It’s a well-known fact that I’m not the biggest fan of open-world and while Horizon isn’t the biggest of the bunch, there’s still a tonne of repetition and redundancy to be had across the entire game, but at the same time I have to praise all of the strong female and LGBTQ+ characters that drives home that representation doesn’t need to be big spectacles or deep dives into their trauma, the simple act of showing characters that are strong and unashamed of their identity and are respected within in their circles is enough… perhaps that’s even more important. We all need more healing and positive role models in our lives after all.
True to its namesake, set in the Forbidden West you find Aloy 6 months after the events of the original as she continues her search for a way to reverse the degrading biosphere and save the world. Alongside friends new and old, Aloy rallies an unlikely band of allies and teaches them how to use the “Old” technologies of the Focus and uncover the secrets of the world that was, before it’s rebirth into the juxtaposed scape of tribes and technology. Climate change aside, it’s quite the topical story when you think about it; The once caretakers of human life - the machines, without proper maintenance are no longer operating within their intended protocols and are being manipulated by malevolent programs whilst the tribes revere the remnants of the old world as something holy. It makes you think about our own digital footprints and how that could translate to the generations of the future.
Led by the phenomenal voice work of Ashly Burch, I was surprised that so much of Aloy’s dialogue outside of the main story is boiled down to patronising over-explanation during puzzles and general exploration despite the already presented visual cues of cutscenes, quest markers and the Focus highlighting points of interest. To put it simply, Aloy has verbal diarrhoea and I wished she didn’t have to be constantly thinking aloud and strong-arming the player through each step.
Gameplay while fun I have to say doesn’t feel like any marked improvement from its predecessor and while they have added new mechanics like the valor surge abilities, underwater exploration and sky gliding there’s a growing trend of modern games still struggling with consistent move speed while platforming and snagging on rocks at ankle height. More often than not I found myself reclimbing a building or wall because the game failed to register a handhold or cuts Aloy’s forward momentum to grab a lower ledge as opposed to the one I was aiming for.
As for combat, Aloy’s technological gadget the Focus allows you scan enemies and machines for patrol routes, weakspots and resource containers along with elemental resistances and vulnerabilities to better plan for each encounter. It’s unfortunate then that the wide array of weapons at Aloy’s disposal comes at a handicap of deciding for you what kind of ammunition and elemental type is available for use. Despite having no real justification as to why a bow can’t fire all types of elemental arrows when they are just canisters attached to the tips, It makes it worse that there are some elements that are very rare to come across as ammunition options and are really helpful for the later challenges. You’re essentially given an abundance of choice but at the same time pigeon-holed into keeping old, weaker weapons for the sake of elemental adaptability against the tougher machines.
The game also has a problem with its own economy that it tries to fix with vendors exchanging the harder to salvage parts for animal spoils, but even then you’ll find yourself more likely just selling them for money or upgrading your ammunition pouches (Of which I barely upgraded and had to be constantly jumping into the quick select wheel to craft more ammo multiple times per fight). With the oversaturation of vendors in the world and their weapons and armour, it quickly becomes a massive time investment and waste to upgrade equipment that gets swapped out the instant you find a rarer version that uses the same ammunition or provides better perks to your playstyle. At lower difficulties and even on hard, it doesn’t feel all that necessary to spend time foraging for hours collecting upgrade parts.
The entire world is grand in scale but there’s a lot to be desired of its graphical prowess, it’s pretty yes and there’s a tonne of opportunities for some beautiful shots in photo mode… but good graphics are somewhat of a norm and they have to be extremely impressive for me to make any substantial note of. Instead, I want to bring attention to Aloy’s hair, it has a mind of its own. Watching her hair blowing in a non-existent wind or bouncing around after snagging on her armour like an apoplectic slinky is distracting to say the least, especially during in-game cutscenes.
While you could potentially ignore almost every side quest (Of which there are 13 sub categories!!) and keep yourself on a linear path for the story, bar some necessary level up and equipment upgrade quests, that approach is not totally natural for the player and leads you down a path of “cleaning up” areas of all their missions before moving onto the next. It’s worth mentioning also that for any completionists (like myself) a Platinum trophy only requires a 50% completion rate and less so for the average, non-trophy hunter! It feels like somewhat of an admission from the developer that people don’t play through all of the content on offer in open-world games. I appreciate that everyone should play how they want to but I feel like they should at least be trying to incentivise people to experience everything they’ve spent their time in making. Especially for an open-world game. Under 50% for an average playthrough feels… sad.
With all of these side quests you’d be right in thinking that the bulk of the game is made up of fetch quests and side stories that ultimately have little to do with the games overarching narrative and instead extols upon the denizens of the game world and their own personal struggles with identity, social status and ambitions… for better or worse. Personally, it completely stalled my enjoyment of the story and threw me off pace for a long time until I cleaned up most of the side quests and “Got them out of the way”
However, there is one fantastic side arc that revolves around the sisters Boomer and Delah that I urge every player with a sympathetic/empathetic mind for neuro-divergent characters to experience and complete. Boomer’s character while not disclosed as autistic displays certain behaviours associated with it. The most refreshing thing about this story arc is that her sister Delah despite her frustrations understands that Boomer is different (Outside the realms of western diagnosis) and accepts her for how she sees the world – Boomer sees solutions to problems that Delah would only see obstacles. Their story reinforces the impact of positive and hopeful representation of neuro-divergence in a way that doesn’t openly state that there is something inherently wrong with them and in fact hammers away at the negative connotations and instead focuses on all of the good things that come from being “different” and that it is indeed a good thing.
With all this said, Horizon: Forbidden West is still an incredible game that stands with AAA titles of its ilk. It has a fantastic story, a rich world and enjoyable gameplay but it’s just a shame that under the surface of all its features I feel of a lack of polish - they don’t feel as well implemented as they could have been.