‘Horizon Forbidden West’ review: Aloy goes West

Rage against the machines

Horizon Forbidden West is probably the prettiest game I’ve ever played. A game isn’t good or bad based on how it looks, but I’ve spent more time thinking about the vibrant environments of Forbidden West than any other aspect of the game over the last two weeks.

It was the world of Horizon Zero Dawn that drew me in when the original game launched in 2017 and it’s true of Forbidden West too. Horizon is set in a future world after a cataclysm that pretty much destroyed humanity. Thousands of years after this, a civilisation has emerged that’s a mix between the prehistoric and the futuristic, especially in the form of main character Aloy who – with her high-tech wearable – straddles both worlds.

Your enemies are the local wildlife and rival tribes, but that wildlife is largely mechanical, cable-sinewed metal monsters that resemble a mix of animals, dinosaurs and straight-up mythical creatures. They also spew acid, fire and electricity, meaning you’ll often see giant chrome boars that vomit up acid, a giant snake – which also spews acid – and my personal favourite, a weird dragon-looking thing with a lower jaw made of chainsaws. You’ll fight through these with a series of weapons that mix old and new, meaning you’ll mostly be leathering stuff with a spear, but the spear has wi-fi connectivity.

Everyone living in this new world is fairly used to the lethal robots charging around the place, and is just kind of getting on with things, and exploring the way society is keeping on is one of the more fascinating parts of Forbidden West. Forbidden West makes the smart move of sending Aloy out to the big scary – and titular – forbidden West, meaning there’s a whole bunch of new cultures to interact with and explore.

But really, Forbidden West’s biggest strength is Aloy. Aloy is one of the most popular people in known civilisation after saving the entire world during the events of Zero Dawn, a long way from the recluse she was at the start

She’s gregarious, friendly and totally ill-at-ease with the newfound adoration of most of the east. Most of the established characters in the game are furious at Aloy for ducking out of her own celebratory party after this first game, and while most of them want to help her with her newfound task of saving the world again, she steadfast refuses help from anyone, despite the fact she’s clearly haunted by the task, her world and her role as the savior of humanity. Again.

Nailing this narrative is a core part of why Forbidden West is so engaging, because it’s a tapestry that elevates the rest of the game, crucial because, really, Forbidden West would be a fairly middling open-world game if it wasn’t so much fun to pull at threads in the game. Even better, Guerilla Games know that it is busywork and takes a leaf out of Assassin’s Creed’s playbook, giving you meaningful rewards for every single quest, whether it’s a weapon to launch explosive javelins or just a handful of skill points to explore the game’s expansive skill trees. This combination will have many players meandering from task to task like they have a kink for being praised by NPC quest givers, and rest assured the game is constantly chucking stuff at you, whether it’s an armful of fetch quests, fighting a combat trainer or just upgrading your gear.

Special shout out for Forbidden West’s own in-game title, Strike. This is a board game with collectible pieces but Sony is clearly hoping will scratch a similar itch to The Witcher’s own Gwent and, it’s actually quite engaging, playing out like a low-level tactical strategy game that’s a nice distraction from all of that stabbing robots with a spear stuff.

Sadly, Forbidden West is at its weakest when you’re actually playing it. The moment-to-moment gameplay riffs on Monster Hunter as you aim for weak spots and try to shear off armour and components so you can get better loot. It’s an engaging loop, but the actual combat feels imprecise and messy and it can often feel clumsy trying to dodge attacks. Aloy also spends a lot of time with her bow, but that feels imprecise in combat too.

You can sidestep this by just getting really into the game’s stealth system. Attacks from stealth with the spear are generous with the timing and positioning, meaning even if a robot sees you as you’re crouch-running towards them, you often have time to slide across the ground towards them and get the stealth attack off before they can warn anyone else. Bow attacks from stealth are also a breeze and as you get more powerful throughout the game, these stealth attacks can disable most enemy’s powerful weapons or abilities before a fight even starts. After all, the fire-boar can’t spray lava over you if his tank has already exploded, blowing away most of his armour, right?

This does get mitigated later on and the combat gets more engaging as you have more tools to dish out the damage, but until you nail your flow for combat no one is going to blame you for letting out an audible sigh, and that clunkiness remains no matter what you’re packing in your bag of tricks.

Platforming can also be a little clumsy. The previous game’s obsession with daubing everything you can interact with in the game with bright yellow Aloy-brand climbing paint has continued here, and it’s a real shame as finding a route becomes less about looking at a route and thinking about potential paths to the top and more about looking for that flash of yellow that will let you progress. The amount of handholding the game gives you oscillates from area to area, but it’s rare you’ll get through any jumping puzzle without at least a few yellow-marked handholds. It’s Forbidden West’s biggest party foul, and it’s a problem that persists throughout the game.

While in a dark hole, I tried to climb one of yellow-painted ladder rungs and it fell off, falling to the ground. The way up was blocked. I’d already managed to tear a hole in the roof earlier with the Pullcaster – which is basically a grapple hook – and I’d pulled a crate down into that hole. My brain was piecing together the idea of putting the crate against the wall to allow me to climb – a classic video game puzzle caper if there ever was one – when Aloy mused to herself “maybe I can use that crate I pulled down.” There had been probably just a handful of seconds between the rung falling from the sky and the voice line.

Ultimately, it means that Forbidden West feels a bit like going to a theme park but with a really grumpy older relative that keeps chastising you for wandering off. There’s joy in every direction, but you need to engage with that joy in the way that Guerilla wants, or not at all. Aloy’s constant verbalisations, the yellow climbing paint, it all grates. It feels weird to call it out, because I think most players would prefer a couple of hints to none at all, but I felt like Forbidden West was so keen to show me the way that I often didn’t get the joy of working something out for myself.

Still, the combination of the unique world, compelling narrative and the Monster Hunter-lite combat makes this more fun than the tide of open-world adventure games. There’s enough good stuff here to drown out the usual open-world exhaustion, and it’s pretty charming, too.

Horizon: Forbidden West will be available for PS4 and PS5 on 18 February. Our review was on the PS5 version.

The Verdict

Horizon Forbidden West is a competently made and fun action-adventure that channels Monster Hunter during its big boss encounters, and every Sony-made open-worlder during the gameplay. Still, there’s a reason these games are churned out each year. Forbidden West is stronger than its predecessor and rewards you for investing your time with a series of fun weapons, gadgets and narrative beats, but it still can’t resist getting in its own way.

Pros

  • Killer graphics
  • Engaging stealth
  • Guerilla has built an amazing world

Cons

  • Game never lets go of your hand
  • Clunky platforming
  • Combat isn’t as fun before you get all your trips
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