'Horizon: Forbidden West' Is a Next-Gen Open-World Masterpiece

Aloy returns to battle monolithic bionic beasts in this visually stunning sequel to 'Horizon: Zero Dawn.'

Horizon: Forbidden West
'Horizon: Forbidden West' | Sony Interactive Entertainment
'Horizon: Forbidden West' | Sony Interactive Entertainment

It’s a strange thing to say about a place filled with mechanical zoo animals that want to kill you, but Horizon: Forbidden West’s enormous open world is deceptively inviting. Its lush jungles, blight-riddled plains, and snowy mountains beg to be explored, even as each subsequent destination greets you with some new synthetic-muscled, razor-jawed murder contraption. Neither acid-spewing robot skunks the size of cars nor bionic sea monsters will dissuade you and your avatar, Aloy, from eagerly cresting each new ridge in anticipation of what's on the other side.

As you accrue dozens upon dozens of hours in the game, you'll be shocked how slowly the map's nooks and crannies are revealed. Each and every inch of it has something for you to do, and unlike in most open-world adventures—including Forbidden West's predecessor, Horizon: Zero Dawn—those things actually feel worth doing. Decrepit ruins of the ancient world contain inventively fun puzzles, each village and settlement brims with life, and every last side quest and errand feels crafted with care and intelligence.

But Forbidden West has much more to offer than simply a decadent world. This is a game both for people who loved and did not love the original; it follows up on nearly every plot point from the first game, while the overarching story isn't too complicated to get across in a quick recap. In a post-apocalyptic future 1,000 years distant from today, a woman named Aloy harnesses technology of the past to fight giant robots, unearth cool secrets, and save the world. In a roundabout way, Aloy was the product of the Zero Dawn project, an initiative in which the world's greatest scientists banded together to reboot life on earth after extinction by murderous robots became inevitable. The project half-worked, resulting in a world built on ruins and populated by tribal peoples, a random smattering of real animals, and mysterious machines that resemble and, in many cases, even act like biological creatures of the past.

Crucially, Forbidden West is an upgrade over its predecessor in every conceivable way. For example, the ever-present combat, in which Aloy uses souped-up bows-and-arrows, slingshots, and tripwires to tear huge robots apart component-by-component, is ten times more gripping. The new ability to scan individual machine parts using Aloy's Focus, a Google Glass-like gadget she wears on her temple, lets you see exactly what you're up against; you can highlight and target the precise upgrade components you need, or see which canisters sticking off a robot's back should be hit with specific elemental attacks. And every foe Aloy faces is a monument to the designers' skills, each machine fuming and sputtering with fluid, majestic life.

Aloy's journey within this world takes her from a prologue set in her home in the former eastern United States all the way to the western coast of the continent, and the story this time around is an utterly gripping tale of full-blown sci-fi that renders everything that happened in the original to a mere prologue in comparison. There are artificial intelligences and mysterious strangers; all the characters, both new and returning, feel well-fleshed-out in a way few video games are able to achieve. The original game was noticeably stunted in this department; The difference this time around is night and day. Much like the Horizon series' most well-loved forebears in the open-world adventure genre (The Witcher 3 and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild come to mind), Forbidden West is populated by characters whose lives seem to persist even when they're not in your immediate view, and every single interaction with them reveals another layer of story and setting. It helps immensely that nearly every single conversation in the game is fully performance captured, making even mundane chats feel cinematic—and the voice talent here, including the likes of Carrie-Anne Moss and Lance Reddick, is stellar.

Horizon: Forbidden West
Sony Interactive Entertainment

Towering above even them is Ashly Burch, who—like in the original—plays multiple roles, including the protagonist, Aloy. But Aloy, as a person, is vastly more interesting this time around. In the original, she had the outline of a compelling character—an outcast of mysterious origin, raised adjacent to but apart from the Nora tribe, and thus not burdened by their dogma and able to utilize the technology of the past. But the first game's flat writing failed Aloy more often than not. In Forbidden West, Burch, with an endlessly fantastic script, imbues Aloy with stubbornness, fear, vulnerability, and even love—qualities seldom glimpsed in often-silent video game protagonists.

Following the first game's events, Aloy's world is filled with adoring fans and would-be friends—she's essentially a celebrity now. But the early game sees her pushing them all away, fighting single-mindedly while failing to deal with the trauma she's experienced. In the opening hours, making Aloy a better friend became something of a mission for me; I was delighted when I was able to steer her toward optional conversations with characters I remembered from the first game, literally forcing the impatient warrior to sit down and have a beer with old friends. They talked about past times and places, Aloy received some intel about her current circumstances, and other random characters drinking in the tavern jumped in with their own drink-slurred comments about the town's politics. It was a joy, and the game only got better and better from there.

Every single element of Horizon: Forbidden West feels that well-executed and more. The sheer amount of dialogue is staggering, and the writing is great from start to finish, whether Aloy is simply muttering to herself, or shocking twists are being revealed. There are dozens of new skills to unlock, including alternate firing modes for every weapon type and complex new melee combos. Aloy can swim underwater now, opening new vistas for exploration, and the game looks unbelievably gorgeous (at least, played on PS5 and a 4K TV). On top of all that, Forbidden West features innumerable small-but-appreciated "quality of life" enhancements, like simplified inventory management, free fast travel, cheaper ammo and potion crafting, and more generous combat abilities right from the start. Even climbing around the world is more fun now, as you can tap a button to have handholds highlighted, then glide down from heights using one of Aloy’s many new abilities. And there are some truly phenomenal surprises I won't spoil for you here.

Final Verdict

Horizon: Forbidden West isn't just a superior sequel in every way. It's one of the best open-world games to date, with action, acting, and a world that all feel truly "next-gen." You could spend dozens of hours just mastering its game-within-a-game, Machine Strike, or tackling hunting ground challenges, or fighting in the arena, or scavenging weapon upgrade components, or simply galloping around the beautiful landscape on the back of a roaring, fire-breathing, metallic shining beast. Or you can simply follow the main story through its many genuinely intriguing twists and turns. No matter what it is you choose, you're going to enjoy it.

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Mike Rougeau is a Los Angeles-based contributor for Thrillist. Follow him on Twitter at @RogueCheddar