Our review of Horizon Forbidden West, developed by Guerrilla Games. Available February 18, 2022 for PS5 (reviewed) and PS4.
WHAT IS IT?
Dinosaurs with frickin’ laser beams attached to their heads.
IS IT GOOD?
Yes but we’ve seen it all before, before.
WHO SHOULD PLAY IT?
Gearheads. Grimlock fans.
EVOLUTION NOT REVOLUTION
Waaaaaaaay back when, Horizon Zero Dawn was the second game I ever reviewed for the Toronto Guardian. I liked it, but I also knocked it for being derivative of other, better Action-RPGS:
Heck, even the very good central features of Horizon Zero Dawn have all been done elsewhere. A bow-and-arrow from the recent Tomb Raider. Hacking enemies à la Deus Ex and Mass Effect. A post-apocalyptic landscape ripped straight out of Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (which, by the way, is a fantastic game). Literally everything about Monster Hunter. True, there’s never quite been a game where you fight an invisible robot jaguar with a rocket launcher strapped to its back, but we’ve all seen Austin Powers, haven’t we?
Five years later, Horizon Forbidden West is here to do pretty well the same thing, only sparklier. Yes, it’s fun, and yes, it’s pretty, and yes, it has a few new bells and whistles. But five years is a long time for a sequel that feels so similar to something which itself was derivative of so many other games.
JAWS OF THUNDER
You have to hand it to Horizon Forbidden West: it’s really committed to its painfully absurd and self-serious plot. This is a game about robot dinosaurs. You hunt the robot dinosaurs and you fight the robot dinosaurs and you ride the robot dinosaurs. This is awesome. Robot dinosaurs are awesome. We don’t need dozens of hours of technobabble and expositional monologues and culturally appropriative mythologies. Trust us, Guerrilla Games, nobody’s here for the techno-shamans.
Be that as it may, those who do care about (and can remember) Horizon Zero Dawn will be heartened to know this game picks up right where the last one left off. Protagonist Aloy, the once and future saviour of the world, is off to stop another big bad, this one unleashed by her erstwhile ally (The Wire‘s Lance Reddick) at the tail end of Zero Dawn. Aloy’s journey takes a bit to get going, but once you’re properly off into the new regions of the “forbidden west”, you’ll find yourself caught up in dozens of quests, from the smallest of stakes to the biggest, punctuated by epic confrontations with formidable robo-monsters. The best part about Forbidden West‘s post-post-apocalyptic landscape is its hints of the civilization – our present – which collapsed a thousand years before. Visiting the remnants of major cities (no spoilers!) in Forbidden West is a very cool gimmick, albeit one done just as well in Enslaved: Odyssey to the West over a decade ago.
Gameplay in Forbidden West is standard Action-RPG. You wield a bow for both ranged attacks and close-range melee, along with various other support weapons unlocked throughout the game. Traps are a key element; since most robo-animals come in packs, it’s quite useful, and often necessary, to rig up a bunch of traps before entering into battle. Forbidden West also maintains Zero Dawn‘s ability to scan enemies for specific vulnerabilities; this canister might be susceptible to an acid attack; that pouch will melt under heat. Happily, Forbidden West also encourages stealth, rewarding players with one-hit-kills or, even better, the ability to hack enemies. Hacking lets you sic foes on others, and it also lets you ride them. Believe me when I say that riding robo-horses never gets old.
MAWS OF STEEL
Horizon Forbidden West is one of those massive open-world games where the main quest line is almost beside the point. Sure, you can follow the central story from Point A to B to C, but pretty well everywhere you look there’s a new side quest to take on, a new enemy encampment to clear, a new “Cauldron” to brave. Some of this is a lot of fun – the Cauldrons, which are challenge dungeons carrying major, game-changing rewards, are great – but, to be honest, there’s too much of it. It doesn’t take long for the map and HUD to get crowded with hundreds of active quests, Cauldrons, ruins, lookout points, question marks, exclamation marks, and so, so much more. The side quests are mostly compelling, but I would have settled for half as many.
Forbidden West is also one of those compulsive collect-a-thon games, where it’s impossible to resist the urge to hunt, collect, and craft anything and everything. Crafting is a huge aspect of this game; in addition to the abundantly collectable plant life, every enemy can be targeted for specific parts (you often don’t even need to kill your foe, you can just tear the battery pack, weapon, etc. off its back), which in turn can be used to build or upgrade weapons and equipment. There are Metroid-style upgrades which allow you to go back and explore areas that were inaccessible an hour, two hours, a dozen hours earlier. There’s no such thing as a wrong turn in Forbidden West: no matter where you look, no matter how you experiment, you’re going to find something new, useful, or cool.
Speaking of exploration, everything is made much easier by the new hang glider (which, Breath of the Wild style, makes traversing long distances much easier) and the diving mask. Oh yes, Forbidden West is now very underwater. There are new underwater foes, who are all terrifying, and there are compelling rewards for those brave enough to venture into the deep. This makes Forbidden West one of those rare games where, in the space of minutes, you can travel from a snow-capped peak to the deepest, murkiest depths. (I miss Vancouver.)
The same criticisms I levied at the original Horizon Zero Dawn are applicable here. It’s still too derivative. It still takes itself way too seriously. It’s still plagued by a generic script that mostly serves to kill time in between blowing up Robot T. Rexes. It’s also still marred by cultural appropriation, in the form of fictional cultures borrowed clumsily from real-world communities. And it’s still voiced by an exclusively North American English-accented cast. That includes Aloy, who, despite spending much of the game alone, never stops voicing all her thoughts. It’s like she’s aware a player is watching her. It gets tiresome.
That said, Forbidden West is one of those sheer joy games where you’re going to have a good time. It’s cool to ride a robo-dinosaur into battle against a mob of robo-kangaroos, and that’s as true in the first hour as it is in the fortieth. It looks beautiful, it’s a joy to move through, and the gameplay, so finely honed in all the other games it borrows from, is satisfying. You’d think that developer Guerrilla Games would have learned a few more tricks in the intervening years, but it’s so damn fun that I guess we can allow it to keep doing the same thing it was doing before.
Final score: 8/10 Mecha-Godzillas.
Visit the official website for Horizon Forbidden West here.