Horizon Forbidden West Review

  • Looks stunning on PlayStation 5
  • A complex story with plenty of surprises
  • Gameplay is as fun as ever
  • Various mechanics have been overhauled for the better
  • Story lacks the tightness of the first game
  • Bugs and texture glitches are somewhat common

For a lot of us, I think "Horizon Zero Dawn" was something of a sleeper hit. Not only was it Guerrilla's first new IP since the "Killzone" days, but it also had the misfortune of releasing just days before the Nintendo Switch and, by extension, "The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild" launched. Because of its close proximity to a new entry in one of the oldest and most successful game franchises of all time, it definitely flew under the radar for me at first, and when I finally got around to playing it, I wasn't sure if I'd like it.

As it turned out, I loved "Horizon Zero Dawn." I don't think I'm alone in saying that I was not expecting what the game had to offer. The story took me by surprise at pretty much every turn, and while I might have started out apprehensive, I walked away as a fan. Nearly five years later and we've got a new adventure for Aloy and her friends – and yes, many characters from the first game are returning in this one – but does "Horizon Forbidden West" hold up to its ambitious predecessor?

PlayStation provided me with a copy of "Horizon Forbidden West" for the purposes of this review. All impressions are based on the PS5 version of "Horizon Forbidden West." This review will contain light spoilers for the main story, but nothing outside of what has already been revealed by Sony's pre-release marketing.

An even grander adventure than the last

Six months after the events of "Horizon Zero Dawn," Aloy is dealing with an entirely new problem: the Earth is slowly dying. A blight is spreading around the world, infecting and killing everything in its wake, and Aloy needs to find the solution before it's too late. Her search for answers leads her beyond the lands we explored in the first game and into the West, where she encounters new tribes and new machines.

That's more or less the synopsis to "Horizon Forbidden West." I don't want to get too deep into spoiler territory here, so I'll explain my feelings in rather broad strokes. As a whole, I think the story is good, but it's also larger in scope than "Horizon Zero Dawn's" story, so there are times where it doesn't feel quite as focused.

I don't mind that so much, because I like it when sci-fi isn't afraid to take some risks and get a little weird with things – the good kind of weird. That's precisely what "Horizon Forbidden West's" story does, and a lot of those risks pay off. I also appreciate how "Horizon Forbidden West" is fairly self-contained – though there's no question that there will be another "Horizon" title to form a trilogy, many loose ends are tied up by the end of this game. In other words, there will be more, but we don't have to wait for a resolution to most of "Forbidden West's" narrative arcs. It's nice to end what is clearly the middle entry in a trilogy with some feeling of resolution.

A rowdy band of misfits attempt to save the world

Story aside, I must say that I adore the characters in this game. Not just Aloy, but the characters who join her on her mission to save the world. Despite her best efforts to isolate herself and tackle this problem all on her own, Aloy winds up surrounded by a group of old friends and new faces alike who want to help her in her mission, and you'll spend a lot of time getting to know them throughout the game. At some points, it almost feels like you're playing a "Mass Effect" game with how deep in the weeds some of these conversations get – the only thing that's missing is a proper party system and the ability to outfit your companions with custom gear loadouts.

Of course, Aloy is as strong a character as she was in the first game, if not stronger. In "Horizon Forbidden West" many have stopped addressing her as "outcast" and have started referring to her as "savior," something that clearly makes her uncomfortable. Her character journey throughout "Horizon Forbidden West" is perhaps a bit more subtle than it was in the first game, but still good, as we watch her transition from someone who is used to looking out for herself to someone who knows when to rely on the people who care about her and want to help.

Even outside of the major narrative arcs and individual characters, part of what makes this game so cool is seeing how the different tribes deal with the technology of the past. Whether they reject it, study it, or hold it up as some kind of divine gift, it is endlessly fascinating to see what these mostly primitive tribes of humans do with what's left over from the far more advanced humans from the distant past. "Horizon Zero Dawn" built a fascinating sci-fi world and I'm pleased to report that "Horizon Forbidden West" does not squander it.

The west is wild again

"Horizon Forbidden West" has one of the best open worlds I've ever seen in a video game. It was so much fun to explore the Forbidden West and the various regions within it, and the landscape is even more varied than what we got in "Horizon Zero Dawn." Like the first game, the map in "Horizon Forbidden West" is packed with so much to do – even more this time around, with ruins of entire cities and surprisingly sophisticated modern-day settlements that put the shells of the past to practical use.

My biggest regret with this review is that I didn't have 150 hours to sink into "Horizon Forbidden West." I played for around 65 hours and completed the main story along with a healthy smattering of side quests (according to the in-game log, I completed 20 side quests out of an unknown total), but it still feels like there's so much left for me to do. One of these days, I'll return to "Horizon Forbidden West" and get to 100% completion, and that playthrough will be magnificent because of how much fun it is to explore the game's open world.

I really love the Tenakth too, which is one of the new tribes introduced in the game and at least part of the reason why the western lands are "forbidden" for the eastern tribes. They feel suitably distinct from the Carja, Banuk, Nora, and Oseram tribes, and it was fun to explore their culture and customs after hearing about and even experiencing their ruthlessness at the beginning of the game.

There's so much to do in "Horizon Forbidden West" that I think chasing 100% completion would take close to 100 hours, if not more depending on how much you like to explore on foot. One minute you're figuring out puzzles in old ruins to find collectibles, then the next you're racing machines, competing at one of the melee pits in the West's major cities, or clearing out rebel camps. Everywhere you turn, it feels like there's something to do in "Horizon Forbidden West."

Post-apocalyptic eye candy

"Horizon Forbidden West" may well be the best-looking game I've ever played. At the very least, I'm having a hard time coming up with games that look as good or better than it, save for maybe the excellent "Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart." On PlayStation 5, "Horizon Forbidden West" is stunning. I played "Horizon Zero Dawn" on PS5 right before diving into "Horizon Forbidden West," and even though I thought the first game looked great, its sequel really blew me away in the graphics department.

I have a feeling I'll be saying that a lot in the coming years as more games come out for these new consoles and developers get better at squeezing every ounce of performance out of them, but for now, "Horizon Forbidden West" may as well be the PS5 showcase title. I played the vast majority of the game in Resolution Mode for the best graphics and I don't regret a minute of it. The Performance Mode that favors the framerate still looks pretty good and runs great, but "Horizon Forbidden West" is so beautiful that I was willing to take the framerate hit in return for fancier graphics.

But what about the machines?

Gameplay, as they (and I) say, is king. You can be the prettiest looking game of all time with a story that would move Tolkein or Hemingway to tears and none of it matters if the gameplay is bad. That is decidedly not the case with "Horizon Forbidden West," and even though this game has so much going for it, the gameplay still manages to shine above the rest.

Killing droves of robots is just as fun as it was in the first game and it never gets old. The new robots that are introduced in "Horizon Forbidden West" all feature stellar designs, including some absolute behemoths that serve as boss fights both throughout the story and in the open world.

Even better is the fact that you have more tools at your disposal when it comes to dealing with them. "Horizon Forbidden West" introduces a number of new weapons that we didn't see in the first game, such as warrior bows that reload fast and are meant to be used up close or spike launchers meant for engaging giant robots that are slow to fire but deal huge damage. "Horizon Forbidden West" also gives you six skill trees to progress individually, each one unlocking special abilities for certain weapon classes and allowing you to truly specialize in different forms of combat. The game showers you in ability points too, so you can improve multiple trees at once and always feel like you're making progress.

I liked combat enough in "Horizon Zero Dawn," but in that game, melee combat with Aloy's spear always felt like something of an afterthought to me. "Horizon Forbidden West" rectifies that by giving Aloy's spear unlockable combos and making melee combat, in general, feel more fluid and impactful. You can specialize in using the spear to some degree in "Horizon Forbidden West," though often it's best to only use it on human enemies or smaller robots even with the improvements to melee combat.

Traversal has been given a big upgrade in "Horizon Forbidden West," as well. Aloy gets the "Breath of the Wild" treatment with her new glider, and that makes getting from point A to point B both more manageable and more enjoyable. That isn't the only thing that's changed about traversal, but I'll leave the coolest additions to be discovered.

Overhauling and streamlining

Various systems have been overhauled in "Horizon Forbidden West," with the inventory being the most obvious. I don't think it's controversial to say that the first game's inventory was pretty clunky, and while the new inventory system is still a bit convoluted, it's a lot better than it was in "Horizon Zero Dawn." Aloy now has three distinct inventories: her pouches, her inventory, and her stash. Her pouches are where she holds ammo, traps, tools, potions, food, and medicinal berries, while her inventory holds raw materials for crafting and a backup supply of medicinal berries that can refill her resource pouch.

Your inventory and pouches can only hold a certain amount of items, and anything you collect over those limits is automatically sent to your stash with no input required. For instance, Aloy can carry 300 rift wood in her inventory for making arrows, while anything collected over that cap will be sent to the stash. Your stash can be accessed in pretty much every town you encounter and at various camps you'll find out in the wild, so you're never that far from it. When you find a stash, you can refill your inventory with the press of a button, and by the end of the game, I had hundreds of extra resources in my stash ready to replenish my inventory whenever I needed a top-up.

One interesting change is how "Horizon Forbidden West" treats weapons and armor. There are no more limits to the weapon and armor inventories, which is good because you'll find new weapons and armor everywhere. You can still buy them from vendors in the cities you visit, but you'll also get weapons and armor as quest rewards and even find them in the open world sometimes.

As with the first game, you can upgrade your weapons, armor, and pouch capacities using machine and animal parts, but in a nice touch, you can turn those upgrades into jobs so you can track the locations of those machines and animals on your map. That takes a lot of the frustration out of upgrading your gear and makes it easier to focus on upgrades without wandering around aimlessly.

Accessibility for the win

There are a lot of accessibility options baked into "Horizon Forbidden West." That probably won't come as a huge shock after what we saw with "The Last of Us Part II," but if you were wondering, here's your confirmation: the accessibility options in "Horizon Forbidden West" run pretty deep, and the hope is that they make it easier for people to play this game regardless of ability.

There are some pretty specific options that people can change for a more accessible experience. Sony ran down a list of accessibility features shortly before release for those who are curious, but some highlights that stick out to me include the ability to increase how much time slows down then when you open the weapon radial (to select a new weapon or craft more ammo, which is a frequent necessity) and the option for auto-healing once Aloy drops below a certain health threshold.

Just as well, Aloy's Focus is an even bigger part of gameplay in "Horizon Forbidden West" because tapping R3 sends out a pulse that shows nearby resources and climbing footholds. Highlighting the climbing footholds in yellow is a fantastic addition because it leaves little mystery regarding what's climbable and what isn't, while having the Focus pulse reveal resources means that the screen isn't constantly filled with resource icons like it was in "Horizon Zero Dawn." I'm not the best person to judge how useful these accessibility features are or what might be missing, but Guerrilla Games seems to have covered a lot of bases with them.

A great game, but not a perfect one

For most of this review, I've been singing the praises of "Horizon Forbidden West," and indeed, it's a very good game. However, it isn't a perfect one, and I ran into a number of issues while I was playing.

First and foremost, while the facial animations are improved for the most part over "Horizon Zero Dawn," there are some instances where they're noticeably flawed. Often, the character faces will seem to border on photorealistic, but every once in a while you'll encounter a character that looks off. This doesn't happen as much as it did in "Horizon Zero Dawn" and we never see anything quite as bad as kid Aloy from the first game, but there are still a few funny-looking faces in this game.

There are also some sequences where characters don't make eye contact with one another despite coming close, and that's always a bit jarring. It isn't anything that ruins the experience, but it is a quirk that momentarily pulls you out of the game.

I also noticed a number of glitched textures or character models early on, but many of them have been fixed with the day-one patch that'll be live alongside the game. Some still persist, but after the day-one patch, most of the texture glitches I experienced have to do with slow texture loading. I would be exploring a new region of the map only to see that building textures were very slow to load or didn't load at all until I got close to them. I encountered this issue several times while I played, though finding a campfire to save and then reloading fixed it each time.

I think that's kind of the double-edged sword that is open-world gaming. The genre seems more susceptible to certain bugs than games that offer a more linear, curated experience. The glitches and bugs in "Horizon Forbidden West" aren't as bad as, say, "The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim" shortly after release, but they're still present and they still influence the experience, even if just a little bit.

"Horizon Forbidden West" verdict

Everything all added up, I had a total blast with "Horizon Forbidden West." I think the story isn't as tight as what we received in the first game, but if you're looking for those shocking, revelatory moments, "Horizon Forbidden West" definitely has them. The characters are great, the core narrative is a compelling one that takes risks, and the voice acting is stupendous. At certain points, the animation, the voice acting, and the dialogue are so good that you feel like you're watching an animated movie. With this review, I feel like I've only managed to scratch the surface of what makes "Horizon Forbidden West" so enjoyable because it's such a dense game.

The gameplay experience on offer in "Horizon Forbidden West" is excellent and any fan of open-world games should check it out. There are some glitches and bugs that need to be squashed in post-launch updates, but even now, they're a minor footnote and not something that tanks the experience.

Regardless of whatever flaws "Horizon Forbidden West" might have, I loved this game from start to finish. If you haven't played "Horizon Zero Dawn," do that as soon as you can, and then play "Horizon Forbidden West." If you've already played the first game, "Horizon Forbidden West" is worthy of a day-one purchase. Whether you're a "Horizon" newcomer or veteran, "Horizon Forbidden West" should be on the shortlist for every PS5 owner.