Horizon Forbidden West Review: Gorgeous Open World Let Down by AAA Game Design

Looks and sounds great, but it’s in service of a poorly thought-out experience.

Horizon Forbidden West Review: Gorgeous Open World Let Down by AAA Game Design

Photo Credit: Sony/Guerrilla Games

Aloy in Horizon Forbidden West

Highlights
  • Horizon Forbidden West release date is February 18 worldwide
  • The RPG game is available only on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5
  • Horizon Forbidden West price in India starts at Rs. 3,999

Horizon Forbidden West — out February 18 on PS4 and PS5 — is an expansive game. For better and worse, that's typical of modern-day role-playing titles that are meant to serve as flagship products for gaming giants. In industry parlance, these are known as AAA releases. (For 2022, Horizon Forbidden West is one of three confirmed games — alongside Gran Turismo 7 and God of War Ragnarök — Sony is set to release for its elusive next-gen console, the PlayStation 5.) A lot of what Horizon Forbidden West does feels like a version of what is going around in open-world AAA games everywhere. The vast map is populated with endless icons, there's a lot of loot to be collected (a major annoyance in the aftermath of a big battle), and you're asked to grind your way through.

Enemies — in most cases here, animalistic machines — are found in hundreds of “sites” across the Horizon Forbidden West map. Even if you eliminate all of them in a particular area, they will respawn when you return next time. This is a game-y and artificial inclusion, one that seemingly exists to serve the developer's interests — Horizon Zero Dawn's Mathijs de Jonge returns as game director — rather than the world of Forbidden West. By resetting these areas rather than clearing them out for good, Horizon Forbidden West allows players who are stuck and need to farm XP to level up. It serves no purpose other than to fulfil the grind mechanism.

What is also artificial is how machine sites are thought out. As you progress through Horizon Forbidden West, the protagonist Aloy (Ashly Burch) will learn how to override certain machines and ride them. The idea is to allow faster traversal and give you another combat tool. But you don't learn how to take control of every machine at once — they are doled out slowly. Keeping that in mind, developer Guerrilla Games places those machine sites close to your mission location where you can utilise your override ability. Sure, it's all supposed to be helpful for the player. But the world of Horizon Forbidden West feels manufactured after a point, like it's all constructed to serve one player.

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Horizon Forbidden West PS5 features and performance

The DualSense's rumble comes alive mostly in story cutscenes, and in combat depending on the kind of enemies you're facing. Trigger tension is omnipresent in a game largely about a bow and arrow.

I faced just one bug during a big battle that forced me to redo that stage, which was particularly frustrating given how intense and strategic battles can be. It's only happened once though, and Guerrilla has already rolled out a patch ahead of release.

I can't speak to performance on the outdated PS4 and its improved cousin PS4 Pro. Horizon Forbidden West is a 98GB download on the PS5.

Horizon Forbidden West review: looks and level design

Mind you, I don't have any problems with the game's world or the machines. Horizon Forbidden West looks gorgeous on the PlayStation 5. We still haven't figured out how to replicate how real human hair behaves, as Aloy's hair flows and bounces a little too much here, but in terms of moving towards individualised strands, this is probably the closest we've come. The score — put together by Joe Henson, Alexis Smith, Joris de Man, Niels van der Leest, and Oleksa Lozowchuk — is also splendid. At times, I just wanted to stand in one place and listen to the music.

The machines in Horizon Forbidden West have intricate designs — I wouldn't call them gorgeous, but they are fascinating — but it seems like so much time went in designing them that Guerrilla Games forgot how to justifiably include them. The reason dealing with these machines feels artificial is because you're on your way to something else. In most cases, these interactions are not part of a mission, hence they are meaningless. It's poorly-designed padding. I just want to get to my destination, stop throwing obstacles in my way.

Once I began tiring of the game's incessant desire to push me to engage with more and more machines — in addition to uninteresting side quests that failed to grab my attention — I figured I would try and see if I could just push my way through Horizon Forbidden West. You know, just gallop from point A to point B while ignoring everything along the way. For those who like immersing themselves in the main story like me, I'm pleased to report that it's largely possible. But naturally, it impacts your character's level.

And quite adversely so, as Horizon Forbidden West is designed for you to get lost over and over. Even when I did partake in side quests and random machine encounters, I found myself quickly falling behind the recommended power level for main missions. This is a way for the game to signal that I should have been doing even more stuff away from the story. Funnily enough, even some side quests were asking for two levels higher. The gap kept on increasing — when I was at level 6, the main mission was designed for level 8. By the time I was level 12, I was staring at main missions that were level 17 or beyond. To me, it all suggested that the grind would just get worse and worse as the game went on.

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Machine Strike in Horizon Forbidden West
Photo Credit: Sony/Guerrilla Games

There is a lot to do here. Outside of the main and side quests, there are a series of melee pits where you can test your, well, melee skills. Even the melee pits are a victim of the game's grind mentality. And there are mini games such as machine strike — it feels like a take on chess and checkers combined with its own custom rules and pieces — which was one of my favourite things to do in Horizon Forbidden West.

Horizon Forbidden West review: new world, new problems

Horizon Forbidden West opens with Aloy looking for a backup of an advanced AI known as Gaia (Lesley Ewen) who can help her put an end to the Blight, an infestation thanks to a terraforming AI that is operating without the proper instructions. Aloy is reunited with Varl (John Macmillan) early on, who becomes her partner and an audience surrogate of sorts. But Aloy is not one to accept help, she has always had a saviour complex. As the player, you will undertake most missions on your own — very few missions have AI allies.

For a game about a protagonist who takes the weight of the world on her shoulders, and who is told repeatedly to learn how to trust others, Horizon Forbidden West misses the point on that boat. If the theme of Horizon Forbidden West is for Aloy to recognise that allies are important, then you would hope that the game would deliver on the thematic promise. Instead, Aloy spends most of the game basically proving that she can handle it all on her own.

Anyway, back to the story. Tracing the Blight, Aloy leaves the lands of the Carja and heads into the Forbidden West, named for the Tenakth who rule those lands ruthlessly. The Tenakth are painted as the others by everyone as violent and radical — they are not one unit, but three tribes who are forced to unite after a vengeful general named Regalia (Angela Bassett) creates a rebellious faction and declares war on the Carja and the other Tenakth.

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Tenakth in Horizon Forbidden West
Photo Credit: Sony/Guerrilla Games

With the Tenakth, Horizon Forbidden West runs into a thorny issue. In the post-apocalyptic USA that forms the world of the Horizon games, the remaining humans have been pushed back to the Stone Age or something. They are now divided into a series of clans and tribes, whose attire borrows from Native Americans among others. Aloy can don these too. But most of the people wearing them, including Aloy, look — and more importantly — and sound like modern-day white people. That's not a good look. First, the natives were literally erased by white people — and now their clothing is being adopted by them? This is a few steps beyond cultural appropriation.

Horizon Forbidden West review: new skills and tools

Aloy gains a bunch of new tools and abilities in this sequel to Horizon Zero Dawn. In the former department, the big three are the Pullcaster, Shieldwing, and diving mask. Pullcaster is pretty much a grappling hook — you can pull down barricades, and you can use it to climb to places you couldn't originally get to. The Shieldwing is essentially a parachute, allowing you to jump from heights and not die. (Don't worry, there are no stamina concerns here as with The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.) The diving mask lets you stay underwater. They are all are navigational tools; they didn't serve a purpose in combat in the time I spent with Horizon Forbidden West. Additionally, you can use your Focus to scan for edges that Aloy can jump onto, allowing for freeform climbing.

On top of those, Horizon Forbidden West sports an expanded skill tree where you can define how Aloy grows as a character. You can unlock them with the help of skill points that are earned every time you level up. The skills vary from new combat and weapon techniques to getting better at concentrating and laying down traps. They are split down six sections — Warrior, Trapper, Hunter, Survivor, Infiltrator, and Machine Master — allowing you to define how Aloy develops. As you push deeper into a tree, you'll come across an all-new Valor Surge system. These are special abilities, from landing critical hits to becoming invisible, that can be unlocked with “tactical gameplay”. Basically, they help you gain an upper hand in tough situations.

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Combat in Horizon Forbidden West
Photo Credit: Sony/Guerrilla Games

Horizon Forbidden West review: gameplay and verdict

Horizon Forbidden West lays out its arsenal slowly across the beginning of the game. It runs you through the skills on offer, how to look for resources, how to craft items of importance, and how to discover places of importance. From that standpoint, the game is designed wonderfully. Horizon Forbidden West eases you into its elaborate world, laying down the tools you'll need to put to good use together as the game unfolds. It also tells you how to spot every machine's different elemental weakness and strength — there is a lot of variety on offer here — though the game doesn't always teach you how to make the correct choices. As a result, you're left on your own at times, and it doesn't make for a pretty picture. Speaking from personal experience here ????

You can take a stealth approach to combat — Horizon Forbidden West affords a lot of stealth opportunities, thanks to conveniently-placed tall grass — but stealth hits aren't a one-hit KO with all machines. For some, it just damages them a bit and, naturally, alerts them to your presence. Good luck handling them after that. This is another way — in addition to everything I said at the start about loot, grind, and endless meaningless objectives — Horizon Forbidden West feels similar to recent Assassin's Creed titles. (Except there, Ubisoft caved to fan demands after they bemoaned the removal of one-hit assassination.)

And just like Ubisoft's mega-hit franchise, Horizon Forbidden West has a lot of the right ingredients but it's let down by the pitfalls of AAA game design. Too often now, big event games are conflated with how much they offer and how long they last. That's a factor of the budgets involved and the cost to user — these games are so expensive to make that the likes of Sony are now asking for Rs. 4,999/$70 on the PS5. (Owing to fan backlash, Sony is offering free PS4 to PS5 upgrades for Horizon Forbidden West, but Gran Turismo 7 and God of War Ragnarök won't make those concessions.) And in turn, studios feel pressured to give players a lot to do if they are forking over so much money. That is an unnecessary and unfortunate correlation, one that is holding back games such as Horizon Forbidden West from being tight experiences that don't feel the need to pad things out.

Pros:

  • Looks and runs great on PS5
  • Score is splendid
  • Machines intricately designed
  • ‘Machine strike' is fun
  • New navigational tools
  • Valor Surge is helpful
  • Eases you into the game

Cons:

  • World feels artificial and manufactured
  • Poorly-designed padding
  • Pushes you to grind
  • Story undercut thematically
  • Thorny cultural appropriation with clothing
  • Not all stealth hits are one-hit KO
  • Deceitful PS5 pricing, given free upgrade

Rating (out of 10): 6

Horizon Forbidden West is released Friday, February 18 on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5. Pricing starts at Rs. 3,999 on the PS4, and Rs. 4,999 for the PS5. Don't buy the PS5 version though, as PS4 versions — via retail or PlayStation Store — are eligible for a free upgrade.


What are the best games of 2021? We discuss this on Orbital, the Gadgets 360 podcast. Orbital is available on Spotify, Gaana, JioSaavn, Google Podcasts, Apple Podcasts, Amazon Music and wherever you get your podcasts.
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  • REVIEW
  • KEY SPECS
  • NEWS
  • Good
  • Looks and runs great on PS5
  • Score is splendid
  • Machines intricately designed
  • ‘Machine strike’ is fun
  • New navigational tools
  • Valor Surge is helpful
  • Eases you into the game
  • Bad
  • World feels artificial and manufactured
  • Poorly-designed padding
  • Pushes you to grind
  • Story undercut thematically
  • Thorny cultural appropriation with clothing
  • Not all stealth hits are one-hit KO
  • Deceitful PS5 pricing, given free upgrade
Genre RPG
Platform PlayStation 4 (PS4), PlayStation 5 (PS5)
Modes Single-player
PEGI Rating 16+
Comments

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Akhil Arora
Akhil Arora covers entertainment for Gadgets 360, interviewing stars such as Christian Bale and Anurag Kashyap, covering series premieres, product and service launches across the globe, and looking at American blockbusters and Indian dramas from a global socio-political and feminist perspective. As a Rotten Tomatoes-certified film critic, Akhil has reviewed over 150 movies and TV shows in over half a decade at Gadgets 360. When he is not completely caught up with new film and TV releases, Akhil ...More
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