Horizon Forbidden West Review (PlayStation 5)

The sun sets on Zero Dawn and Horizon extends West into Sony's most expansive open world to date.


Ever since the inception of videogames, there has always been a fascination with the powerful, ancient creatures of eons past. Dinosaur videogames seem to have been a concept as old as the fearsome fossilised fiends themselves. No doubt there are quite a few videogames you've played over the years that feature dinosaurs as a pivotal element - games like Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, Dino Crisis, Monster Hunter, and any of the Jurassic Park games just to name a few beloved series. It wasn't until 2017 that Sony truly embraced these colossal beasts as part of their line-up of triple-A titles. Thanks to developers, Guerrilla Games, who were previously responsible for the popular Killzone series, players were introduced to the expansive and visually-stunning open world of Horizon Zero Dawn.

Horizon Zero Dawn Thunderjaw Wallpaper
Aloy faces off against the flagship "Thunderjaw" enemy in Horizon Zero Dawn (PlayStation 4, 2017).

Assuming the role of Aloy, a steadfast and resolute female protagonist abandoned as a child and outcast within her own tribe, players were thrust into a massive world fraught with danger. Through its post-apocalyptic setting, Zero Dawn cleverly combined themes of primitive tribalism with futuristic robots and weaponry through its mechanical beasts taking the shape of dinosaurs and various ancient animals. This inaugural entry into Sony's flagship Horizon series received almost universal acclaim, and now years later Aloy looks beyond the Horizon to the hostile and inhospitable sprawling lands extending far to the West. Facing new challenges, clashing clans locked in brutal warfare, and even threats from beyond the reaches of earth, is Aloy's newest adventure a worthy successor? Read ahead to find out what awaits in the Forbidden West.

Horizon Forbidden West Aloy On Top Mountain Banner

Story


Once an orphan on a journey of self-discovery, Aloy has risen above her own challenges to become a revered and respected hero: the "Saviour of Meridian". Directly following the events of Zero Dawn, the four tribes of this post-apocalyptic world enjoy a brief respite and moment of peace following the epic battle in which Aloy and her companions triumphed against a corrupt AI known only as HADES that was activated by a mysterious signal. Though that moment of peace is fleeting, as a chance discovery leads Aloy to discover that HADES has not been destroyed, but has been stolen by a trusted ally, Sylens, who plans on using the AI for his own nefarious means. His trail leads her into an inhospitable and barbaric land where even the bravest warriors dare tread: the Forbidden West.

Sylens Horizon Forbidden West
Friend turns to foe - Sylens' schemes will see HADES unleashed once again.

Tasked with retrieving HADES and in doing so saving earth itself, Aloy too must contend with the primitive tribes that call the Forbidden West home. These lands are inhabited by three factions of skilled and deadly warriors, the Tenakth, who do not take kindly to trespassers. This task is made even more deadly as the Tenakth are locked in civil war; an ex-general who goes by the name Regalla leads a band of anarchists who will stop at nothing to purge the land of all who do not join them. Mounted atop machines and armed with the very technology Aloy possesses at her disposal, uniting the tribes and destroying Regalla poses and even bigger challenge than that of retrieving HADES.

Regalla and Clawstrider Horizon Forbidden West
Standing aside a captured Clawstrider, the warlord Regalla will destroy all who oppose her.

And if brutal warrior tribes, malevolent AIs, double-crossing allies, and colossal mechanical dinosaurs weren't enough for the Saviour of Meridian, her discoveries lead her to unearth recordings suggesting the existence of the Zenithians. These futuristic, intelligent beings once abandoned Earth in the hope of building life anew and establishing a new colony beyond the stars through the use of a high-advanced terraforming system: GAIA. Now bound for Earth once again, those of the Zenith aim to rebuild the Earth from scratch by wiping out all life in existence and starting again from the ground up.


But really, there is one more challenge above all else that will push Aloy to her limits in the Forbidden West: Herself.


Gameplay


Before introducing the key gameplay elements of the latest Horizon entry, it's important to acknowledge that the Forbidden West is HUGE. This is undoubtedly one of the most expansive, detailed, and impressive open worlds ever crafted for a videogame. The sheer sense of scale in this new journey is nothing short of incredible, and will have players pausing time and again to soak in their surroundings during the adventures within this vast wilderness. But just because the world is huge doesn't mean it is sparse - every single one of the Forbidden West's regions is packed with discoveries, challenges, and tasks that will keep any player engrossed. First and foremost is the true foundation of all gameplay on which the remainder of Horizon is built upon, its exploration.

Forbidden West Horizon Visuals
Every corner of the Forbidden West is a thrill to explore.

Exploration


Throughout Aloy's adventure, you'll encounter everything the Forbidden West has to offer, from its vast plains, craggy outcrops and desolate deserts, all the way through to lush and dense rainforest, towering snow-capped peaks, and even a tropical paradise. The world simply feels alive and will draw you into this living, breathing map as Aloy works her way from East to West and meets both friend and foe along the way. Each environment, while having a distinct environmental aesthetic, smoothly blends into one another, creating a believable world that is littered with truly unbelievable dangers.


While working your way through each region, scaling cliffs, gliding through its skies or hastily darting from cover to cover, you're likely to encounter various optional tasks that can be completed along the way. These include combat-related challenges like simple groups of enemies that can be defeated and harvested for parts, bandit camps and outposts to be conquered, or more formidable enemies that pose a serious threat. For those wanting a more relaxed, explorative adventure, ruins of the old world offer small standalone platforming/puzzle segments to test your physical and mental prowess, and will reward the player with valuable items. Cauldrons also return, which are mechanical dungeons where the centre of the cauldron can be overwritten to obtain the ability to capture and control that land's mechanical foes.

Cauldron Horizon Forbidden West
Something strange is definitely brewing in this cauldron.

Admittedly, the exploration is not all flawless. Traversing enclosed indoor environments can occasionally be a struggle, particularly when required to climb with precision, which is a large aspect of Forbidden West's platforming. When it works, the game's climbing feels reasonably smooth and intuitive, balancing on beams, gripping cliffs and ledges akin to that of Assassin's Creed. However, there were many moments where the game had trouble interpreting my inputs, and I'd find Aloy losing her grip or flinging off in a completely unintended direction. Even despite the addition of climbing markers, this still led to some unnecessary frustration and will likely be tedious for players like myself who have come to expect platformers that are perfectly responsive to every input.

Climbing Markers Platforming Horizon Forbidden West
Optional climbing markers (pictured) can be turned on/off to assist with platforming.

Aside from exploring, breaking up the expanse of the Forbidden West are a variety of encampments and settlements, each of which belong to a different faction of the Forbidden West's native people. Conversing with the inhabitants will provide useful tips and rumours while also unlocking chains of side-quests that will keep you busy for hours on end. These quests are deeper than those of Zero Dawn and similar to those found in games like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, as they include their own side-stories and provide genuine insight and valuable experiences among each tribe and their people. Some of these side quests actually seemed more engaging than the main story, and on several occasions I found myself distracted and venturing way beyond where the main story required.

Side Quest Horizon Forbidden West
Many of the game's most engaging side quests will take you deep into hostile Tenakth territory.

But it's not all just climbing mountains, exploring ancient ruins, and taking in every breathtaking sight along the way. Don't forget this desolate and unwelcoming land is not only inhabited by fierce tribes out for your blood, but also home to more vicious machines than Aloy has ever encountered. If you want to survive in the Forbidden West, you're going to need to defend yourself.


Combat


Equipped with her trusty bow, another slightly quicker trusty bow, yet another larger slightly slower trusty bow, and a veritable arsenal of ranged weapons, Aloy is armed to the teeth to take on any human, robot, or otherwise that crosses her path. With an emphasis on ranged weapons, the game rewards players for effectively utilising stealth and avoiding combat where possible. Distracting enemies, swiftly delivering silent strikes, and destroying your foes with aspects of the environment is definitely the most efficient way to approach a fight. Though if you'd prefer a frontal assault, Forbidden West's combat won't stop you from charging headfirst into battle either.


There are several categories of weapons to choose from, each of which will suit a particular style of player. The typical short/medium/long range bows are available, each of which fire arrows that provide blunt damage, "tear" damage to shear off enemy parts and armour, or elemental damage that will slowly build up until it unleashes a powerful effect. Several other ranged weapons can also be used in combination, including the Boltblaster (a rapid-fire crossbow), Shredder Gauntlet (frisbee covered in razors), or the Blast Sling which lobs elemental grenades. All of these pale in comparison to the Spike Thrower, which is an explosive javelin (quite literally a boomstick) that absolutely decimates enemies regardless of their armour. I found myself using the Spike Thrower for the majority of the game, with little need to swap weapons.

Horizon Forbidden West Combat Weapons
Six weapons can be equipped at once and changed mid-combat.

Those keen to play a stealth-based approach will be pleased to know that more methodical "weapons" like the Tripcaster and Ropecaster also make a return, which can be used to trap enemies or assault them with elemental tripwires. When used in conjunction with traps placed carefully in enemy paths, or clever use of cover, skilled players will be able to decimate entire squads of enemies without even being detected.

Horizon Forbidden West Weapon Types Gif
You can choose the weapon that suits you best, or you can choose the boomstick.

Each weapon category also includes special attacks which consume stamina and three special "valor" skills, which can be unleashed once Aloy has accumulated a certain amount of valor from defeating enemies or taking damage. These can be unlocked through several skill trees where points are assigned as Aloy levels up. You'll likely pick one or two of these skills that are most suited to your own play-style and stick with them for the majority of the game. As I generally opted for a stealthy approach, one valor skill that renders Aloy invisible for a short period was useful in almost any encounter.

Horizon Forbidden West Slaughterspine Combat
The game's combat truly shines when facing off against its most formidable foes, like this Slaughterspine.

Combat can be exhilarating and intense, especially when facing off against the game's toughest foes. Taking down a lumbering Tremortusk or terrifying Slaughterspine is no mean feat, and will challenge players to use every skill at their disposal. Scanning your foe, targeting weakpoints and tearing off the most vulnerable parts of an enemy is vital. Though combat is made unnecessarily difficult thanks to some odd choices, like consumable items being assigned to the D-pad and making efficient use impossible in a tense situation, or the game's melee combat which feels clunky and awkward in comparison to its ranged counterpart.


Visuals


Have you ever played a videogame where every single moment has you stopping to admire your surroundings, every cutscene is rudely interrupted by your need to take a screenshot, and even the most important plot points have you distracted by the stunning scenery? This is exactly what Horizon Forbidden West achieves; this near flawless visual masterpiece unlike anything else I've ever encountered. It's not only the stellar environments either, it's everything else within them. The inhabitants and their genuine facial animations, the fearsome creatures clad in metal and glowing lights, even the smallest of details make Forbidden West one of the most graphically-impressive games to date. But how can you tell that through words alone? Here's some example of what I found most impressive during my journey.

It's difficult to convey just how gorgeous this game can be simply through images alone, as this takes on an entirely new state when you are surrounded by such an immaculate world that can be fully explored. Until now, open world games have always had some sort of compromise, but Forbidden West is the first game of this scale to truly leave me in awe. I played entirely in "Favour Resolution" mode and experienced no issues with poor performance or loss of graphical fidelity. When paired with a large OLED TV, this is a visual experience like none other thanks to its distinct art design, vibrant colours, and unmatched attention-to-detail.


Audio


Returning to score the soundtrack to Forbidden West is Joris de Man, who is accompanied by the angelic vocals of Julie Elven whose voice carries throughout both games. In collaboration with several other artists including Oleksa Lozowchuk (Dead Rising) and a musical duo known as The Flight (Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, Oddyssey, Alien: Isolation). The sheer amount of musical talent collaborating on a single piece of media can definitely be heard in many of the game's tracks, which take upon a distinct musical style but still manage to sound varied and unique. Here are a select few that I've chosen to represent the overall sound and feel of Forbidden West:

My favourite track in the game, "These Stones Unturned", features solo woodwind carrying a powerful and haunting melody.


Like an aged cheddar, mature and strong; Aloy's theme returns with new tribal percussion and futuristic synth.


Commanding prowess over the mechanical, Built to Kill represents Regalla's indominable strength in battle.


The vocal track "In the Flood" acts as the centrepiece of the soundtrack, playing during the game's key moments.


In addition to a stellar soundtrack, the game's audio design is of an equally high quality. As there is an astounding amount of voice acting, with every piece of NPC dialogue being fully voiced, this is thankfully done with a voice cast of varied culture and race, accurately representing the variety of people who inhabit the lands. At times the amount of dialogue can become excessive and drag on, but this tedium is no result of the voice actors, who do an incredible job in their emotive delivery, particularly key characters like Aloy (Ashly Burch), Varl (John MacMillan), Kotallo (Noshir Dalal) and Zo (Erica Luttrell). It would be easy to skip sections of dialogue simply due to their length and sometimes inane ramblings, but personally I found them worthwhile simply to listen to the voice acting and admire the facial animations.


Extras


As mentioned earlier, there is a heap of additional completely optional content for completionists or players who desire games with a high hour played:dollar spent ratio. A quick glance at the game's map will give you the perfect example of just how much is on offer across this vast expanse: bases to liberate, drones to capture, ancient fragments to piece together, ruins to delve into, and a large library of fearsome creatures to encounter. Where the main story itself could take anywhere from 40 - 60 hours to complete, full completion will easily see most players investing ~100 hours before they can truly claim to have conquered the Forbidden West.

Horizon Forbidden West Map Side Quests
Every single spot on the map offers something new to discover.

My personal favourite part of the game that had nothing to do with the gameplay itself was the photo mode, which is easy to use and take some stunning in-game photography. Simple controls and settings mean any player is likely to get some enjoyment out it, and I actually used it to capture the majority of the images used in this review. There are so many moments of the game that are truly wallpaper-worthy, so being able to immediately capture that and play around with lighting/focus is the perfect means of showing off the game's incredible visuals.

Horizon Forbidden West Photo Mode Zen Aloy Sunset
Take some time to enjoy the photo mode and capture some zen moments.

Lastly, the game takes inspiration from many other popular open world titles (e.g. The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Fallout: New Vegas) and includes a completely optional boardgame where players can collect new pieces as they progress through the story. Machine Strike is basically a simplified Fire Emblem, where pieces on a grid take turns attacking each other one player at a time. I played a few matches and found it to be simple enough, but not engaging enough to keep me coming back for more. This is likely one for the completionists, but the regular player likely won't have much motivation to play too many Machine Strike matches.


Conclusion


So does Forbidden West achieve anything astonishing or ground-breaking to distance itself from its predecessor or other open world games of similar scale? Not quite. But what it does well, it does so flawlessly. Immersing the player in an immaculate living world is a visual marvel that can only be described as breath-taking - having spent 50+ hours in the game's captivating environments leaves me only wanting more. Minor frustrations during platforming and combat, while irksome and an interruption to the flow of gameplay, pale in comparison to the sheer amount of quality content on offer in Forbidden West.


Where Zero Dawn has established the series on a sturdy foundation, Forbidden West builds upon it in almost every single way possible. Guerrilla have undoubtedly crafted one of the most engrossing open worlds ever made and my time exploring the Forbidden West leaves me eager to discover what else waits beyond the horizon for this compelling series.


So, why should you play it?

  • One of the most compelling and engrossing open worlds to date

  • Impressive visual style and graphical attention-to-detail

  • Huge amount of content to keep players entertained

  • Engaging side-quests helps the world feel more genuine

  • Superb soundtrack with a distinct futuristic yet tribal flare

  • Boss fights against huge mechanical beasts are exhilarating

But why shouldn't you play it?

  • Platforming can occasionally be frustrating and imprecise

  • Melee combat feels tacked on and mostly pointless (excuse the pun)

  • Some players may lose motivation due to the game's length (50 - 60 hours)

A review code was kindly provided by Sony Australia for the purpose of this review. All footage was captured on PlayStation 5.

 

Written by

Ben 'Qualbert' Schuster

Ben is a game reviewer and collector with a passion for the Australian games industry. His favourite game is Ōkami and he spends most of his time playing JRPGs and indie games. You can read more of his reviews and retrospective articles at qualbert.com