For a brand new franchise, sequel games, like Horizon Forbidden West, always hold more weight than any other release that comes after. Was the first game a fluke? Was the initial entry to the series a one-hit-wonder that the sequel could never replicate?
For Horizon Forbidden West, the same scrutiny is present, and the Sony-based franchise is put to the test to prove that the Horizon name can be far more than a single release. Guerilla Games was aware of the watchful eye that follows a sequel to any slice of entertainment, and they made sure to deliver in more ways than one.
Horizon Zero Dawn was praised by critics and players alike for the unique themes of the game, accompanied by stellar gameplay. In true sequel fashion, Horizon Forbidden West manages to maintain those qualities that we all loved before on top of adding a crisp next-generation layer of polish that's so refreshing in the gaming industry.
Aloy's story continues in Horizon Forbidden West
One of the best aspects of Horizon Zero Dawn was the story of Aloy and the world in which she lives. Not only is the human level of the story a compelling narrative worthy of watching on its own, but the world is what makes the Horizon games so unique.
The games occur in a post-post-apocalypse, which means the world effectively ended, went through a period of decay, and restarted anew. In the first game, it is up to Aloy and the player to discover what that means.
Machines have nearly no explanation, and neither does the period. People seem to be based on primal living, but they also carry tech and live among machines that surpass ourselves. That mystery is one of the main reasons the first game is so compelling. I point this out because Horizon Forbidden West is missing much of that same mystery.
In the sequel game, players are thrown immediately into a mission to find a copy of GAIA because there is a spreading blight around the globe. Hades has also not been entirely killed, so Aloy must figure that out within the first couple hours of the game.
Unlike the first game, the story wastes no time as players jump into the west. Of course, the plot becomes about far more than blight or even Hades, especially with one of the major plot points revealed later in Aloy's quest.
While some mystery remains, Horizon Forbidden West never quite reaches that level of intrigue that the first game has. It's a challenging hurdle to jump over, but it is inherently part of releasing any sequel, depending on the next story.
Aloy still has plenty of character development, and the antagonists are solid, so the story itself is still worth investing in, especially in terms of the humans who existed before.
The tribes that live in the world are also fleshed out and add far more lore to the game. Much of the overall intrigue may be missing, but there are many exciting stories to explore, and the main quest is worth watching on its own.
Next-generation technology in Horizon Forbidden West
As soon as the game began, I was blown away by the graphics in Horizon Forbidden West on the PlayStation 5. This game is truly a next-generation release, and nearly every corner of the game is a desktop wallpaper. The lighting is incredible, the facial animations are far better than they were in Horizon Zero Dawn if eye contact isn't included, the particle effects are always present, and textures are crisper than ever.
Heading to the top of any mountain peak and simply looking out is a treat on its own. Land can be seen for miles with different biomes in full view, and even machines like the Tallnecks walking around like beacons.
When games have such fantastic draw distance and detail, it's easy to get immersed and drawn into the potential exploration available, especially with the amazing soundtrack that plays throughout the game. Detail and biome diversity offers so much for the art, variety of the game, and the machine types that exist.
But beyond even the graphics and the art, the most impressive feat was the polish. Every player's experience will vary, but I faced next to no bugs. In fact, the game, in my experience, could be compared to the state of many games a year after their initial release.
Some of the bugs I did run into included enemies getting stuck in rocks or textures not loading at a far distance. However, they were few and far between in about 70 hours, and fast traveling always fixed a bug I ran into.
I was convinced that the polish would only hold up for the first quarter of the game, but as each hour passed, the exact amount of time and careful consideration that went into Horizon Forbidden West was apparent.
Improved gameplay that matches an experienced Aloy in Horizon Forbidden West
Horizon Forbidden West is aware that it's a sequel as soon as it begins. Aloy is older and more experienced, especially after saving the world, so it wouldn't make sense to give her the same skills to earn again. Players will begin the game with overrides, concentration skills, and melee abilities. From there, Aloy can expand on far more capabilities that weren't available before.
In general, much of the same gameplay exists, but it's all improved. Climbing is no longer linear and is semi-free. Aloy can use a scanner that highlights climbing points, including an entire mountainside. Even the focus has two functions; one that allows players to read lore and highlight machines just like the previous game, and another that works as a ping system much like other action RPGs.
As for the combat, every facet is improved, just like the basic systems. All weapons have multiple active skills called weapon techniques, melee combat is full of combos, and even riding machines are more streamlined to fit the control scheme.
Aloy even gets access to all kinds of ultimate abilities called Valor Surges that add another layer to the combat. The mix of new skills and additional weapons makes the game far more exciting.
On top of the new additions, what already made Horizon great in the first place still exists. A handful of elemental ammo have different effects on top of the ammo types themselves.
Machines still have their attacks and machine parts that make each fight unique. New weapons like the Shredder Gauntlet, a device that bounces razor discs off enemies for players to catch, add a new layer to the game beyond simply shooting parts.
The only aspect of the combat that felt like a step backward was the evasion. Though it may sound small, evasion is part of every combat encounter. In Horizon Forbidden West, the evasion is limited to two rolls by default. After that, Aloy will roll, but she will stumble and nearly fall.
There is also no longer dodge like there was in the first game. This leads to some incredibly frustrating fights when there are multiple machines involved. Evasion can increase if players find it annoying enough to look for new armor skills.
Combat in Forbidden West is otherwise fantastic, and all of the new additions only make it better. Encounters feel more imaginative and challenging while also keeping fun as the main idea. However, the progression in the game can get a bit murky.
Progression expanded far beyond Zero Dawn
Overall, the progression in Horizon Forbidden West is excellent, but the system is not without issues. Much of the progression process is tied to skills and equipment. Either players are investing skill points into one of the six trees or getting better weapons and armor. Both of the time, these options add a ton of incentive and excitement, but sometimes it slogs.
It's easy to run into roadblocks for progression in terms of power, especially if players like to explore. XP can give plenty of skill points, but most of those points are used for passives and abilities, none of which are tied to damage and defense.
Those raw stats can take a long time to increase, especially with how vendors are spread out. The system works overall, and I was always engaged, but the level and equipment can be completely different.
Aside from equipment progression, there is map progression. That means new special gear that allows access around the west and the map itself. Special gear is one of the game's true stars, and some of that gear includes a glider and a grappling hook.
Those items have essentially become ingrained in the gameplay and are a welcome addition to the game. Some equipment is unlocked much later in the game, and it keeps the map engaging throughout.
Bigger and better machines in Horizon Forbidden West
At the end of the day, machines are one of the defining aspects of the first game, and the sequel is no different. Machines are back and better than ever. Favorites from the first game have returned, but there are a ton of new additions that far exceed the Zero Dawn release.
Much of the time, I found myself comparing the new monsters to a hunt in Monster Hunter. Many of them are imposing beasts with unique move sets and plenty of parts to collect. Like Monster Hunter quests, Aloy needs plenty of machine parts, and focusing on destroying rare parts on a machine is an integral part of the game.
Even the human combat aspect of the game is entirely improved over the original game. Human AI will dodge and react to what Aloy attempts, and rebel leaders will wield different weapons that change the fight's pace. They also offer their own rewards storylines for players to pursue around the map.
Gathering parts and looking for new fights was one of the main drivers in exploration. Every biome on the map had a new challenge for me to take on, and each battle was more fun than the last. Horizon Forbidden West is almost like Monster Hunter's western RPG cousin when it comes to combat, and it nails the concept entirely.
Aloy's main journey may be behind me now, but I'll still be playing for weeks, and anyone with a PlayStation 5 should as well. Guerilla Games has proven that the Horizon name should easily communicate with games like God of War. It's a must-have title for any fan of action RPGs.
There are some flaws, such as a less exciting story, but they are nothing compared to everything within the game. The map is incredibly diverse and full of gameplay opportunities. Combat and progression are improved far beyond Zero Dawn for endless hours of fun.
Even the story is still worthy of recognition without that same level of intrigue as before. Games that are released with this amount of improvement and polish over the first game are rare. 2022 is shaping up to be a competitive year, and it won't surprise me if Horizon Forbidden West is one of the leading contenders for the game of the year.
Horizon Forbidden West
Reviewed On: PlayStation 5 (Early access provided by Sony)
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5
Developer: Guerilla Games
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment