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Horizon Forbidden West

Platform(s): PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Guerrilla Games
Release Date: Feb. 18, 2022

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In-Depth PS5 Review - 'Horizon: Forbidden West'

by Redmond Carolipio on April 18, 2022 @ 12:45 a.m. PDT

Horizon Forbidden West continues Aloy's story as she moves west to a far-future America to brave a majestic, but dangerous frontier where she’ll face awe-inspiring machines and mysterious new threats.

Buy Horizon: Forbidden West

I've spent about 30 hours buried in the lands of Horizon: Forbidden West. I've climbed mountains in the cold, swam underwater and gazed at the remains of submerged Las Vegas, watched Aloy wipe the sweat off her brow in the desert and in a lush tropical setting near the coastline. I'm relatively fresh off fighting the game's final boss, voiced by a sci-fi legend (did I really just fight and defeat Trinity, for crying out loud?), and I'm spending my endgame reverie helping people, watching Aloy, the series' hero, basically become the friendly neighborhood warrior.

Horizon: Forbidden West is a marvelous achievement on many levels, but it stood out most to me as the vehicle for Aloy's ascension into Sony's pantheon of heroes, along with Kratos, Ratchet & Clank and Nathan Drake. There's something about the second game of a Sony series that vaults both hero and franchise into critical and popular stratospheres: I look at God of War 2 and Uncharted 2 as a couple of the best Sony games ever made. It's fair to say HFW has firmly cemented any of Aloy's future exploits on the PS5 and beyond into event releases, whenever they happen.


That doesn't mean HFW is perfect. This is a "deep dive" after all, which at its essence, means picking apart some things, even if we love them. Our guy Chris "Atom" DeAngelus went pretty deep himself for our initial review of Horizon: Forbidden West, so the plan here is to examine a few pillars of the game and serve as a second pair of eyes. Plus, there's no need to really repeat ourselves. Let's jump in.

Storytelling
So, is Aloy a paragon? It depends on whether you think Luke Skywalker-type characters who have had nothing-to-something rises to prominence in their own sagas fit the description. In Horizon Zero Dawn, players witnessed Aloy's beginning as a confused and ostracized member of her own tribe, either frightening or angering people she encountered. As she grew in her understanding of the machine-populated future around her, she also grew in confidence and power, establishing the core tenets of her belief system and personality — a ferocious, single-minded focus (not Focus, which we'll get to later) on whatever the task is at hand, capable of analytical, emotional and pragmatic approaches to every situation except romance and pure bullshit, neither of which she seems to have much time for. No one seemed ready to know it yet, but Aloy was a hero in the making. Guerrilla Games' narrative shaping of Aloy into that main-event character in her first game was expertly done, especially when it was revealed that she is the clone of the actual person who helped make this entire world happen. It's one of the great story twists I've seen, futuristic logic be damned.

In HFW, Aloy is now a brand. Depending on which region of the vast map she finds herself in, the people have a nickname for her: The Savior or Meridian. The Living Ancestor. Champion. The Outlander. To her credit, Aloy prefers to be just known by her name — but that humility and single-mindedness is a kernel of one of her major personality flaws, which is her steadfast belief she is truly the only one who can handle what's happening and what needs to be done. It's not mean-spirited or arrogant, but it is a self-imposed, lonely hero complex that gets somewhat indelicately and annoyingly handled in the early portion of the main quest. I like how it adds some shadow to her otherwise glowing ethos, but it also means she's willing to ghost her friends when they offer help to the point of being illogical (poor Varl) and puts her in near-impossible situations that didn't need to be near-impossible.


What softens the blow, however, is how smart and capable of growth and self-awareness she is. There is a humanity to her that shows in every main mission, side-quest and dialogue choice. It lets the player know she is still growing and is taking on a lot, handling everything as well as expected for someone in her early 20s who's being charged with saving the world. It's also very cool to occasionally see her embrace her status at the baddest on the block when it's warranted. In one early mission in the community of Chainscrape, a local thug on the wrong end of a corruption scandal threatens Aloy and members of the community with physical violence in front of everyone. The dialogue option wheel arrived, and I picked the one with the fist next to it, which is almost always Aloy's I-don't-have-time-for-this-crap response. Aloy stepped to the guy in all her "Savior of Meridian" swagger and said, "You sure you want to do that? You know who I am. You think some Oseram lunkhead can stop me?" The guy froze, paused and said, "I have … four guys!" … words that barely register in the presence of someone who has decimated armies and hunts Thunderjaws for parts. He leaves.

That interaction aside, the best intrinsic aspect of the HFW experience has been other people. As she spans the vastness of the Forbidden West, Aloy not only encounters a wealth of small civilizations and cultures (I guess the west is not that forbidden) but eventually learns to let more people into her struggle, giving them Focuses (foci?) and the ability to learn the science and history of the world the way she did. Thankfully, the characters who comprise her squad are written to be intelligent and open to learning instead of simple folk who fear the glowing words and shapes in front of them. Aloy is the red straw that stirs the game's narrative drink, but her friends make it a varied, rich cocktail worth consuming. I picked up a bit of a Mass Effect vibe, as Aloy was capable of having deep conversations with each member of her team in her lair, only to find that some of them have their own personal missions and side-quests.

Unlike Mass Effect, their fates aren't decided on whether you exhaust every conversational and mission option with them, but it allows one to invest in Aloy's friends even further, as they, in turn, enrich and color Aloy's character arc. Bonding with them felt essential; I didn't mind helping Kotallo, a member of the Tenakth warrior tribe, track down the means to build him a new arm, since his original one was lost in battle against rebels. Or witnessing Varl grow as Aloy's first real, surviving friend. Or fighting with Erend, the loyal Oseram soldier. Or speaking with Zo, a member of the Utaru, a tribe mostly in-tune with nature who calls the machines "land gods" and eventually becomes the equivalent of head researcher for Aloy's band of friends. You eventually learn to pull for all of them.


Friends need enemies to fight, and I was intrigued by HFW's stable of antagonists, all of whom reinforce the theory that in postapocalyptic circumstances, it is often the people who remain who are much worse than the zombies, vampires, or in this case, killer robo-creatures that populate whatever's left of the Earth. Yes, the malicious program Hades is still present, as is Sylens, who feels like the enigmatic Merlin of this world to Aloy's Arthur.

But the greater imprint is left by the members of Far Zenith, a group of world's wealthy and powerful elite who used technology to escape the end of the world via starship and keep themselves alive and invincible for centuries, only to return and attempt to "rebuild" the planet in their image by trying to tear it down again. I hated these people, and you probably will, too.

With one exception, the Far Zenith leadership is a near-caricature of everything one could possibly dislike about elitism, corporate wealth and upscale power. Their leader is Gerard, a typical arrogant super-CEO, and his muscle is Erik, a private ex-military meathead who has a bloodlust for violence and talking way too much during combat. The third, and the exception (not by much), was Tilda van der Meer, who has something of a conscience and has the most layers as a character. I liked how she is the one who shines more light on Aloy's ancestral past, offering tidbits about Elisabet Sobeck and how they used to be romantically involved. She's the closest, tangible tie that Aloy has to Sobeck, and it's here where Aloy's straight-ahead approach works best for her mentally, instead of getting swept under by a wave of conflicted emotions.

Through character encounters, exploration and lore, HFW gives the player a deep, breathing narrative world that makes the eventual payoff and ending that's truly satisfying.


Combat/Gameplay
It's here where one can see the most "new stuff" within the game, and it's also one of the cornerstones of the Horizon experience. However, the game has a bit of a rocky start, as it has a clumsy explanation of why Aloy is practically back to square one in terms of her items and abilities from the first game. She inconveniently "lost most of her gear" in her travels before this game's story, so it's a little frustrating to know that the Aloy one built to level 50 for dozens of hours through DLCs — even finding the shield-tech suit — is practically gone forever and needs to be built back up again. You can explain away perhaps the loss of special items but maybe not the loss of skills, unless she was practically ambushed, left for dead and had to relearn how to fight again in time for the sequel. I liked rebuilding her, but this bugged me.

Aloy, even limited, still comes across as a warrior goddess and grows to have a near-overabundance of weapons and tools to take down humans and machines alike. What subtly helps is the game's overall off-center perspective, which puts Aloy at one side of the screen and leaves plenty of room for viewing, either of the splendid scenery, multiple targets, or the triggered weapon wheel that slows down time by a touch, allowing Aloy to select her weapon or craft ammo on the fly. Actually, Aloy can be something of a time lord in battle: not only does bringing up the weapon wheel slow down things, but Aloy still retains the ability to trigger "concentration" via a thumbstick click, which also slows down time to allow Aloy to line up the ideal shot against a machine's multiple weak points. Hours of fighting in HFW took a somewhat cyclical tone, same as in Zero Dawn: encounter monsters, slow things down as much as possible, survive and advance, salvage pieces. It always looks very cool; it's like using a bow-and-arrow in "The Matrix" each time, but after days of playing, it can occasionally get tedious and I would imagine, annoying to watch (and hear) all the time.

Breaking up some of that monotony are new weapons. You've heard about the shotgun-style Boltcaster and disc-throwing gauntlet that makes you feel a little like Tron, but my favorite of the new weapons is the spike thrower, which basically enables Aloy to throw powerful javelins. I had too much fun with this. Using this, Aloy transforms from being Hawkeye or Katniss Everdeen to Achilles, forcefully hurling pointed, accurate doom at whatever target she deems necessary. I've been running around doing side missions carrying a "legendary" spike thrower called the Skykiller. It can blow things up. I don't feel the need to say much more about it.


I greatly appreciate the improvements and extra facets to melee combat. In the previous game, Aloy's spear attacks and hand-to-hand fighting abilities almost felt like window dressing. Now melee is an integrated part of her battle package, specifically her ability to blend in an array of new combos with her arsenal of special attacks. There's a real sense of back-and-forth when figuring out the best time and place for some CQC that didn't quite exist before, which makes things like critical attacks and enemy knockdowns feel more complete. One of Aloy's "Valor Surge '' special attacks adds extra punch to her spear, enough so that there were moments when I felt like another Sony hero who specialized in up-close melee combat and killing monsters. Doesn't have as much hair as Aloy, though. However, Kratos could block.

I don't know why, with everything else she can do, Aloy can't block. I'm not saying she needs to be able to shake off a charging Rollerback (one of several outstanding new machines), but why can't she deflect or parry if someone's swinging a sword at her? Aloy's ability to dodge and roll are fine defensively, but it always felt strange when some cultist would take a regular swing at Aloy and she would have to dive out of the way when she has a perfectly usable machine-killing, world-saving bladed spear on her. If you can make room for Aloy to glide through the air from on high, you can make room for her to at least raise her weapon a few inches in front of her face.

Traversal around the Forbidden West is also a standout feature, thanks to some new tools that add a dimension of verticality. One is the Pullcaster, the quick-release grappling hook that Aloy can use to latch on to climbing points when she's scaling structures, mountains or anything else. She can also use it to pull things toward her, such as more jumpable points, or open new passageways. This becomes essential in some core areas of the game and can offer a sort of Tomb Raider-ish feel of exploration, if not light platforming. I've already mentioned the paraglider, which also can be a bit of fun if you're entering a town or approaching a zone of enemies … or, trying to land on a Tallneck, a towering and relatively harmless machine holdover from Zero Dawn that can be hacked for map information.


Aloy's Focus takes on a much greater role, which I enjoyed for the most part. Like BB in Death Stranding, the Focus can now point out where Aloy can climb using a textured gridwork of yellow and red x's and lines. It can also mark tracks, same as before, and help Aloy zero in on things like movable objects or even possible points of entry. It also has much faster functionality as a scouting tool against the machines, especially when it comes to pointing out what elemental weaponry most affects them.

However, one of the most seismic additions is the ability to override a Sunwing and ride it. In other words, yeah, you can fly. This shows up much later in the game, but it is worth the wait. Not only does it give you practically full ownership of the map, but it can lead to some amazing flexibility in your approach. Picture flying toward a rebel camp, jumping off the Sunwing and gliding into the area, taking care of business, then jumping and grappling back onto your Sunwing and flying off. In moments like that, Aloy is Batman. That's pretty damn cool.

Horizon: Forbidden West also takes Aloy underwater, which adds yet another vast dimension of exploration for those of us who want to hunt for goodies. It's a necessity during some quests, but the memory that stands out happens when Aloy searches for one of Zero Dawn's main functions in what used to be Las Vegas, parts of which are drowning in the depths. There's a feeling of saddened majesty during that mission if you read the lore and stay clued into the dialogue, but the sheer vision of the submerged remains of a once-vibrant city is a morbid treat for the eyes — one of many stunning images the game brings to you.


Final mentions
It's hard to overstate how pretty this game is, and I won't burn too many words trying to tell you about it. It's the best-looking game thus far you'll see on the PS5. In some ways, it might be almost too visually rich, as Aloy had this strange technical habit of seeing important, specific things and calling them out before I could adjust to the splendor. "That's where I should go," she'd say, and I wouldn't know where. Or, "I can grab onto that," and I wouldn't be able to catch it amid all the other finely detailed scenery. Also, for all of the progression made toward Aloy being able to go practically anywhere, climbing can still feel somewhat choppy. It's not like Assassin's Creed or Uncharted, where Kassandra or whoever could just grab onto anything and start climbing, or where Nate has a clear path and flow. There are some places Aloy can't grab onto, but it's not 100 percent clear why, and that inconsistency can lead to some odd falls or stumbles.

Small gaffes aside, Horizon: Forbidden West is everything I'd hoped for from the first game — and a lot more. It's a beautiful piece of work that deserves all the time a PS4 or PS5 owner can give it. It's a must-have in any game library and should be at or near the front of your rotation.

Score: 8.9/10




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