Horizon Zero Dawn blew up the gaming market with an explosion of creativity and color five years ago. Huge robotic creatures trudging through a prehistoric landscape, attacked by tribal humans with bows and arrows. A fantastic image, but also one with which you can only stunt once.
Fortunately, Zero Dawn combined this picture with an original story that focused on motherhood and the environment, and a special world in which gamers could happily lose themselves. For Horizon Forbidden West, the Amsterdam game studio Guerrilla has clearly focused on the latter. The game world that heroine Aloy enters this time feels so much bigger and richer than the already beautiful landscape of its predecessor. The processing power of the PlayStation 5 will have played a role – although this part is also available for PS4.
This time Aloy has to enter the ‘forbidden west’, a strip of land that stretches from the US state of Colorado to the coastal city of San Francisco. We walk – or drive on robot backs – through the imposing Rocky Mountains and the at times enchanting desert of Las Vegas to the deep blue ocean.
While Zero Dawn was still mainly on land, Guerrilla now adds at sea and in the air. There are bubbling underwater worlds full of danger, where you can hear the water rushing past your ears. A new system gives more space to climb wall, building and mountain. Once on top, unfold your parachute and whirl down while the robots graze below you: beautiful.
It’s just a shame that those climbable mountains are still noticeably limited to where the makers allow you to climb. The world here and there does not seem designed for a curious climber, although there is still much to discover.
The peoples you meet remain fascinating and show the different ways in which humanity can cope with a post-post-apocalyptic world. That’s exactly why it’s frustrating when Guerrilla wants to be too cute or flat: a singing peasant folk who call their gods Do, Re and Mi go over the edge and end up in Disneyland.
Anyway. In the previous game, we learned that this world is the product of artificial intelligence Gaia, which has brought plants, humans and animals back to life after a catastrophe. But Gaia has been destroyed, and defeating her destructive “son” in part 1 hasn’t reversed the world’s decline. Aloy heads west in a desperate attempt to find a copy of Gaia.
She does it as befits a hero: dogged and alone. Only her friends disagree. At its best, Horizon Forbidden West is a moving story about a woman who must learn that it’s okay to get help, to love people and to be loved. And that sometimes you can inadvertently harm people while trying to protect them.
Unfortunately, the interesting, sometimes philosophical plot twists of the first part are missing here: in the final hours, every twist can be predicted in advance. Guerrilla is also clearly full of good intentions with its diverse cast, but the combination of these twists and that cast produces a few unintentionally painfully stereotypical moments. For example, the game just misses that last step that can lift the game from strong to fantastic.
It won’t bother most gamers. The core remains strong. Meticulously removing dangerous parts from a robotic beast while dodging its attacks, quickly searching for the best arrow to disable it – the tactical combat system is still satisfying. Just don’t expect major innovations.
Horizon Zero Dawn promised us extraordinary discoveries in a very original world. Horizon Forbidden West delivers on some of that ambitious promise with gusto. Now Guerrilla just has to pay attention and stay sharp.
Horizon Forbidden West
Publisher: PlayStation Studios
For: PS4, PS5. (Played on PS5)
guerrilla is a Dutch game maker that is part of Sony PlayStation Studios, the game making branch of the game console manufacturer. Hermen Hulst, former leader of Guerrilla, heads PlayStation Studios. The Amsterdam game studio previously made a name for itself with the Killzone shooting series, but really put itself on the map with the Horizon series. The first volume sold 8 million copies worldwide. Guerrilla has now grown to 360 employees. Several projects are underway, including a virtual reality game based on Horizon.