When it comes to releasing sequels to successful video games, designers have an interesting choice. On the one hand, how can they take the popular elements of the first game and develop and build on them? On the other, how far should the game move in new directions to keep it fresh, exciting, and attractive to a broader audience?
Horizon: Forbidden West has been long-awaited, and manages to balance expansion and evolution. Protagonist Aloy is on a compelling new adventure into the West, a journey that will please most new players and avid fans.
Wild Wild West
Forbidden West takes players back to the dystopian future Earth of the first game. After technologies run amok and end humanity as we know it, life is reborn. Survivors of the apocalypse live in tribes and try to rebuild a new society. Aloy, who formerly saved her tribe from the destructive machinations of HADES, finds herself called upon once again to save the world. This time from a mysterious plague that is ravaging all forms of life.
It can be difficult to continue raising the stakes and scale of narratives across a series of games. There are only so many times that designers can announce yet another apocalyptic threat. In Horizon, the drama is suitably amplified by allowing the player to voyage beyond the smaller map of the first game. It introduces a vaster, more varied world. Deserts, jungles, and oceans show the widespread nature of destruction caused by the mysterious disease.
The story is notably more complex, building on the past game. Thank goodness for the recap cutscene at the beginning to reintegrate us into the Horizon universe! This new chapter maintains pace and drama, introducing an array of surprising twists and turns on the concept. Terrifying new clans? Check. Revelations about the past? Check.
And Then A Hero Comes Along
The brilliant Ashley Burch returns to play Aloy, one of Sony’s flagship characters. And she continues to prove that she is one of the best-developed characters in modern gaming. At once brave, feisty, curious, empathetic, Aloy is now a more all-rounded hero – more sure-footed than the first game and very hard not to like. When she is afraid of the impending doom that faces her people, so too is the player.
Joined by a huge cast of colourful characters, including some fan favourites from the first game, Aloy fights alongside her companions this time around, creating a clan of hunters who can battle and complete missions together. This addition brings a real sense of energy to fights as the player works together with members of the clan to take down mighty robotic beasts. The AI characters may not make much of a dent in enemies, but they do make Aloy’s warrior prowess look all the more impressive. Taking down a robot is always a blast.
What’s That Coming Over A Hill?
And oh - the towering juggernauts of Horizon Forbidden West do not disappoint. Not only is there the return of the first game species, but a myriad of new monsters who join the party. The previous title focused on cool designs, like robotic tyrannosaurs and diplodocus. The follow up has a lot more fun with the creatures you come up against. Kangaroos, anteaters, chimpanzees, cobras… And is there anything cooler than voyaging across the map on the back of a robotic raptor? Of course there isn’t.
It's a real pleasure to roam through the open world of Forbidden West. The choice to set the game against a more concrete backdrop – a future Western America where San Francisco is a rainforest and Las Vegas is a flooded underwater grotto – makes the game feel grounded in reality. Locations feel more alive this time around. The map is densely populated with tribal villages, sunken caverns, dense thickets, and winding mines. At every turn, there is someone to meet and something to do. The side missions develop world building to show the complexities of survival from every conceivable angle.
Above And Below
Playing on a next-gen console, Horizon Forbidden West not only boasts the best graphics of any game I have played on the Playstation 5, but the gameplay is also ramped up. Aloy controls beautifully, with a fluidity in battles that makes these central fights feel like you are riding on the edge of your seat. Navigation is further improved through the provision of new key items. A hookshot allows you to scale high ledges. A sunwing glider that sends you plummeting from mountain-tops. A diving mask takes you deep to the bottom of the ocean.
There aren’t only more ways to explore, but more ways to gear up for a fight. If it was fun knocking machine parts from monsters using a bow and arrow in the first game, now you're decked out with a whole array of different weapons. Stuff like rattling blasters, exploding spears, and projectile slingshots. The emphasis on elemental variations of machines brings in the further challenge of planning for fights. You've got to find the right weapon, the right ammo, and the right strategy to take down a boss. I had fun experimenting and trying each new gadget out.
Evolution or Extension
I really enjoyed my time with Horizon: Forbidden West, and it is undeniably a marked improvement on the first game. All around, it feels bigger and better, offering more of what players love combined with gameplay improvements that bring a lot of fun to the mix. On the whole, the designers have played it safe with these changes – they exemplify the best of modern gaming tropes rather than innovating.
However, that final package is so polished, so carefully assembled, and with such an eye for detail, that it is hard not to smile as you play. You can’t escape the love and care that have been put into the design. Guerilla may not have hugely innovated, but they have produced a world that you want to lose yourself in, with an unforgettable story and gameplay that always feels exciting and challenging. Even one hundred hours in, I’m ready to turn my console back on and return to my journey with Aloy – and I look forward to seeing how the series will develop next with a future chapter hopefully on the Horizon.