solving and fight some water-drawn machines to save all the inhabitants. The experience introduced me to a new character who showed up later in the main story, who otherwise wouldn’t have. I don’t have enough praise for the side mission structure, but what about all the other open-world activities?

There is a bevy of side activities for you to participate in, some more enjoyable than others. The collectibles consist of finding ancient ruins by accomplishing some standard puzzle-solving, finding black boxes in crashed old world “flying machines,” collecting data from survey drones, which requires some climbing, and aligning holographs with your surroundings. Much like the side missions, I found these collectibles to be surprisingly enjoyable. Each one is like a little mission, and they all enrich the world I love so much. One of my favorite collectibles is the vista points, because, once done, a holograph will construct above an environment showing how it used to look. 

The ancient ruins, or relics, are barred behind some mini-puzzles in the remains of an old-world structure. Exploring these ruins strengthens the lore as you piece together the mystery of the ruin. The puzzles mostly consist of moving crates with a new tool called the pullcaster. This process is often clunky as it's difficult to direct the box in the right direction, and, in general, I thought video games were beyond the “move the crate” gimmick. With that said, there are some smart design choices such as one puzzle that required me to get a power cell across a body of water without dropping it. Though the actual mechanics of the puzzle-solving are somewhat arbitrary, its strength lies in its legwork of strengthening the wider lore. Also, in general, it's a nice breather from all the shooting and killing. 

Beyond the collectibles, Aloy can participate in various activities that delve into the classic side mission - take out the bandit camp- variety. Some of my favorites include the Tallnecks, which are glorified viewpoint towers. There is something peaceful about climbing up a giant, giraffe-inspired machine and seeing the landscape stretch out before you. Another activity includes machine races, which work due to their sheer chaos. Riders can knock each other off their mounted machines and send arrows flying at their fellow racers; essentially making every race a fun and eventful time. The one side activity I was not a fan of was the melee pits. These pits serve as glorified tutorials that are confined by restrictive and overly precise inputs; one wrong input will make you start over, causing more frustration than helpfulness. Overall the melee combat isn’t that good, even though Guerilla Games added more depth and move sets. Some new melee features like jumping off your opponent and shooting an arrow in midair are cool, but these are mostly for flair. Spamming the light and strong attack works for most enemies and causes you to mostly ignore the complicating button inputs of the fancier melee moves. Overall, though, the melee is clunky as Aloy swings her spear exaggeratedly and does a dive roll to avoid attacks.

The human enemies are not that fun to fight, but the machines: that’s where it's at. I have to first bask in the machine designs. They are so detailed, with several different components making up their body structure. The Slitherfang is a giant snake that wraps its long body around structures, shoots acid, and quickly slithers across the battlefield. Conversely, The Tremortusk, is a slower creature based on an elephant. These machines are massive and unleash a volley of firepower that can kill Aloy almost instantly if you’re not careful. The smaller machines such as the Leaplasher are impressive too as it hops around like a kangaroo and dropkicks their enemies. I’m constantly awestruck by the creativity and detail that goes into these machines, making them the shining point of Forbidden West. 

Not only are they cool to look at, but they are also fun to take down. Each machine has different weak points that can be assessed by Aloy's focus and targeted with the appropriate arrow. Oftentimes, you will have to use a tear arrow to remove armor and reveal a weak point, which may be an acid sac or an electrical node. Shooting, say the acid sac, repeatedly with the acid arrow will cause the machine to combust in green acid and make it vulnerable to further attacks. It’s satisfying to pick your way through a machine’s armor and attack its weak spots; as you do this, you can visually see parts falling off the machine, and even causing it to lose various functionalities. You can tear off the weaponry of bigger machines then use it against them. The variety of the machine encounters, the complexity of each machine, and the solid bow and arrow gameplay make this a standout selling point for Forbidden West. Aloy can also approach battles in different ways, choosing to set traps or override a machine so they fight alongside you. Whichever tactic you choose, it will be a satisfying and fun experience that never gets old. 

The skill tree will also differentiate your combat approach since there are six tiers to invest experience points into: warrior, trapper, hunter, survivor, infiltrator, and machine master. I never cared too much about the skill trees since most are small passive buffs that don’t significantly change the gameplay. Aloy always feels strong no matter what you upgrade or don’t upgrade. The more significant usage of the skill tree is the valor surges. These are special abilities that can turn Aloy invisible, emit a strong blast of electricity, or initiate various other useful abilities. Again, I didn’t find myself using these often because Aloy already has all the tools she needs, but I can see why some players would choose to invest their time into unlocking these. 

As you may have surmised, Forbidden West follows a classic open-world formula, but it perfects that formula. The side missions and side activities are engaging, and the addicting machine combat is always fun. It’s too bad that Forbidden West came out right before Elden Ring, which has a new, immersive, less objective-based formula for its open world, but for the classic Ubisoft style gameplay loops, Forbidden West is one of the best. 

Like a Well Oiled Machine (Graphics and Performance)

Horizon Forbidden West

I've come to expect a certain amount of quality from PlayStation’s first-party games, and Horizon Forbidden West delivers on that expectation. I'm most impressed by the number of details in the textures and environments. The individual blades of grass and the shiny metal of the cauldrons are just as impressive as the beautiful vistas. Particularly, I want to hone in on the wind. It doesn't affect gameplay like in Ghost of Tsushima, but it does add some visual flair to the environment. It's like the wind is on a meter; sometimes it's a strong wind, and sometimes it's a gentle breeze. Whatever is on the ground will be picked up, whether it be snow or sand. It’s a small choice, but it does bolster the visuals and helps animate the environment. 

The game mostly ran well and I did not see too many glitches along my journey. The only odd performance issue I saw was random black screens that indicate loading. At times, they would appear randomly without warning and cause a minor inconvenience. A few seconds after saving at a campfire, they always appear if it's not at random. This is a small grip, but I thought we were past it with the current generation of hardware. Besides that, Forbidden West is a masterpiece in graphics and performance, as most PlayStation games are. 

Final Verdict 

Anyone who enjoyed Zero Dawn will find something to enjoy in Horizon Forbidden West. It’s so much better than the original with a great story, well-integrated side content, and impressive enemy design. It doesn’t reinvent the open-world formula, but that’s not always a bad thing. If anything, it shows developers how to create good content from a formula that most gamers are tired of. Horizon Forbidden West gets a 9 out of 10. It’s just too bad that it was released right before the next evolution of gaming, Elden Ring. I don’t fault the game for its untimely release, and standing on its own, there is still a lot to love in Forbidden West. 

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FUN FACTOR
Fighting huge machines and exploring the Forbidden West never gets boring
VISUALS
It's everything you'd expect from a PlayStation first party game from incredible details to beautiful vistas
AUDIO
The peaceful music of Forbidden West matches perfectly with its beautiful setting
REPLAYABILITY
Replayability is not high, unless you would like to go back and 100 percent the game
GREAT
9