When Horizon Zero Dawn released back in 2017 for the PS4, it quickly became one of PlayStation’s big new IPs. This shouldn’t come as a surprise for players who played the game given its combination of exciting combat and memorable sci-fi story.
Finally, we have the long-awaited sequel with Horizon Forbidden West, a game that promises to expand on Zero Dawn. But is it successful in doing so? After all, there are many sequels that fail to live up to the original. Some sequels play it too safe, making for an experience that feels more like a retread. On the flip side, other sequels stray too far from what made the original great, to the detriment of its quality.
In many ways, Forbidden West doesn’t exactly evolve the formula of the first game all that much, it does expand the scope in terms of both combat and the open world to make it a worthy sequel.
Same Core Gameplay, but with Enhancements
When it comes to gameplay, Forbidden West plays mostly the same as Zero Dawn in that you mainly fight dangerous robotic creatures, and to defeat them, you’ll need to use your arsenal of (mostly ranged) weapons to hit their weak spots. To switch things up, you also get to face groups of human enemies, most of which you can stealthily take out or opt to face guns blazing (well, technically more like arrows blazing).
While this core combat system didn’t really change much, I did not find this to be an issue. This is because, in the time between the release of Zero Dawn and Forbidden West, there hasn’t been a game that captures this specific style of combat. Sure, there are lots of gamers where a bow is your main weapon (even PlayStation’s own Ghost of Tsushima arms you with a bow), but there’s no game that combines this focus on ranged combat against a variety of robotic creatures with unique weak spots and elemental weaknesses. Even though Forbidden West didn’t exactly revolutionize Zero Dawn’s combat system, it’s still on a class of its own.
That’s not to say Forbidden West’s combat is exactly the same. Developer Guerilla introduced a range of enhancements that gave the combat more depth. One such addition is the enhanced melee combat.
In Zero Dawn, players can hit enemies with either a light or a heavy melee attack which can be chained into simple combos. That’s the extent of the first game’s melee. But in Forbidden West, melee attacks have more combos, not to mention the ability to charge. Basically, when players hit enemies with a specific combo (like a Light-Light-Heavy attack), Aloy’s spear will get a charge. Once the spear is charged up, players can hit an enemy with a charged attack which not only deals damage to armor, but it can also open up a weak spot which, when hit, will deal massive damage. Players will need to master this system if they opt to fight human enemies straight-up instead of using stealth as a lot of human foes have armor that can be tough to pierce through with a bow.
Another addition is Weapon Skills. Each ranged weapon in Horizon Forbidden West has weapon abilities that you can use and switch between. For example, a long-ranged bow lets you notch up to three arrows (like in the first game), while a shorter-range weapon can fire a quick spread of elemental shots. This is an expansion of the previous abilities in Zero Dawn, but it does come at a price. These skills consume stamina which takes a bit of time to replenish. This means you can’t just spam skills, and you’ll have to be more mindful on when to use them.
Aside from Weapon Skills, Forbidden West also introduces Valor Surges. Think of these as sort of “ultimate abilities.” Beneath the stamina bar, you’ll see the Valor meter. You build this up by hitting enemy weak spots or getting damage. When it’s full, you can use activate your chosen Valor Surge. These Valor Surges can be acquired via the game’s skill tree. For example, there’s a Valor Surge that continually heals you while it’s active, while another gives you a sort of invisibility cloak to help you stealthily get through an area. You’ll need to unlock these Valor Surges with skill points though, and you can only equip one at a time.
To go along with these new skills, Forbidden West features a wider selection of weapons, giving you more options in combat. But with the addition of more weapons, Forbidden West also introduces new status effects, Acid and Plasma, to go along with the previous Fire, Frost, and Electric statuses. Because of these, you’ll have to be mindful of which weapons you choose for your loadout, especially considering the game’s wide range of enemies each have different elemental weaknesses.
You will also need to upgrade your weapons, and even your armor, as Forbidden West has a deeper upgrade system. In the game, you can upgrade your weapons, armor, and other items in workbenches which are found in camps and in major cities/outposts. Upgrading weapons increase their damage/effectiveness, as well as open up more coil slots (coils are used to give weapons/armor buffs). Though to upgrade, you will need specific machine or animal parts.
The upgrade system is a nice addition when it comes to adding depth to the game’s mechanics, though I have to say that it added a bit too much busywork. This is because, to upgrade weapons/armor, you’ll often need to hunt machines for specific parts. While this is great in the sense that you are rewarded for being methodical about your machine hunt, it can feel like it was made to pad a player’s gameplay time. But what’s worse than hunting for specific machine parts is that upgrades also sometime require hunting wild animals that are found throughout the open world. Hunting these don’t pose a challenge, but they are a hassle to find which can make upgrading feel dull at points.
Horizon Forbidden West’s upgrade system is one of my only real gripes when it comes to gameplay. Overall, the game’s combat is excellent even if it didn’t stray far from the established Zero Dawn formula. This is because of the enhanced combat features that were introduced, along with the wider enemy variety that you will face in the game’s expanded open world.
A Larger Open World
The Forbidden West spans the states of Utah, Nevada, and California; in fact, you can even see the remnants of the Golden Gate Bridge at a specific area in the open world. So, it goes without saying that Forbidden West’s open world is bigger (or at least seems to be) compared to Zero Dawn. This means you have more to do in this game, including more collectibles to gather and enemy camps/machine sites to take on.
While the game may not introduce anything groundbreaking to the open world genre, there are a range of improvements that make exploration easier. For starters, Fast Travel is now free when done between camps. While there are still consumable Fast Travel Packs so you can instantly fast travel, the fact that going between campfires is free makes travelling through the large open world easier. Then there’s the other minor improvements such as the stash where crafting items and other loot that you pick up get sent to when your item pack is full. This means you can keep collecting items in the overworld (such as Medicinal Berries for healing) so you have enough in stock for tougher enemy encounters. Plus, Aloy also has a new glider which lets her quickly cover large distances when atop mountains or other high places. This glider can even be useful in combat against certain enemies.
On top of these, climbing is also improved as you no longer have to seek yellow-marked spots to climb. Instead, most walls/cliffs can now be scaled, and you can figure out which can be climbed by scanning them with the Focus. While you can hold the R3 button to scan enemies much like in Zero Dawn, you can now press R3 for a quick scan in Forbidden West. This gives you an idea of what you can interact with in the environment, including scalable walls, as well as enemies that are nearby.
Another feature introduced in Forbidden West is swimming. In the game, Aloy can now swim underwater thanks to an item that you unlock in the mid-game which lets Aloy stay underwater indefinitely. This addition feels fresh at first, but given that you can’t engage in combat while underwater and have to rely on stealth when enemies are patrolling the depths, the game’s underwater portions can overstay their welcome.
The larger open world and the features that make travelling easier is a great combination, though even with these, some players may still find Forbidden West’s world to be a bit too large and filled with busywork. While the open world doesn’t feel empty, it can feel a bit too much at times, especially for completionists.
On the other hand, the larger open world comes with improved enemy variety, with Forbidden West having around double the machine varieties of Zero Dawn. This makes the game less repetitive as you won’t have to face off against the same machines over and over again. Plus, some of the new machine types offer distinct challenges that make them fun to hunt. On the flip side, the game also has more human enemy camps, but they’re still fairly easy to take on with stealth as the human foes are fairly dumb like in the first game.
Again, Horizon Forbidden West doesn’t set out to innovate the typical open world formula. Instead, it improves upon the Zero Dawn template by making the world bigger while being easier to explore. And the game does give you plenty of reason to explore. Not only are there lots of areas to discover, Forbidden West’s open world is also a beauty to behold, especially if you play on the PS5.
Impressive Tech Showcase
As a cross-gen title, some players might think that Horizon Forbidden West is just a glorified PS4 title. But that is not the case based on my time playing the game on the PS5.
Forbidden on PS5 may not seem too different from Zero Dawn on PS4 at first glance, but when you play it, you’ll easily be able to tell that this is a better-looking game than its predecessor. This is most apparent in the much-improved character models and animation. Even though I played on a bog-standard TV instead of a fancy 4K display, I noticed the enhanced amount of detail on the characters, especially on Aloy. In fact, you can even clearly see Aloy getting sweaty in hot environments or having her outfit covered in snow in mountainous areas. On top of this, the game’s facial animation is miles ahead of Zero Dawn; this is great to see given how janky the animation looked in the first game.
The icing on the cake is that Forbidden West performed smoothly on the PS5. While I wasn’t able to record actual framerate numbers, the game did perform at what I perceived to be a smooth 60FPS, with the only real slowdown being in certain situations such as changing the time in campsites.
To go along with the great performance of Forbidden West, the game also features haptic feedback and 3D Audio implementation on the PS5. For haptic feedback, the game has improved vibration using the DualSense controller, but not to the level of something like Astro’s Playroom. Meanwhile, 3D Audio (at least on headphones) is greatly implemented to the point of me needing to use it to pinpoint where offscreen enemies are in particularly chaotic fights.
My Horizon Forbidden West experience wasn’t perfect on the technical side though. I did experience some minor bugs and crashes, as well as some issues with certain side quests. Though none of these were game breaking, meaning I didn’t run into big enough issues during my playthrough.
When it comes to the technical side of things, Horizon Forbidden West is great overall, especially on the PS5. And while performance is a strong point of Forbidden West, the game’s worldbuilding and how it expands the Horizon universe is the key thing that makes the game a must-play.
A Triumph of Worldbuilding
Horizon Zero Dawn is already a great game when it came to how developed the lore was, but Forbidden West outdid it in this regard. In my time playing Forbidden West, I was floored by how well Guerilla was able to expand the game’s world, both in the main story quests and in the side missions. This compelled me to pour hours upon hours of my time in the game.
It’s tough to exactly explain why the worldbuilding is so impressive without spoiling anything. But to give you a comparison, when it comes to how well the history and the overall lore of Forbidden West, the series that comes to mind is the Mass Effect trilogy. While these aren’t comparable 1:1 even if they’re both sci-fi, in my opinion, Fobidden West’s lore depth gave me the same feeling of immersion as BioWare’s sci-fi RPG.
To complement the game’s incredible worldbuilding, Forbidden West also features a memorable cast of characters. If you loved Aloy in Zero Dawn, there’s even more to love here, especially when it comes to her dynamic with a new character (which I will not mention so as not to spoil you). The returning characters are also given time to shine thanks in large part to a new “home base” of sorts. Without getting into spoiler territory, this base lets you chat with your allies, giving the game a bit more life and character when you return for the story missions.
Speaking of story, Forbidden West is mostly good in this regard, but it does stumble in the third act. The first two acts were well-told and introduced a wealth of interesting lore. But in the third act, the game’s main story happens in such a rush that some plot points can feel underbaked. While playing through the game’s final act, I even got a sense that the developers ran out of time when it came to how the story concluded. Mind you, the story is still good overall, with the overarching plot points being logical even if you analyze it. But it’s just a shame that the third act wasn’t as satisfying as I would’ve hoped.
Even with the rushed third act, the story of Forbidden West is still the highlight of the game for me thanks in large part to how well it adds onto the already rich world and lore that was established in Horizon Zero Dawn.
Final Verdict – 9/10
Some game sequels fail to live up to the first game by playing it too safe, while other titles try to innovate a bit too much. In this regard, Horizon Forbidden West strikes a proper balance. The sequel to Zero Dawn plays mostly the same, but it does feature a deeper combat system and a wider open world that makes it more than just a retread of PlayStation’s 2017 hit.
On top of these, Forbidden West also runs like a dream on the PS5, making it a great showcase of PlayStation’s new console. But most importantly, players who loved the world introduced in the first Horizon will not be disappointed with Forbidden West. Sure, there are some things that could be improved, including the upgrade system along with the rushed third act, but overall, Horizon Forbidden West is a worthy sequel to Zero Dawn. This make the game well worth playing for the many fans of the first game.
This review was made via a Horizon Forbidden West PS5 review copy provided by the publisher.