Review: Horizon Forbidden West

The early hookshot (pullcaster) is a nice touch.
The early hookshot (pullcaster) is a nice touch. Screencap from Sony Interactive Entertainment
To get it out of the way, Horizon Forbidden West is a beautiful, well-crafted game that has an engaging story and a brilliantly conceived post-apocalyptic world. The sequel to 2017’s critically-acclaimed Horizon Zero Dawn picks up shortly after the epic final battle with the Hades artificial intelligence. Now, former outcast and current reluctant savior of the world, Aloy, must travel into the ruins of San Francisco in order to find a copy of the lost computer program that will stop the deterioration of the world.

When it comes to the world of Horizon, there is little to find fault with. Of all the open world action RPGs on the market, this one best balances the realm of the fantastical with the realistic. There’s no problem instantly believing in the beast-like machines that roam the landscape and threaten the different tribes, all of whom are also fully fleshed out societies with their own customs, sayings, beliefs, and cultural attitudes. There are many moments in Horizon Forbidden West where you’re climbing a rotting metal tower and looking out over this wild cybercaveman world and it’s everything the box promises. The PS5 version especially shows off all the power of the new console generation.

Where the game fails is the combat, which is the main reason that I never finished the first one. Like a Fumito Ueda game, it’s often more fun to look at than to actually play. It’s weird how something that is clearly trying to be the halfway point between Tomb Raider and The Last of Us still manages to be mechanically less than either.

The game is at its best when Aloy is stalking machines and setting up traps for them to run into. In those moments, it feels like a brilliant execution of all the tools at the game’s disposal. The problem is that if things go wrong, it devolves into a sludgy, grueling battle where Aloy seems to chip away arbitrary damage to enemies until they finally go down.

Even if you don’t fail these moments, the game will force you into giant battle scenes that would be a lot more fun with proper guns. In most games, the bow is a weapon designed for quietly one-shotting enemies without alerting others. The slowed pace of the draw and release meshes well with stealth and assassination. Here, it’s your primary battle asset, slowing you down and constantly leaving you scrambling for resources.

It’s so counterintuitive against decades of game design, and not in a revolutionary way. Even if you turn on aim assist (yes, I am a reviewer who plays things on easy mode) the game operates completely against all logic. Rather than drawing your crosshairs to the target, it will guide the projectile after it leaves your bow. This greatly increases the feeling that all the damage you’re doing is random rather than calculated.

The sequel also suffers from a common failing in that Aloy is inexplicably underpowered. Her loss of equipment is explained away by her long journey, but the stripping of her physical abilities is more aggravating. There’s no reason she shouldn’t be able to ambush enemies from above with her spear right off the bat, and the game’s early levels even seem to want you to do it instead of awkwardly jumping off rocks and swinging ineffectually.

Horizon Forbidden West is a mediocre action game riding on a brilliant concept, making it very much the Bioshock of the new console generation. It’s worth the journey, but it’s still needlessly unfun to get there.

Horizon Forbidden West is available February 18 on PS4/PS5.
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Jef Rouner (not cis, he/him) is a contributing writer who covers politics, pop culture, social justice, video games, and online behavior. He is often a professional annoyance to the ignorant and hurtful.
Contact: Jef Rouner