Burning Shores arrives soon! The first DLC for Horizon Forbidden West releases later this month, which Guerilla Games promises does capitalize on its PS5 exclusivity. If that promise is even partially held, then we can expect a visually gorgeous trek through post-apocalyptic Los Angeles.
Developer & Publisher // Guerilla Games, Sony Interactive Entertainment
Platforms // PlayStation 4|5, PC
MSRP & Release Date //$59.99, Feb 18, 2023
Reviewed On // PC
While Forbidden West doesn’t fully reach its potential, it is a notable upgrade from its predecessor, Zero Dawn. New machines, improved gameplay, gorgeous landscapes and a solid narrative still give a very enjoyable game worth exploring.
Editor’s note: We are going full spoilers for this review. Forbidden West is over a year old now and the DLC requires that you complete the game. As such, we are also writing this as though you played Zero Dawn. You have been warned, spoilers start right here:
Plot Summary: Aloy Doesn’t Get a Break
After stopping the HADES AI at Meridian, she ventures off to find and reboot the GAIA AI, developed by Elisabet Sobeck, of whom Aloy is a genetic clone. If Aloy fails, Earth’s biosphere will collapse and end life on the planet.
The game starts when an old ally, Varl, catches up to her, despite her claims that it’s a solo job. He helps her exhaust her last known lead on the GAIA AI at the ruins of a Far Zenith base. Far Zenith was a group that decided to escape Earth when the Faro Plague that originally destroyed life on Earth was active.
After failing here, Aloy realizes that the shady archeologist, Sylens, stole HADES after Meridian. Sylens leaves a message for Aloy to follow him to the Forbidden West (modern-day Rockies to California Coast) for another lead on GAIA. Upon arrival, Aloy gets a bloody introduction to a rebel tribe leader, Regalla. Regalla leads rebel Tenakth with control of the machines so “graciously” given by Sylens.
This lead turns out to be successful, but GAIA is missing multiple subordinate functions, including HEPHAESTUS. HEPHAESTUS builds machines in the Cauldron Network, a series of caves made by the Machines to continue making Machines. This AI was the main villain in Zero Dawn’s DLC, the Frozen Wilds.
Aloy’s objectives are now clear: find the AI’s controlling the subordinate functions, ending with HEPHAESTUS since it can jump from Cauldron to Cauldron. One problem: Far Zenith came back with wildly far-advanced technology and their own Sobeck clone, Beta. They are also looking for GAIA, but they’re looking to completely reset Earth’s biosphere for their needs.
Fixing GAIA and Stopping the Zeniths
With help from old friends like Varl and Erend, and new friends like Kotallo, Zo, and Alva, Aloy gathers and merges the missing AIs, and takes in Beta from the Zeniths. However, when gathering the final function and merging it into GAIA, the Far Zeniths ambush them, kill Varl, recapture Beta, and take GAIA. Aloy only lives because one of them, Tilda (played by Carrie-Anne Moss), goes rogue and brings Aloy to her home from centuries prior.
If Tilda’s actions didn’t confirm it, the Far Zeniths are not the original’s descendants, they’re the original people. Tilda not only knew Sobeck, but they also had some sort of romantic relationship. That relationship made Tilda deeply regret leaving Sobeck behind. As such, Tilda pledged her allegiance to Aloy and Earth.
Before storming the Zenith base, Aloy still needs to stop the Tenakth Rebels. She literally swoops in and challenges Regalla to one-on-one combat. Aloy wins and can spare Regalla’s life if the player wants in exchange for help with the Far Zenith assault.
During the final assault, Alva and Kotallo discover that Far Zenith has been fleeing an evil AI called NEMESIS. NEMESIS started as a failed Far Zenith project on digital immortality and explains why Tilda worked with Aloy. Tilda doesn’t care about saving Earth, she cares about saving “Elisabet.” Using the Specter Prime construct, Tilda tries taking Aloy away from Earth but dies in failure.
With the Zeniths gone and GAIA fully restored sans HADES, Aloy and crew focus on the coming fight with NEMESIS.
Horizon: Forbidden West Has Fascinating Themes
By the time you reboot GAIA, you can see that Guerilla really delivers on its sci-fi logic and narrative themes. Many of the situations in the game are logically explained, or they focus on the importance of community and truth.
For example, Aloy helps the Utaru tribe save their land-gods, Plowhorn Machines. Plowhorns till the land and plant vegetation for food. Each Plowhorn goes into a nearby cave to start a new season. When Aloy meets the Utaru, one Plowhorn, Fa, hasn’t returned from the cave which is now spewing out stronger variants of Machines, or Apex Machines.
Aloy, Varl, and an Utaran woman named Zo appeal to the Utaran Council, the Chorus, to investigate. The Chorus refuses, so the three take advantage of another Apex outbreak to sneak in. Once in, Aloy realizes the cave is actually a Cauldron that serves as a repair bay. Plowhorns don’t go into the cave to start the new season, they go in for maintenance.
Sadly, thanks to HEPHAESTUS, the repair bay has changed Fa into a murderous Grimhorn, so Fa must be destroyed before fixing the Cauldron. Zo’s loses her religion because of this, but she still wants to save by the Plowhorns because they can save her people. She has an optional side quest to fix the Plowhorns.
This subplot balances the game’s feelings on religion/tradition with its feelings on the actual people. Many leaders in the Forbidden West make bad decisions that hurt their people (even the good leaders). These decisions get rectified when the affected people, like Zo, take matters into their own hands through Aloy’s bullheaded personality.
However, these bad decisions don’t drive Zo and others from their community, it drives them to help their people. Seeing these strong bonds in spite of the leaders shows that Horizon‘s writers don’t place faith in higher beings, they believe in the human spirit.
These Themes are Shrouded in Dramatic Irony
As non-religious as Forbidden West gets, the Horizon series love some dramatic irony. Despite the writer’s stronger faith in people, all of the Old Ones and AIs are named after mythological figures. The Zero Dawn AI’s are named after Greek gods like Gaia, the goddess of Earth, Hephaestus, god of crafting, and more.
Simultaneously, many of the Old Ones reference Egyptian myths. Elisabet’s last name, Sobeck, imitates Sobek, the Egyptian crocodile god known for protecting those from the Nile. Ted Faro, the moron who caused the Old One’s collapse, is pronounced like Pharoah, Egyptian rulers.
Aloy is notably atheistic because she knows how things work. Yet she is trying to save the world with programs named after Greek Gods made by people named after Egyptian mythology. That is a textbook example of dramatic irony: having an atheist find faith in old religious figures.
Forbidden West’s Writing Quality Doesn’t Stay Consistent
The farther into the game you go, the more the writing falls apart. Aloy and Beta have a rough relationship because they’re opposites of each other despite cloning the same person. They don’t get along until they have a shouting match that gets out all of the pent up resentment. This happens right before the team captures HEPHAESTUS and Beta gets taken, despite Aloy’s promise and best intentions.
Nonetheless, Aloy already considers her a sister after these events. That is too far of a development to naturally make after their relationship for most of the game. If they started considering each other sisters in Burning Shores, that would feel less rushed because they’d have time to know each other. However, the conversations you can have with Beta up to that point don’t support such a drastic progression.
That said, the NEMESIS reveal falters much more, save for how the characters discover it. Aloy only learns about NEMESIS right before the final fight, which feels far less like a natural reveal and more like a ham-fisted, unnecessary reveal. There’s no emotional impact the way other series have successfully revealed existential threats because we had nothing to prepare ourselves for it.
On the whole, Horizon: Forbidden West’s narrative holds its own. It does not stay at a consistent quality level, but it does have some very bright spots. Even if open-world games are not your favorite cup of tea, this one does at least deserve a taste.
Horizon didn’t need to change its core gameplay loop because it’s already very fun. You fight monsters and people by shooting them with various weapons (namely a bow and arrow) using specialized ammo or smacking them with Aloy’s staff. You can use Aloy’s Focus to scan them, highlight their strengths and weaknesses, and highlight individual components on Machines.
The damage types vary from traditionally elemental (like Fire, Acid, etc.) to Horizon specific, namely Tear damage that pulls chunks of armor off Machines. You use a combination of these damage types with information about your target to maximize damage and scavenge parts off of fallen Machines.
The gameplay balances fast-paced action with methodical planning. You can’t button mash or randomly fire your weapons, you need to think out your attack. Additionally, you need to change your strategy for each Machine, and man do you have a variety of challenges.
Shooting Robo-Dinosaurs is Fun, Hitting Them Isn’t As Much
Despite Forbidden West’s exclusion of some Machines from Zero Dawn, the sequel has more Machines in quantity and quality. Every Machine family aside from Chariot Machines gets a new Machine. Leapslashers and Clawstriders lead the smaller ones, Sunwings and Dreadwings add new aerial foes, and Slaughterspines and Shellsnappers will make you cry.
Each of these new Machines fit unique niches and showcase the possibilities we can get. Earth has nearly 9 million different species of animals in real life, and Guerrilla Games knows it. These Machines don’t just look like their inspirations, they fight like their inspirations would fight (well, aside from the obvious mechanical extensions the Machines can get). For enemies that are literally robots, the Machines breathe the new life a sequel needs to stay fresh.
Close quarters, however, isn’t quite equal yet, however. To Guerrilla’s credit, however, they did address melee combat. Instead of just getting a light and heavy attack, players can now pull off combo melee attacks. These attacks mix light with heavy and can even get Aloy airborne. If you hit a target enough, you can then shoot them in a highlighted area to cause a sonic explosion and amp up your damage.
Melee combat’s problem isn’t from a lack of trying, it’s from a forced focus on who to fight. Since Machines can sometimes tower over Aloy or fight with completely long-range tactics (see aerial and water-based Machines), close combat clearly focuses on fighting humans. Some combos won’t even work on Machines, nor will Machines give you the window or range to reasonably use close combat.
Guerrilla made the right call by updating melee mechanics, but it still sits in the backseat while long-range fighting drives.
Horizon: Forbidden West Loadouts and Skill Trees Stay Too Safe
Like any generic open-world game, players can customize their loadout and unlock skills through skill trees. Aloy always has one armor set equipped at a time and six weapons max. Players can earn new armors and weapons through quests or buy them throughout the Forbidden West.
Both armor and weapons have slots for Weaves and Coils (respectively) to further customize each. These and other items in your inventory are separated on a colored-tier system.
Finally, Forbidden West gives you six skill trees for improving Aloy. Each trees’ unlockables primarily focus on passive benefits (i.e. better sneak damage, faster trap construction, etc.), but they also have Weapon Techniques and Valor Surges. Weapon Techniques are special moves you can make specific to each weapon type (i.e. Hunter Bow, Blastsling, etc.). Meanwhile, Valor Surges are Aloy’s ultimate moves. These give her an extremely boosted power for a set duration and require the most skill points to unlock.
You may have noticed that we first compared these customizations to any generic open-world game. That’s because these customizations are generic and boring. The new weapon additions are fascinating, but the actual customization is bland.
Customization’s biggest issue in Forbidden West stems from a lack of synergy. Loadout options are so compartmentalized that they barely work with each other. Synergy makes loadout customizations sing and elevate gameplay because they unlock wildly fun builds. Melee combat is the closest we get to good synergy since you can combine both light and heavy attacks and you can cause sonic bursts by hitting the charged spot on your target.
We’re not trying to say these customizations make Forbidden West unplayable, but they’re only serviceable at best.
Forbidden West is Gorgeous and Then Some
The Forbidden West is a gorgeous, varied landscape to explore. You have copious different biomes to explore from the barren deserts around the ruins of Las Vegas to the ginormous California Redwood Forest. Every area feels vastly different due to a combo of landscape, color schemes, and Machine variety.
Some of these areas especially leave incredible impressions. After completing a main story mission in Las Vegas, the old holograms from the time of the Old Ones flicker back on. You can also find projection modules in ruins throughout the Forbidden West that sprinkle holiday-relevant imagery throughout the sky. As the grandson of two Irish immigrants, you bet I kept the St. Paddy’s Day projections on as long as I could.
The most awe-inspiring shots, however, come near the end of the game. After getting HEPHAESTUS merged into GAIA, you unlock an override for Sunwings, a new avian Machine in this game. This override lets you fly on a Sunwing’s back, and thus, lets you soar over the Forbidden West.
Audio and Technical Performances Do Their Job With One Exception
Audio-centric players won’t hate this game, but Technical junkies will love the controller experience. Forbidden West’s sound design is nothing special and has sounds that fit their environments.
Like Zero Dawn, players can hear a variety of sounds from the Dualsense Controller’s speaker. These sounds namely stick to things Aloy does like pulling the bowstring back for a shot. While that feature goes away when using a headset, the sounds are still nifty.
Speaking of the controller, Forbidden West shows off the Dualsense in the best possible way. You feel every nuanced reverberation through the PS5 controller. Aloy’s sprinting? Expect to feel each footstep through the Dualsense. Unlodging a blocked path? You’ll feel each block fall as you hold down the R2 button. Sony promised that the PS5’s controller would set a new bar, and that promise has been kept.
All of this said, Kotallo’s dialogue stands as an exception. Much of what he says sounds as though it was recorded in a tin can. That’s only immersive when the player is in a lab and is unnatural everywhere else. Yes, Forbidden West spent its last two years of development during the pandemic, and that wildly affected how games are made, but that doesn’t change the fact that certain aspects of the game did not turn out well.
Final Thoughts: Horizon: Forbidden West’s Beauty Exudes Despite Flaws
Horizon: Forbidden West is a great PlayStation title. The gameplay and world grab your attention because the PS5 makes it gorgeous. Aloy’s journey shows her the power of people. Yet notable flaws keep this from reaching Horizon’s true ceiling. Forbidden West’s endgame hampers an otherwise good story. Melee combat improved, but not enough. Most importantly, these loadout possibilities are bland.
Horizon can be an absolutely exceptional series, but it needs to let its players have fun with a consistent story.