Half a decade after her first adventure, Aloy returns as the only person with the system admin privileges to save the world in Horizon Forbidden West. This time the magic bullet lies further afield, far beyond the Nora Sacred Land and the Carja Sundom – though bigger, badder machines and data corruption are the least of the red-haired huntress’ problems as she heads west.
The land is being ravaged by storms and plagued by a suffocating blight. The people living out west amid all this are the Tenakth, a huge tribe split into smaller clans, all with different ideas about what their future should look like. Aloy’s allies in the Carja Sundom, which borders Tenakth territory, are quick to condemn them, saying they’re bloodthirsty and aggressive, though naturally the reality is more complicated.
For a start, the Red Raids waged by the Carja’s most recently deceased despot are still fresh in the minds of many out west. For another, the allegiance between the smaller Tenakth clans is strained by a rebel splinter group, and with all that in mind it’s no wonder they’re broadly wary of outsiders. This is the landscape Aloy finds herself traipsing through in search of a way to soft reboot the world.
It's a large and visceral world and even though Sony has managed to get this ambition sandbox working on a PS4, it's the PS5 version that you'll want. Read our PS5 review for exactly why Sony's console remains a great console, two years from release. Also, read our guide to the best games consoles for more choice and how guide to the best PS5 games for more adventures. (Horizon Forbidden West has been nominated in the BAFTA Games Awards 2023.)
Horizon Forbidden West review: go west
2017’s Horizon Zero Dawn ended on an unexpected but not entirely unwelcome sequel hook. Aloy had already proved herself to the community she desperately wanted to be a part of and even averted an artificial mass extinction event – how the story would extend beyond these neatly concluded arcs was a big question mark. The Frozen Wilds DLC demonstrated there was plenty more of this post-apocalyptic world to explore but still raised the question of what form another full-game adventure would take.
For better and worse, Horizon Forbidden West’s answer to this is largely ‘More of the same.’ Make no mistake, this is an especially shiny sequel but rather than a full system upgrade, it feels closer to an odd-numbered version release. To be clear, Horizon Forbidden West goes to great lengths to smooth out many of Horizon Zero Dawn’s awkward kinks.
The 2017 title’s rougher edges have been sanded down in the memories of many of us, and it feels odd to revisit its strict climbing routes or incidental cutscenes full of stiff talking heads. Suffice to say, Horizon Forbidden West reworks these sticking points and much more besides bringing Horizon’s reality more in line with our fond but foggy recollections.
Speaking of improvements, rock climbing is far freer this time. You’re no longer required to follow a trail of chalk – instead a quick pulse from your Focus on reveals an augmented reality overlay that highlights handholds and overhangs so you can shimmy across almost everywhere you look. It’s a smart bit of UI, even if the act of climbing itself still occasionally feels a bit wonky.
At the best of times, Aloy will clamber smoothly up a rock face with little nudging required from you. At other times, she’ll pause on a handhold and you won’t know why she can’t just reach up for the next one, forcing you to reroute around the offending crag. That said, it’s still a darn sight slicker than Zero Dawn’s free soloing.
But you aren’t just going up, up, and away – you explore new depths too. For a start, rather than losing hard-won loot in any puddle deeper than two inches, you can now dive in and retrieve it, not to mention hoover up any other surprises lying beneath the water’s surface.
Horizon Forbidden West review: water world
Underwater exploration is one of the big introductions, with waterlogged caverns, sunken cities, and other sights you can soak in for as long as Aloy can hold her breath. Her onscreen breath meter is fairly generous, letting you see plenty of what lies below while drawing you to the surface at regular intervals. That said, even after crafting the diving mask midway through the story, underwater exploration feels less like a confident freestyle and more like a doggy paddle.
It’s not always easy to predict how Aloy will move underwater, which can be frustrating if you’re desperately trying to resurface or, later on, avoid detection. There’s no combat beneath the water but that doesn’t stop aquatic machinery from getting a bit cheeky and occasionally taking a swipe at you. This necessitates regular intervals of nestling yourself between the floating fronds of stealth kelp (no, really – that’s what it’s called).
In water there’s no opportunity for a Silent Strike or an Override and, even though you can still carry these out on dry land, stealth remains fairly one-note there too. You almost always have the opportunity to stalk your quarry but the combat system is once again far more interested in ensuring Aloy charges headfirst into battle.
It remains hugely satisfying to lop off bits of the mechanical animals that still walk the earth, so much so that you’ll probably seek out fights more often than you avoid them. You’re still slaughtering potentially endangered, non-mechanical wildlife too in the name of upgrading your ever-expanding arsenal, but the main event is and always has been machine combat.
This sequel pits you against brand-new mechanised beasties of impressive scale, making for fights that demand you engage with every tool at your disposal. Exploiting elemental weaknesses, littering the battlefield with traps, and doing your best to tie down a thrashing machine all add up to the sense of another hard-won victory when you win.
The story keeps mechanical encounters fresh by switching up the staging; you go from arena fights to being surrounded by both human and mechanical enemies on all sides to holding down the fort in the face of an oncoming siege. One-on-one bouts with humans who have a few more strings to their bow are also sprinkled throughout, but they never manage to upstage the headline act of machine combat.
But fighting is not without its frustrations. For a start, you can’t dodge roll endlessly (sorry, speedrunners) and some sweeping boss attacks are particularly difficult to avoid, especially as Aloy steadies herself every few rolls. You’re incentivised to tie the big boys down but beefier opponents will shrug off your ropecaster like it’s nothing, making for the occasional encounter that ultimately leaves me thankful for the on-the-fly adjustability of the difficulty settings.
You can spend all your battle-hardened experience on skills across multiple trees, each with new special moves called Valor Surges locked behind certain upgrades. You build up Valor by hitting enemies’ weak points – or getting walloped yourself with the right unlocks.
Once you’ve got enough juice in the purple tank, you can pull off a variety of these equippable special moves. All the Valor Surges are flashily animated, offering both powerful attacks and various buffs in the heat of battle. However, triggering one seldom feels impactful despite their slick presentation, and pausing mid-fight to watch a snazzy animation is totally out of step with Horizon’s established flow of action.
Horizon Forbidden West review: seek and destroy
But you aren’t spending all your time tying down mechanical Tyrannosaurs and hoovering up parts for crafting - though you definitely do that a lot of the time. As in Horizon Zero Dawn, whenever you like Aloy can pelt happily away in the opposite direction from any main story beat.
Besides stumbling upon interesting little side-quests, settlements, errands, combat challenges, and much more besides, the sights all around you steal the show as you head further west. The people are where much of the art department’s efforts shine through though. Every digital actor is adorned with machine part cast-offs, body paint, and garments woven from plant fibres in costumes that make for a textural, visual feast.
Even bit-part characters boast impressive threads and heavy use of performance capture throughout brings to life even the most incidental cutscene or out-of-the-way settlement. The only letdown is the occasional actor’s performance betraying the fact they’re definitely not actually wearing that heavy chest piece. That aside, Horizon Forbidden West is truly a looker – especially at 60fps on PS5.
Environments are realised in a similarly detailed fashion, varying from familiar forests to white sand coastlines, and everything in between. Clamber up a craggy ridge and the summit will more often than not treat you to a vista you’ll want to get lost in. In the vein of more recent open worlds, you can now lob yourself from a peak and glide safely downwards thanks to the new Shieldwing gadget. As pleasant as it is to watch the world pass by below, Horizon Forbidden West’s world doesn’t have quite enough dizzying peaks to make the most of it.
As in Horizon Zero Dawn, you can net yourself a mechanical mount with a well-placed Override. However, unlike in the 2017 game, it’s nowhere near as easy to freely summon a mount, so you’re likely to spend a fair amount of time running along on your own two feet. On the one hand, this rightfully ensures the world around you takes centre-stage though, on the other, it feels like a step backwards – that is, until your traversal options open up in a big way during the endgame.
Horizon Forbidden West review: stuck in the past
While I'm skirting spoilers, let’s talk about the story. Mercifully, the days of waiting patiently for the latest dump of exposition-by-hologram to wrap up are behind us. Unfortunately, Horizon Forbidden West refuses to let go of the world before to the ultimate detriment of its story.
I won’t spoil it but even though Aloy averted the tail end of the Old World’s disaster in Horizon Zero Dawn, Horizon Forbidden West decides that the past is always closer than you think. The exact direction it chooses to go with this move away from Horizon Zero Dawn’s more grounded science-fiction sensibilities in favour of a poorly executed science-fantasy angle.
The present post-apocalypse isn’t wholly sidelined, though. I've mentioned the various clans and groups that make up the Tenakth but there are plenty more people living out west. For a start, there are the Utaru, who revere the natural cycle of life, and then there are the Quen, who travelled from across the sea in the pursuit of knowledge about their Old-World forebears.
Unfortunately, the world-building offered by acquainting yourself with these tribes feels reminiscent of a lesser Young Adult novel from ten years ago. That is to say, a lot of the tribes’ characterisation is surface-level and aesthetic, lacking any compelling specificity. ‘These guys like plants, those guys are a technocratic oligarchy, but let’s move on.’ It also doesn’t help that Aloy’s own attitude can veer towards being too busy saving the world to properly engage with people’s differing cultural customs.
This isn’t the tale Horizon Forbidden West wants to tell about Aloy, though. To begin with, it looks like the story of our heroine grappling with her newfound place in the world, but she stops voicing her discomfort whenever someone calls her ‘The Saviour of Meridian’ fairly early on.
It then appears to be a good old-fashioned recitation of learning to let people in and to accept help from others, but this conflict wraps itself up midway through in a largely unsatisfying fashion – though you do get a snazzy base-slash-hangout spot for you and all the friends you make along the way. But while there are plenty of opportunities to get to know your new pals, much of this takes the form of optional trees of dialogue rather than anything dovetailed into the main story.
Flashpoints where you pick a ‘brain’, ‘heart’, or ‘fist’ response return to allow you to shape Aloy’s character – allegedly – but they ultimately don’t have that much bearing on how the story unfolds. Horizon Forbidden West seems to want to have it both ways, employing both player choice and authored character beats that don’t amount to a satisfying whole in Aloy’s characterisation.
Ashly Burch’s performance is what connects some of the dots, making the most of everything she’s given and hinting at depths the writing doesn’t touch. Burch’s scenes opposite Lance Reddick, himself returning to the role of uneasy ally Sylens, are some of the early hours’ best.
But generally speaking, who Aloy is now and why she’s so committed to saving the world once again gets lost in the telling. As we’re left with yet another sequel hook, we wonder what it was all for. Horizon Forbidden West impresses as an all-new PS5 release but the series definitely loses its way as it reaches for the top.
This article first appeared in Play Magazine issue 12. You can subscribe to the print edition, digital version, or save even more with the print/digital bundle – whatever you choose, you’ll be receiving an unprecedented trove of dedicated PlayStation coverage every month.