Horizon Forbidden West review for PS5, PS4

Platform: PS5
Also On: PS4
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment
Developer: Guerilla
Medium: Digital/Disc
Players: 1
Online: None

Horizon Zero Dawn was without question one of the most memorable and generation-defining, original first party releases for the PS4. Back in early 2017 Guerilla struck gold with an interesting concept, a unique post-apocalyptic setting, an addicting open world gameplay loop and a terrific new protagonist all wrapped up in a stylish and very pretty bow. The one and only DLC expansion, The Frozen Wilds, also did a great job connecting more of the narrative dots and extending the experience for several more hours. So here we are around 5 whole years later with access to a new generation of PlayStation hardware and finally a chance to continue the epic Horizon adventure.

Horizon Forbidden West essentially kicks off right after the events of Zero Dawn and The Frozen Wilds, so I?d say a little knowledge of what went down previously would be useful before diving in. Forbidden West does recap a little bit through conversations with NPCs and whatnot but it?s not quite the same as playing through it. Either way, Horizon Forbidden West checks nearly all the boxes that you would expect for an open world sequel; It?s bigger, better and even more beautiful, although it sometimes feels a bit too familiar to spite the new western far-future North American location.

The last time we met Aloy she saved the Earth from imminent disaster by helping gain control and shut down the automated HADES AI and corrupt machines that were set to essentially extinguish life, terraform the entire planet and start over. But it was clear from the ending of Zero Dawn that there were still questions left unanswered and some forces at play that would require Aloy (now known as the “Savior of Meridian”) to head to the far west coast to deal with. And that?s where Forbidden West picks up — although to complicate matters there are warring tribes, a toxic blight affecting crops and living organisms, fearsome new mechanical creatures, challenging environments, unpredictable storms and weather events, and worst of all, nefarious political motivations!

Horizon Forbidden West takes the third-person action/RPG adventure label very literally. The experience is very much an adventure from start to finish with massive environments, detailed settlements and cities, and a lot of opportunity to explore every nook and cranny — from the highest mountain top, down to the lowest subterranean cavern. Right from the start Aloy has learned a few new tricks and obtained new gear, and is (in theory) even more capable of finding her way through the various new biomes.

With the new setting brings a few familiar creatures and many new ones, both organic and mechanical. Aloy?s primary piece of offensive equipment is of course her trademark bow and spear combo and it doesn?t take long to have an inventory of additional weaponry and gear with crafting/upgrade options, skill trees, and merchants. To spite there not being an obvious reason why (story-wise) you do not begin Forbidden West with much of the top tier equipment and abilities that Aloy may have acquired towards the end of the previous game, getting back to that point seems to happen a lot more quickly in Forbidden West. Players who have spent dozens of hours with the first Horizon title will definitely notice muscle memory kick in when the combat action heats up, even if the full repertoire of moves and gear is lacking at the very start.

Narratively, Horizon Forbidden West does take its time getting into the serious reasoning for Aloy heading out for another grand adventure to save the world. Being an open world adventure game there?s always a lot to see and do and starting players off gradually isn?t always a bad thing, though at the start of the game the pace seems to be slower than it needs to be and the stakes not as momentous as one would expect. So even before the proper “Forbidden West” is unlocked and available to explore, there?s a few hours of distractions and other activities mixed in with the story-driven questline.

As expected, Horizon Forbidden West features quite a lot of fantastic dialog and voice acting all across the board, regardless if players are speaking to a minor side quest character or a mainline NPC — emphasis on “a lot”. Aloy is a lot less timid dealing with other characters as compared to where she started in Zero Dawn, and with her earned confidence she certainly doesn?t take crap from anyone — which is awesome. She still maintains a pretty regular, audible inner monologue to assist players in her observations, sometimes subtly, other times obviously. Knowing all the work put into the conversations I sometimes felt bad jumping through the more long-winded dialog more quickly than intended, but the world isn’t going to save itself apparently.

The gameplay loop, which worked extremely well in the original Horizon, is very familiar here and to anyone who has played an open world game in the past decade. As Aloy heads out west and knocks off main and side missions the map becomes more visible with points of interest dotting the map very quickly after finding your first Longneck machine tower to climb. It?s not difficult, technically, to stay on the story path thanks to how the quest system and menus are designed, but that doesn?t mean you won?t be tempted to seek out opportunities to acquire better gear, skill points, salvageable items, new machine sites, campfires, settlement locations and hidden caches. The ability to create ad-hoc quests based on crafting or upgrade requirements is still a great quality-of-life touch.

So speaking of skills, Aloy has an almost overwhelming amount of skill trees to work through in Forbidden West which are more-or-less organized by gameplay category. Players can go all in on stealth, combat (long-range or close-up), machine taming, trap-building, healing and whatnot, though you?re not locked into any single discipline so it?s doubtful that most won?t spread their points out all over the place for a more balanced build. Each tree also offers special unlockable abilities (only one of which can be active at a time) that can be triggered during gameplay and utilizes a new Valor meter which can be built up by taking down enemies. With the right abilities unlocked and a particular set of gear and accessories equipped it?s definitely possible to go all in on a certain type of build which best complements a player’s gameplay style or a specific scenario. So as compared to Zero Dawn there’s even more customization options, from head to toe.

There’s a lot of strategy when tasked with navigating an environment of powerful mechanical creatures, and when seemingly overmatched, stealth is still the way to go. Hiding in tall foliage, inspecting and tracking a creature and then performing a silent attack/takedown is honestly sometimes too easy. Even with few stealth abilities unlocked, Aloy can sneak to within mere inches of an enemy and either kill or severely incapacitate them without much effort. It doesn’t work for all new machines, especially the airborne or more unpredictable ones, so it’s definitely not foolproof. Of course when presented with the much larger variety of machine, more strategic targeted or elemental attacks, traps, trip lines and the such are required.

It?s difficult to go this far into a review and not dig into the gorgeous visuals that Guerilla have crafted for Horizon Forbidden West. The game is absolutely dense with detail almost to the point where navigating one of the more lush biomes can become challenging without relying on Aloy’s focus gadget/ability to investigate the area for lurking machines or well hidden treasure boxes and pathways. This review is specific to the PS5 version and there?s no doubt that it?s one of the best looking open world-style titles on the platform (as the original was on the PS4). The immense draw distance, lighting and effects, character models, texturing, animation, and the subtle details applied all throughout really goes a long way in bringing life to the vast open world.

After putting quite a few hours into the graphical modes available in Forbidden West (on a 65? 4K HDR capable display), I end up greatly preferring the Performance mode?s smoother, near 60fps framerate over the crisper, more detailed (and default) 4K Resolution mode. Switching back and forth on the fly, the sometimes chaotic, fast paced battles with the need to pick off certain machine parts with a well aimed arrow, while in motion even, puts it over the top as my preferred experience. The game looks stunning and runs well in either mode to be honest, so it really comes down to personal preference. For those wondering, the DualSense controller?s haptic feedback, Adaptive Triggers and integrated audio features are put to good use during gameplay too. One thing always worth mentioning in open world next-generation games is the lightning quick load times thanks to the SSD. Reloading from a checkpoint or fast traveling to an unlocked campfire in just a couple of seconds improves the experience enormously.

Compared to its predecessor, Horizon Forbidden West is a bigger experience in every way, and there are hours and hours of gameplay to be found throughout the adventure. Picking up right after the first game, once all the cards are seemingly on the table, it tells a great story and has more than enough content and satisfying gameplay to keep us completionists very busy. Beyond just the story, it?s the RPG elements that really help tie the whole package together. Knocking out quests, hunting down creatures and taking on various activities will earn Aloy some XP, which directly translates into improved overall abilities and skill points which are used for unlocking even more new techniques. It?s not suitable to just hunt down and eliminate a mechanical beast, the style in which they are dispatched and incapacitated also provides bonuses in terms of XP and precious salvageable items.

So all-in-all, Horizon Forbidden West is a very satisfying, extremely impressive if somewhat predictable sequel, to one of the best original titles of last generation. It’s a showcase for the PS5 platform (and not exactly a slouch on the original PS4 and PS4 Pro amazingly), and definitely worth the price of admission. We’re not sure if there is another proper Horizon title on Sony’s roadmap though we’re eagerly watching Horizon VR: Call of the Mountain for the upcoming PlayStation VR2.

Note: Sony Interactive Entertainment provided us with a Horizon Forbidden West PS5 code for review purposes.

Grade: A-