Warning: There are a few spoilers below!
This review is going to be pretty short because I have very few words in my Apple Note on this game other than "wow," "holy shit," "this is fantastic."
What is it about these Horizon games? I discussed this with my friend Rob, who graciously lent me his PS4 to experience Forbidden West (HFW), and we agreed that it has something to do with the delightful balance Guerrilla Games manages to strike between enrapturing combat, crazy interesting storylines (on and off of the main quest), and a Far Cry-like focus on gorgeous settings. As far as open world games go, it's damn close to perfect in my book. I only have a few minor gripes detailed below.
To highlight what HFW gets right, I find it helpful to compare it to something like Assassin's Creed: Odyssey (Odyssey) which gets a lot wrong.
I enjoyed many elements of Odyssey, such as the combat and the beauty of the landscape, with the opalescent blue water and white sand beaches. But the story gets derailed among the hundreds of stupid, repetitive side quests. You fetch what feels like endless items for endless, random people you never see again. You fight a farting boar. You're forced to defend low-HP civilians who insist on fighting your ambushers and dying, causing you to fail the quest. There's one where you romance some guy's sex-deprived wife for a few days so he doesn't have to.
It's a grindfest, and maybe cynically so. Ubisoft tries to get you to purchase XP with real dollars so you don't have to play the base $60 game and level up the hard way. Many areas of the map are denied to you almost indefinitely because you're too low-leveled and you die instantly if you attempt combat.
There's a reason why the reviewer hordes almost uniformly dunk on the Assassin's Creed games. It really seems like Ubisoft does not learn and continues to serve up micro-transaction-laden confections that have promise but just aren't fun when you start to stack up the play hours. I played a lot of Odyssey, but stopped a few hours into Valhalla after realizing it's essentially the same laborious thing reskinned to a Nordic setting.
Learning from games like Odyssey, I think this is a good recipe for success in an open world title:
- The main storyline is compelling enough to draw you in and keep you invested. You feel a sense of mission and purpose. HFW: ✅
What better sense of purpose than saving the world again? The biosphere in Aloy's world is disintegrating without the influence of GAIA, the AI who manages each specialized subsystem, like HEPHAESTUS, and prevents them from spinning out of control. The consequences for failure are clear: The end of humanity.
This mission is made more interesting by the fact that the Far Zenith colonists have returned to Earth, also seeking GAIA for their own ends. They're a compelling antagonist force in that 1) they're very dangerous and 2) extremely arrogant, so you want to hurt them. I love revenge as a key character motivation in games and movies. It's the same reason why I find Tarantino movies so compelling. It feels so good to watch the bad guy(s) get their comeuppance.
- Fun combat mechanics. HFW: ✅
Just like in Horizon Zero Dawn, fighting machine dinosaurs is just plain badass. I love the Focus mechanic where you can highlight a given machine's components and blast them off with well-placed arrow shots. HFW brings in a bevy of new machine types like the Slaughterspine (Spinosaurus analog) and the Clawstrider (robot velociraptor) with differing fighting styles. The fighting is fun, dynamic, and terrifying at times, depending on the adversary, which keeps it all fresh. In other games with less diverse enemy types, behaviors, and sizes, I find that I lock in a specific combo set and strategy for the entire game. HFW forces you to adapt constantly.
- Beautiful scenery. HFW: ✅
- No micro-transactions. HFW: ✅
- Side quests fill in some backstory for the main story's plot and seem to have a purpose. They don't feel repetitive. HFW: ✅
My aforementioned pal Rob described the side quests in Odyssey as "empty calories," which I think is a very apt description. The ones in HFW are decidedly not that. The feeling of emptiness or repetition I find comes from having to do missions that can be easily categorized, like the infamous "tailing" missions from the Assassin's Creed series or "fetch me x widget" quests, and when they're too transactional. In Odyssey, it's often a race to see how quickly you can fetch the widget, or kill the person in question, and get out for the XP. The mission is often exactly as described and there are few/no delightful or scary surprises along the way. They feel very rote very quickly and they deviate from, or have nothing to do with, the main quest or characters.
HFW's side quests serve the story. They provide more background on your friends in The Base and the inner-workings of tribes like the Tenakth, Oseram or the Utaru. They're full of twists and varying rewards. When I started the "Wound in the Sand" mission to find out why the well in the town of Scalding Spear (built on a post-apocalyptic rendering of one of the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility near Las Vegas) was dry, it seemed mundane. But this path ultimately leads Aloy to pick sides in a violent showdown for tribal leadership.
- You can pursue the main storyline without having to deviate too much to build XP and therefore finish in a reasonable amount of time (which I define as <30 hours for a $60 game). HFW: ✅
Some minor gripes
- SAVES. Having to manually save progress at campfires feels dumb and forced. Especially early game, I found myself forgetting to do this, dying, then losing 10+ minutes of gameplay routinely.
- This one is probably more on me than the game, but I kept forgetting to use the combat enhancers like "Valor Surge" or the special weapon capabilities like the triple shot. I think those could use a little more signposting to remind the player they're there if unused.
- Also potions. I found them difficult and inconvenient to use and you can carry so few of them early game. I almost exclusively used berries to heal.
- Also traps, tripcasters, etc. I never used them because they're inconvenient and unnecessary. All you need is a few bows.
- Like Horizon Zero Dawn, the first installment in this series, I found myself NEVER engaging in melee combat. My playthrough was 99% ranged, excepting stealth kills. It's funny too because the game tries to get you to do up-close fighting with the introduction of "Melee Pits." Meh. The combat engine is almost a victim of its own success here because ranged combat is so fun and nuanced.
- Why do you have to climb on highlighted yellow bars/nipples? Aloy is clearly a skilled climber and I'm a little mystified that you can't scale any textured surface without first pulsing your Focus to ensure it has yellow lines or holds on it. It just feels like an arbitrary limitation.
- I'm not really a fan of games within games like Machine Strike because I want to interact with the actual story and characters. I felt similarly about Gwent in The Witcher 3. I didn't play at all and I don't think the world needed it. Not really sure what the motivation was to include it.
- Aloy's hair is still out of control.
This is the kind of game I feel like I could return to every few years, which is exactly how I feel about Elders Scrolls: Skyrim, my favorite game of all time. I think HFW is safely nestled in my top five.