It took 15 hours, but I finally love Horizon: Forbidden West
Horizon: Forbidden West is the much anticipated sequel to the critically acclaimed 2017 hit Horizon: Zero Dawn. It follows Aloy as she embarks on a journey to save a post-apocalyptic solarpunk Earth from yet another global extinction, navigating a world rife with intelligent robotic animals and diverse human factions. With an overwhelming positive reception, Forbidden West improves upon its predecessor in gameplay, story, and level design. But forewarning: before you can experience all the wonders of this game, you have to endure a rough start. It wasn’t until I hit the 15 hour mark that my PS4 controller became glued to my hands. Forbidden West is an investment, but one that absolutely pays off.
HOURS 0 to 14
Returning the Horizon franchise was like rekindling an old flame; a slow-burn on a low simmer, a spark that was always there but that needed to be stoked again to bring to life.
The first hurdle pops up through the narrative. Forbidden West had the difficult challenge of returning players to the admittedly convoluted storyline of the first game. The main plot of Zero Dawn took nearly 30 hours to complete, and with almost five years in between games, many players only vaguely remembered what Aloy’s objective was. Forbidden West tries to refresh your memory, but the attempt is painfully over-expository. Meanwhile, it throws character after character at you (from a game with nearly 100 named characters) and expects you to remember who they are, what their purpose in the first game was, and what their relationship with Aloy is. (The last one is pretty easy. Hint: They’re probably in love with Aloy, and she remains completely disinterested.) As a result, it’s hard to get invested. Early game quests feel like a chore and staying on top of relevant lore becomes homework.
The second hurdle was an even bigger problem: the gameplay. Just like its predecessor, Forbidden West is a fun game. When I booted it up for the first time, I couldn’t wait to launch into combat and platforming. But even with faint muscle memory, Forbidden West gameplay is complicated.
It seems like a steep learning curve is a staple for the series, seeing as Zero Dawn also presented a challenge to its players. The issue is amplified in Forbidden West as it introduces several new game mechanics, such as Valor Surges and tools like the pullcaster and Shieldwing Glider.
In Forbidden West, tutorials are thrown at you in rapid succession with little time to digest the importance of them. No sooner are you given two different weapons and five different abilities are you thrust into high intensity combat. The series loves teaching through trial by fire, which left me falling back on the tried and true method of frantic button smashing. I’m not opposed to Forbidden West presenting a challenge; in fact, it succeeds immensely in creating a dynamic difficulty. But the overabundance of information is overwhelming, and often led to me completely erasing useful tactics from my memory, just to make room for the bare minimum needed to survive.
The Turning Point: HOUR 15 (and beyond)
And then, suddenly, what felt like mediocrity became a must play that I couldn’t put down. The catalysts? A shift in the main plot, and the introduction of boss battles.
The first main story quest lines failed to hook me; the conflict felt empty, even when I was told the world was ending. I didn’t feel the urgency, despite the game’s insistence that I should. Then BAM! The second act begins with the quests “The Dying Lands” and “The Eye of the Earth.” The narrative steps back from the less interesting, newly introduced human factions, and instead centers itself around the AIs from the first game. As these AI functions — based on the Greek pantheon — were both incredibly interesting and formidable foes in Zero Dawn, their integration adds an undeniable gravitas that was lacking before. I completed them thinking, “Oh shit, we have to do something about this!” I reentered the world I had already spent 15 hours in with a renewed energy and newfound excitement.
Now devoted to the plot, I could appreciate all the ways Forbidden West succeeds. For starters, the combat is super engaging. I needed a breather period to learn the controls, but once I persevered through those trials by fire, I realized how useful the tools and tactics are.
Forbidden West rewards you for being smart and creative rather than relying on brute force. While the first game similarly encouraged stealth and unique approaches to a problem, Forbidden West increases the possibilities through new gadgets and skills. Take the pullcaster, for example, which acts as a more dynamic grapple hook. With it, Aloy can latch onto a ledge and launch herself to seemingly inaccessible locations, which makes platforming more fluid and akin to a Spider-Man game. The pullcaster also comes in handy in solving puzzles, of which there are many, as well as several other functions. The tool pairs well with the brand new Shieldwing Glider. Use the pullcaster to platform Aloy to a mountain peak, then enjoy a pleasant glide to the bottom of the valley with the glider.
Nowhere does the combat shine more than in the Horizon series’ greatest strength: boss battles. There’s nothing like cresting a hill and seeing a mighty Thunderjaw stalk its territory, steeling my nerves as I settle into tall brush and study my enemy’s weak points. I feel goosebumps jump across my skin as I land the first blow and hear the combat music grow to a crescendo. I’m on the edge of my seat as I narrowly avoid a barrage of attacks, healing when I can, and leaping right back into the fight. The challenge brings immeasurable gratification when I finally deliver the fatal blow, watching sparks fly as this massive metal beast hits the ground with a thud.
Where the narrative and combat needed time for love to flourish, one aspect of Forbidden West was golden from the start: Aloy, the exceptional protagonist. For a single-player game, it’s crucial that the character we play as is someone we want to spend time with. Aloy is that character. She is what kept me coming back, even when I had my doubts about the rest of the game. Seeing a female lead fulfill the lovable lone wolf role, especially when many other video game franchises are still hesitant to feature female protagonists, is so refreshing. There is a lot to explore with her character. It seems developer Guerrilla Games knew this as, in addition to the main plot of averting global catastrophe, Forbidden West focuses heavily on Aloy’s internal conflict. She is a recovering misanthrope with a heavy burden on her shoulders, motivated by her genuine compassion for all life on this new terraformed Earth. We empathize with her, and want to see her succeed.
Horizon: Forbidden West is not easy to pick up. Steep learning curves and a complicated narrative may turn away many players. But for those that stick it out, there’s endless love to be found in the gameplay, plot, and protagonist. Forbidden West is a commitment, and like any worthwhile relationship, it takes time and work. And if you dedicate yourself to it, Forbidden West proves to be deserving of your devotion.