Horizon Zero Dawn was an incredible game. Stunning graphically, nuanced narratively, set in a world rich with lore and with a protagonist who stood shoulders above any I’d seen in a game like this before. To live up to its predecessor, this much-anticipated sequel was going to need to be something special. I’ve never doubted that Guerrilla could do it, but the bar was high, and it was hard not to be nervous that it wouldn’t meet expectations. Honestly, it took about ten minutes for those nerves to melt away and for it to become clear that Horizon Forbidden West was going to be all it needed to be and more. Every second I’ve spent back in Aloy’s badass shoes has been a gift, and with this game, it feels for me like the PS5 has truly found its feet.
For those who haven’t played the original, there’s going to be a slightly jarring learning curve. The game begins with a ‘story so far’ style recap montage of the events of the first game, explaining the journey of Aloy – outcast from the Nora tribe as a baby and raised by a hunter called Rost who trained her to be a warrior in the hopes that she may earn a place in the tribe by completing a gruelling rite known as ‘The Proving’. Though she was successful, a deadly attack on the tribe during The Proving left many dead and was the start of a much bigger fight for the distinctive protagonist. Aloy soon embarked on a journey through her machine-filled lands to discover her own identity, which quickly turned into a mission that she realised only she could undertake in order to save not only her tribe but the world around her.
If that’s all new information for you, you should consider playing Horizon Zero Dawn before you jump into Forbidden West. I don’t imagine it would be impossible to jump in fresh here, but as much as the game provides plenty of records and notes for you to return to if you need to brush up on its deep lore, it is one heck of a dense story. Horizon Forbidden West is a continuation of and expansion on its predecessor in every way, and to get the most out of it, it helps to understand the nuances of where Aloy is coming from, which are explored at great length in the first game. As we begin the sequel, she is now a hero – previously reviled by many, she is now known as the ‘Saviour of Meridian’ due to her mammoth efforts in the first game. If things were fair, she’d be able to retire a hero (even though Aloy is not the ‘retirement’ type), but we all know things are not fair. Instead of flourishing, the world is dying around her, and it soon becomes clear that a new threat is on the horizon (ha) – one that is not only corrupting the machines around her (as was the case in the first game) but the world itself. Crops are dying, water is polluted, and sickness is taking hold, and Aloy is the only one who can stop it.
I won’t go too deep into the story itself here, because it’s the heart of the game and is best unspoiled. But it is worth saying that where the first game’s narrative was about Aloy finding herself and her place independent of others, the second game is about Aloy learning that doing things alone is no longer possible. To succeed in her new high-stakes mission, she needs a lot of help, and she often finds it in unexpected places. As suggested in the title, this game has Aloy leaving her familiar lands and venturing to the Forbidden West where she is for the most part largely unwelcome. She has to prove herself all over again by understanding that there’s more than one battle to be fought here, and there are a lot of people that need her help. In the West, a rebel known as Regalla is waging war on her own people, leading to civil unrest, and machines are being used against tribes in battle, all while the land and people are dying of sickness and starvation. Aloy, with her device known as a focus (the device that lets her analyze many elements of the environment and machines in real-time) is in a unique place to help them, but she still has her own war to fight. It’s a balancing game, and one that Aloy needs to step up to play, or the world will be doomed.
Aloy is what made the first game special, and she’s what makes this one special too. She’s brave and was raised to be an incredibly good hunter, but she’s also smart, empathetic, and genuinely curious about the world and how everything came to be. She asks a lot of questions, seeks information before she acts, and has a heartfelt desire to try and see the world from the perspective of others that allows her to engage with people from cultures different to her own in what feels like an earnest and respectful way. She can be abrasive, and she is far from perfect, but she has strength and kindness in equal measure that makes her the perfect protagonist for a story like this. Ashly Burch does a wonderful job of bringing her to life yet again, and if she doesn’t win awards for this performance, she will have been robbed. Some of what she manages to do in this game is a truly amazing feat.
She is, of course, not the only one – the voice acting in this game is stellar across the board. From the one-line NPCs to Aloy’s new band of allies, I can’t remember a single piece of dialogue that felt poorly delivered or tonally out of place. It’s a testament to the cast, but also to the world that Guerilla has created. Everything and everyone in Horizon feels alive. The world is populated with a collection of cultures, each distinct from the others in beliefs, practices, and priorities, but each having clear motivations and making realistic choices, even when those choices are in opposition to what Aloy (or I) might believe. This game encourages everyone to think about personal context and the impact that might have on how an individual interacts with the world and provides the rich environment in which to do that.
That rich world existed in the first game, but it feels bigger here. Everything feels bigger here. All that the first game did well has been amplified up to 11 and expanded, but manages to do so without making anything feel bloated. There are more side quests here, each one feeling like such a natural addition to the story that in some cases my memory can’t differentiate between which quests were part of the mainline and which were threads I chose to follow. Nothing feels excessive, or like it’s unfairly demanding my time. That said, there is plenty to do here. Some of the extra activities from the first game are back, like the Hunting Grounds, which challenge you to recover different parts from or defeat different types of machines, or the Rebel Camps and Outposts that have you dismantling rebel groups by taking them all out, or just taking out their leader and leaving them to disband. In a similar vein, Aloy can now take on Salvage Contracts that require her to seek out specific machine parts, and just as there was in the first game, there are plenty of collectables to seek throughout the world – though this time it feels like there is a greater variety in the types of things you’ll seek. There’s also a Gwent-style game called “Machine Strike” that Aloy can challenge others to throughout the Forbidden West, for those who are keen on strategy mini-games.
Several new mechanics change up some bigger parts of the game and make way for new challenges both during the main quest and in a lot of Aloy’s side activities. Early in the game, Aloy obtains a ‘Pullcaster’, which is essentially a grapple that allows her to interact with objects in the environment by pulling them into different positions, breaking open blocked passages or grabbing onto them to propel herself to new heights. It opens up some new combat strategies but mostly forces you to be aware of your surroundings. If you feel like you need to make a jump that seems impossible, or like you’re stuck in an area without an exit, that often means you need to use your focus to find things to grapple to open up new paths. I didn’t use it much for combat except to try and get the jump on some bigger machines or remain undetected, but I appreciated what it did for the level design. Now that she can go much higher, Aloy also has a glider, or ‘Shieldwing’, which means that you can now throw yourself off great heights and really take in the scenes as you float through the air (and avoid fall damage). Climbing isn’t always a perfect mechanic, and sometimes the platforming could get a little finicky with Aloy not quite grabbing onto things the way I expected, but I did appreciate the expansion.
With some new tools to play with also come some new machines to use them on. There are some familiar favourites returning, but Aloy is also facing a lot of new foes here – some more challenging than others. Some of them are almost cute, and some of them are gigantic and terrifying to take on, with each requiring a different strategy to defeat. While you’ll usually be trying to defeat them, there are also some that you can get onside and ride as mounts, allowing you to explore the world in faster or more exciting ways. My inner horse girl obviously loves these parts the most.
Horizon Forbidden West is clearly a stunning game. Running on the PS5, the game looks exactly as it did in the trailers, and the attention to detail that the devs have shown here allows the console’s true power to be showcased. Everything is colourful, beautifully shaded and running on a day-night cycle, and still, the console is powerful enough to keep up. There were moments where I found myself just staring at the different textures of face paints on members of different tribes, and staring in awe at the fact that they looked like different materials, all as well-animated as the next. Every small detail, every piece of material, every expression is lovingly crafted, and it’s magical to see. And all of this with almost no loading time, no matter where you’re going or what you’re trying to do. This is truly the future.
I also want to shout out to the accessibility features of this game, which Playstation have clearly put a lot of thought into and have even highlighted before release to allow players to see how (and even) they’ll be able to approach the game and its controls. They released a post on their blog here showing which features and settings can be customised, and it’s an impressive selection. They’re really listening to feedback from a broad spectrum of players and consultants, and it shows.
I could talk forever about Horizon Forbidden West because with a game like this there’s so much to talk about. But I want you to experience it for yourself. It’s one of the most polished open-world games I’ve ever played, and in the approximately 60 hours it took me to finish the main plot and most of the side quests, I didn’t once feel bored. I want to do everything I can in this game because the world just feels so good to exist in, and this is going to be one of those rare titles that will have me going back to get all the extra collectables and unlocks just to give me an excuse to keep being Aloy. Everything about this game just feels good. It’s beautiful, narratively complex, empowering, and a true testament to what the PS5 can do.
Horizon Forbidden West was reviewed on the Playstation 5 with code kindly supplied by Playstation.