In Burning Shores, the major new downloadable content drop for PS5 flagship Horizon Forbidden West, our hero Aloy is given an expansive archipelago to explore while pursuing yet another threat to the people of her post-post-apocalyptic Earth.
But you might want to skip said exploration and barrel through to face that threat instead, because these shores are strangely sparse.
Set almost immediately after the end of Forbidden West, the new content kicks off immediately with a call from Sylens (a small appearance, sadly: don’t expect a grand send-off for the late Lance Reddick): it turns out there was another Zenith everyone conveniently forgot to mention in the main game, the Elon-esque asteroid entrepreneur Walter Londra, and he’s up in what once was Los Angeles causing all sorts of trouble.
Londra is a fun foil, and his mining wealth, dodgy rockets, estranged celebrity wife, and compulsive need for adoration make him Horizon’s least subtle satirical nod yet, and all the more enjoyable for it.
The problems start the moment you stray from the beaten path, because there isn’t all that much to be found elsewhere.
There’s promise as you first reach the Burning Shores, where rivers of lava meet the Pacific in clouds of steam and smoke, while in the distance L.A. landmarks like the Hollywood sign or Griffith Observatory are re-imagined for Horizon’s millennia of degradation.
The problem is that, in true L.A. fashion, this beauty is only skin deep.
Let’s take the titular flames for starters. Yes, the lava looks great and adds atmosphere, but aside from one brief stretch of the game’s Cauldron sub-dungeon it doesn’t really do anything. Considering the game is named after it, it’s strange that the geological activity feels like an afterthought, a late addition that never really adds to this corner of the Horizon universe.
There are only three meaningful side quests to take on, and only one of those – a welcome return of Gildun, the enthusiastically incompetent Oseram delver from the first game’s Frozen Wilds DLC – delivers on its potential.
Beyond those three mini narratives, you also get a trio of collectable sets to pick up, though they’d be easy to pass by entirely, with no evidence outside of the game’s achievement list that they exist at all until you stumble onto the first of each set.
Matters are made worse by the Wind Waker problem: Aloy can explore the dotted islands via flying mounts or a new boat, but both methods are clunky, slow, and utterly devoid of any interest along the way. Traversing the main game’s deserts and mountains by foot gives you threats to navigate as you go – here the travel is little more than a chance to check your phone until you can unlock more fast travel checkpoints.
The islands that make up most of the map are many but not varied, and strangely sparse. I wandered every inch of one larger landmass to find it only contained a single generic item chest and one lore entry, both positioned together out in the open. There was no puzzle, no mystery, and not even any machines to fight to get there.
More machines are to be found elsewhere around the map, but since there’s nothing for them to defend, and you’ll probably just fly over or sail around them most of the time anyway, you’ll likely find yourself content to leave them be.
There are a couple new machines to mix things up, but not many. Setting aside an aquatic spin on the existing Sunwing mount, the main addition is the Bilegut, an acid-spewing frog that spawns buzzing Stingspawn drones as it goes. These are fun to fight (though the Bilegut’s near-undodgeable leaping attack is less so) but I kept waiting for the game to add something else new and, final boss aside, it simply never came.
Aloy is equipped with a few new skills and attack options, though these are mostly lost in the clutter of Forbidden West’s already over-crowded combat system. Best of the bunch is a new Grapple Strike attack that launches you at downed robots from afar, though the game’s single new weapon – for which I won’t spoil the surprise – is also great fun once you get it.
The lack of depth is a particular shame here because the main questline is among the series’ best, mostly thanks to the DLC’s new companion character Seyka. A Quen marine who enlists Aloy to help track down some missing scouts, she’s the first character in any of the games to feel like Aloy’s equal, holding her own both in combat and as the plot plays out.
Just as importantly, she brings out a better side of our protagonist. Aloy spent most of Forbidden West a haughty, superior saviour, more annoyed by people she’s supposedly saving than anything else. Seyka helps to return Aloy’s human side, and the game is all the better for it.
Burning Shores ultimately suffers in part thanks to the sheer strength of Frozen Wilds back in 2017. An unusually meaty expansion, it expanded Horizon Zero Dawn’s world and mechanics admirably, and its frosted setting felt both fresh and surprisingly fleshed out.
If there’s an upside to Guerilla Games’ approach here, is that they have trimmed some of Forbidden West’s fat in this add-on, helping the easily distractible to keep their focus on the meat of the adventure. A little bit of that energy wouldn’t go amiss whenever the series’ third entry drops, but it would be welcome to have a little more to chew on than this.
Horizon Forbidden West: Burning Shores is out now on Playstation 5.