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Aloy drawing her bow against a charger. Image: Guerrilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

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Horizon Forbidden West is endlessly obsessed with the ethos of ‘more’

Returning to Aloy’s machine-threatened world is well worth the wait

Nicole Clark (she/her) is a culture editor at Polygon, and a critic covering internet culture, video games, books, and TV, with work in the NY Times, Vice, and Catapult.

I still remember the moment when Horizon Zero Dawn opened up past Nora territory, and I took my first steps into the vast wilderness. I went slack-jawed as I roamed red rock plateaus, admiring the topographical fidelity to the natural world. All of it was filled with robotic foes, which I fought with just bows, arrows, and a spear. I played every quest, completed every Hunting Ground; I got the Shield Weaver armor, and collected most of the metal flowers; I played through the Frozen Wilds expansion. Three years later, I went on a road trip through Utah and Colorado, to see this part of America myself.

Horizon Forbidden West has delivered on the promise of more on just about every level. It’s a buffet you might graze on forever, filled with quests, characters, encampments, environments, and collectibles — and battles against new deadly machines. The game’s many expanded traversal tools and combat options deeply enrich the time you spend in this gorgeous, nearly photo-real wilderness. But Forbidden West also stumbles over this “more is better” ethos. Both mechanically and narratively, it suffers under the weight of its sequel ambitions, trying too hard to be grand, and sometimes losing sight of its strong world-building and storytelling heart. That said, Aloy is still a character I love, and her world is one I enjoyed spending time in — and one I plan to explore indefinitely.

Aloy gliding above a misty stretch of forest with her Shieldwing in Horizon Forbidden West Image: Guerrilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

Horizon Forbidden West, especially on the PlayStation 5, is breathtaking; it’s one of the most impressively realized wilderness games I’ve ever played. On PS5, you can regularly walk from interiors right into the wide world, without loading screens. This gives players incredible freedom in their journey westward, exploring gorgeous vistas bursting with giant sequoias, expansive lakes, and crumbling ruins swallowed by desert sands. Joshua trees and scrub-speckled flatlands give an immediate sense of place — and Forbidden West even lets players explore decaying ruins of actual American cities.

These landmarks punctuate Forbidden West’s story about climate crises and the excesses of the ruling class. Though the last game ended with a battle against the rampant AI Hades, humanity’s victory did not repair the lethal machines that were originally part of a terraforming project meant to save the Earth. The off-kilter system has created unstable weather patterns, blighted farmlands, and polluted waterways — and Guerrilla Games’ overgrown rendition of the West Coast is a plausible projection of our real-world climate degradation.

Aloy is swimming toward the player, with burrowers and kelp behind her, in Horizon Forbidden West Image: Guerrilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment via Polygon

Aloy’s expanded traversal tools, while flawed, greatly aid the player in exploring this world. The developers took obvious cues from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, adding a glider to Aloy’s toolkit and more handholds for her to climb on. In Forbidden West, Aloy can scale mountains, the peaks of which offer grand rewards: a gorgeous view, a height advantage against enemies, and the opportunity to glide over ravines and rolling pastures alike. Swimming is also a singular joy, once you’ve unlocked a tool that allows for infinite underwater breathing. I’ve spent hours watching swimming machines, and exploring the richness of marine life clinging to crumbling buildings. With Forbidden West’s better fast travel system — it’s free to travel between discovered campfires, while traveling from anywhere to a campfire costs one fast travel pack — this all weaves into a rich exploration experience, whether you’re fast-traveling or running from place to place, enjoying the abundance of the world around you.

But despite the creativity of Aloy’s new traversal tools, their uneven execution dampens some of the fun. Handholds are often not marked — by default, you pulse your Focus to reveal them — and not all surfaces are climbable, which can be frustrating. It’s especially difficult when navigating enclosed spaces, and when the margin for error is slim; a fall means repeating an entire platforming sequence. Early swimming challenges are often disorienting, with hard-to-see visual cues. The grappling hook is full of potential, but it’s mostly used to dislodge vent covers, and often requires players to time jumps perfectly. In a game so obsessed with the joy of exploration, it’s all the more heartbreaking to adhere to environmental puzzles’ single-track solutions.

Aloy faces down a large King Cobra machine, from inside an arena, in Horizon Forbidden West Image: Guerrilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment

When freed from the confines of caves and laboratories, Forbidden West thrives — especially when Aloy flexes her skills as a hunter. New machines are fearsome and deadly, and a treat to fight or override: There are giant boars and rattlesnakes, as well as terrifying mammoths and Triceratops-esque robots. As in Zero Dawn, taking them down requires scanning for weak points and removing crucial components. In keeping with its expanded navigation tools, Forbidden West also introduces new weapons and traps. Collecting an arsenal of sharpshot bows gave me more freedom to develop a sniper strategy around tearing off canisters, then taking down beasts with acid, flame, or frost. The game also largely scraps the rote human-enemy fights of Zero Dawn. A rebel faction has learned to override machines, and fighting humans atop the backs of Chargers requires rethinking stealth strategies entirely.

However, the game doesn’t do a great job of teaching takedown tactics. Zero Dawn walked players through using a Thunderjaw’s disc launcher against it, while Forbidden West cues players to fire elemental arrows and try traps, without offering a more cohesive combat strategy for larger, scarier enemies. This can make such machines, like the aforementioned mammoths, feel like a confounding spike in difficulty.

Forbidden West’s struggle to teach the finer points of combat might just be because there are so many ways to fight. Players who aren’t so keen on stealth have more options now — for example, expanded melee combos make the spear much more viable. There are six perk trees, with a wealth of unlockable skills (thankfully, some of Aloy’s best skills from Zero Dawn, like Silent Strike, are defaults in Forbidden West). But it can all feel like a deluge. These skill trees are detailed, and even include a new special attack called a Valor Surge. This is in line with the broader abundance of additional options, from bows to armor to cooked meals to the game’s new crafting tables.

Aloy with her bow and arrow pulled back, aiming at a Tenakth warrior riding a Charger, in Horizon Forbidden West Image: Guerrilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment

This is all to say that Forbidden West gives players a lot to play with — and it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, even as the story keeps raising the stakes about Earth’s predicament. Still, it wasn’t what I focused on. Forbidden West told me that Aloy had limited time to save the planet from famine. But I screwed around hunting wild machines, and wasted an hour shooting some 20 lizards to get their “wild meat” for an upgrade to my quiver. I made time to replace an overworked cook’s favorite griddle, and to deliver a flower to a “forbidden” lover. I did melee pit challenges, went on errands, fought through cauldrons, and picked apart rebel outposts. I involved myself deeply in the concerns of my fellow people, and gained companions that altered my perception of this beautiful world. My attachment to these comrades led me to other settlements, full of specific concerns like labor disputes and simple personal spats, along with the ever-present machine threat.

Forbidden West hits its stride when Aloy is engaging with settlements and tribal communities, and investing in her companion characters. These aren’t story quests I had to play along Aloy’s journey — but they’re the ones I chose to anyway. The companions aren’t very useful in a fight, but that didn’t make me love them any less. They’re vital in a game where you’re a hero who has to save the world. These relationships convey a world worth saving, far more than the main storyline really does.

Aloy approaching an Utaru archway, made from braided plant materials, in Horizon Forbidden West Image: Guerrilla Games/Sony Interactive Entertainment

At the same time, Forbidden West continues the series’ depiction of a post-racial society, while also borrowing aesthetics from various cultures — Zero Dawn received fair criticism for appropriating Indigenous cultures in its tribal designs, as well as using the term “Braves.” (In Zero Dawn, you learn that the AI function Apollo, which contained records of human history, was destroyed. This ostensibly allows the world to start fresh, free of the racism of the present day.) While the racial diversity of the Horizon games feels like progress in the context of AAA games more broadly, it’s at odds with how race, ethnicity, and culture are borrowed here without being discussed, or even acknowledged. I may have missed audio logs or journal entries that explain these issues, but that reinforces the idea that they aren’t core to the story.

In the end, this is Aloy’s story: She continues to be a headstrong protagonist, and I say that admiringly. In Forbidden West, she takes no shit — but she also learns valuable lessons about accepting help, and about acknowledging the grief that comes from growing up as an outcast. She goes to bat for the people she cares about. Forbidden West homes in on the contrast between her convictions and those of Dr. Elisabet Sobeck, the creator of the Zero Dawn project that set the whole series in motion, and the character from whom Aloy was cloned. Where Sobeck took the destruction of humanity as an assumption, and worked to repopulate the Earth, Aloy fights for the survival of those who are alive today. Even as the story throws in twists and additional characters that alter the scope of the threat she’s up against, her steadfast resolve remains. Getting to play as her — in such a beautiful and densely packed world — is a journey I won’t walk away from anytime soon.

Horizon Forbidden West will be released Feb. 18 on PlayStation 5 and PlayStation 4. The game was reviewed on PS5 using a download code provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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