I have really struggled with how to handle this Horizon: Forbidden West review. On the one hand, I do understand that it is the sequel to a game that a lot of people loved (a lot), and that this game delivers what the masses want. It’s a hugely expensive game that is, objectively, bigger and better than its predecessor, and so, if you are one of the people that loved the original Horizon, then scroll on down to the score. That’s there for you, and let’s face it, that’s all you actually care about. If you were interested in playing a creative, artful, or different game right at this moment, then you wouldn’t be considering purchasing Horizon: Forbidden West.
I do think it’s important to acknowledge that Sony and Guerilla are just suppling the content the consumers demand, and on that level, it’s hard to fault the game. The world is massive and it will take many hours to travel it all. The protagonist, Aloy, is a “progressive” power fantasy, representing the tough individualism and saviour complex that western audiences, in particular, just love. Her story is the kind of manufactured “emotional” tale that most players will relate to on some level, and therefore you’re going to hear “profound” or “deep” a lot when people talk about this game. They felt something therefore it must be powerful. The game plays as smoothly as you would expect for something that cost this much to make, and the production values are exactly the kind of utterly homogenised ultra-realism that gets the box sales blistering along. Credit must go where credit is due: the developer set out to make a big blockbuster thing that will draw near-universal praise and appeal to everyone with a PlayStation (and, no doubt, later on the PC), and the team has achieved that. The score at the bottom is for that, for anyone that does read beyond this paragraph and wonder.
I think Horizon: Forbidden West is terrible. That’s reflective of the industry as a whole and the way the game panders to what passes for popular culture in gaming, though. It wouldn’t have mattered how well this game was made, it’s the concept of the thing I have an issue with, and not its execution. These criticisms broadly apply to the entire blockbuster end of the industry, though, so, again, I struggle to hold any of this against Horizon in itself, but nonetheless, here I go:
Horizon is big to its detriment, and that’s being as droll and understated as I can possibly be. I distinctly remember going through the ridiculously long and overblown introduction, only to be told that my quest is now starting. Only, it wasn’t. Not really. I arrived at the game’s main destination, spent hours puttering around with missions and side quests, and then fought in a spectacular set piece, and which point I was then told that I was now in a “no man’s land” and the “forbidden west,” my actual destination, was still a ways away. So I got Aloy to work in the no man’s land, and, at around the 20-hour mark, pulled out the map to check on a quest. It was at that point that it really struck me; the bit of the world fog that I’d actually cleared was barely more than a dot on the overall thing. I’d rouged away some edges on it, but the real part of my quest hadn’t even started. I was already exhausted with this thing, and I hadn’t even started. Now, is it possible that you could clear things faster by simply rushing through the main quest and ignoring the distractions? Yes, sure, especially on the easier difficulties where experience levels aren’t such an issue. But if that’s the case, why put side quests and other things in there if not to enhance the experience? As I would eventually realise, it’s all just content and none of it builds the story or Aloy’s character meaningfully, but I persisted for far too long because, as always with these open-world things, I have a compulsive need to clear off the quest list.
The sheer size of the world and the mundane nature of so much of what you do within it really detracts from Horizon in two ways that deeply matter to me, as a person that enjoys a good narrative first and foremost and would rather games support the narrative than the other way around. Firstly, the distance between story beats, both literal and figurative (in terms of how frequently you get distracted by side tasks), is absolutely massive. That first 20 or so hours of the game drums into you just how much of an urgent quest Aloy is on – the entire world is at risk from environmental destruction! – but she sure seems happy to go on little scrap-hunting missions for random people on a whim. And then you do get to the next story beat and Aloy’s again forcing on everyone that her task is so urgent that it all has to happen right now. The pacing is horrendous and thematically broken from what this game is meant to be impressing on players. Secondly, because there is so much padding, and so much raw content, the rewards don’t feel anywhere near worth the work. You’ll spend half an hour making your way through an elaborate sci-fi vault quest, solving environmental puzzles and fighting boss encounters, and the reward will be the ability to take control of enemies that are so weak that by the time you get to that vault, their support in battle doesn’t assist you in any meaningful way. You’ll clear out bandit camps and the treasure will be yet more piles of stuff when you’ve already got a horde so big it would make a Tolkien dragon jealous. Yes, I do understand that the game is calling to mind the western epics of yesteryear in its expanses and spaces, but do you know how western directors conveyed that? With gorgeous shots of the expanse. What Sergio Leone never did was force you to watch his “heroes” walking around for five hours and collect random bits of rock between each person that they spoke to.
Again, none of the above is exclusive to Horizon. All modern open world games do this. But because developers are so incentivised to create games of endless scale and content, they end up compromising whatever thematic strengths their games might have otherwise offered the player and I felt that this was particularly egregious with Horizon. If Horizon were a largely linear game of 20 or so hours that really pushed on the player the urgency of it all, it could have been a spectacular rollercoaster ride. You only need to look at the linear and eventful “tutorial” to realise that this, built out to an entire game, would have worked really well for Horizon’s popcorn apocalypse.
Unfortunately I can’t talk too much about the narrative specifics, due to spoiler concerns and the like. I would argue that there’s nothing in here that counts as a “spoiler,” as they’re really just plot points, but we live in an era when people complain about commercials being “spoiled” and character reveals somehow being a dramatic thing, so I’m not going to push on that. What I can say is that I really don’t care for Aloy as a protagonist. She’s become a Jesus-like figure at this point (people that she was around for events in the last game call her, literally, “saviour”), and that’s irritating enough, but even beyond her messiah complex, there’s such a strong streak of individualism that runs through this game that makes her a frustrating character to deal with. At points you’ll get to choose between three “moral responses” to events or conversations, and while they don’t really affect how events play out, they help to shape Aloy as a character. Or that’s what they’re meant to do. For the most part, the choices you get range somewhere between “f*** you, I’ll do what I want to, and I don’t need you” and “I know you feel sad, but f*** you, I’ll do what I want to, and I don’t need you.” It’s clear why the writers went this route: this is meant to be in service of Aloy being the independent and fierce protector of the earth, and it establishes her as the power fantasy hero. Plenty of other people love Aloy, but I found her – as I find most power fantasy heroes – very shallow and uninteresting as a protagonist. This is especially true with Aloy since she just doesn’t shut up. For dozens, nay, hundreds of hours, I listened to her observe every blade of grass that she saw in front of her.
With all of that said, I must admit that I did genuinely enjoy the button-pressing stuff. What I like about Horizon is the flexibility that it offers through its gameplay. On the lower difficulty settings, you can scoot through, feeling pretty amazing at how good you are at dismantling massive robots with a hail of arrows and some close-combat button mashing. On the higher difficulty levels, you’re encouraged to survey the terrain, carefully set up traps, use the environment, and then rely on a broad range of skills that Aloy accumulates. The developers also do a great job of balancing a levelling system that offers many different ways to specialise your character, and a gameplay system that isn’t too numbers-intensive and, when the fights break out, it’s a visceral action game rather than an “RPG” as such. There’s also some good balancing work done so that, no matter how many of the side quests you do, you’re never too far behind or ahead of where you should be at the next key narrative mission. Every open world game needs a board game mini-game these days, too, and Horizon’s is particularly good fun. I’d buy a physical edition of this.
I have deep and irresolvable issues with Horizon: Forbidden West, and it largely boils down to the game being an empty blockbuster that will chew up a lot of your time, but not do anything meaningful with it. However, that’s all Horizon ever wanted to be and criticising Horizon for not being a great work of art is like criticising a reality television dance show for not being ballet. For what it is, Horizon is impeccable. Most importantly, it builds on the success of the first game in a way that I am quite certain that those who loved Aloy and her first quest will find even more to love about this one.
– Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb