I was really looking forward to writing a review of Horizon Forbidden West because I knew it would let me actually revisit even more exciting things, like the very good anime Future Boy Conan and how cool robot dinosaurs are. And, as I played through the main story’s last gasp last night I summed up my feelings with the actual game as “this is very stupid.” I’ll explain more below, so obviously bear in mind this article is going to contain spoilers for the whole game.
The best place to start here is with what did I like so much about Zero Dawn that firstly made me so excited for, and secondly so disappointed by, Forbidden West? What inspired me, in this spacious, sprawling open world game of hunting dinosaur mechs with pre-modern weapons, to be so excited by the concept that I’d eventually run one of the best tabletop RPG experiences I’ve ever had (which, to be fair, stopped being inspired by the Horizon games about four sessions in and turned into Future Boy Conan and Wild Arms 3)? The answer was it was a really, really smart post-apocalyptic setting. So far post the apocalypse that society had rebuilt itself – still to largely pre-industrial levels, but there was a world, there were communities and nations and things beyond the urbex joy of something like Fallout where you find a village made out of an old diner. And the apocalypse was still causing problems – the robots everywhere. I was 100% enthralled by this idea of a world where the future tech was still present, still functional, but people were actively trying to work around or with it in their more limited technology base. It meant you could tell a very neat story – playing as someone who wanted to learn about the past and its wonders, but also dealing with other people doing that and just the new nation-state disputes and ideological conflicts that the post-fall rebuilt society had lapsed into.
So I played a lot of Zero Dawn. I did everything. I couldn’t get enough of it. And I was fully expecting Forbidden West to be the same gripping experience. Instead I left most of the side content untouched, and found myself wishing it to end. Why?
The first reason is the fact the game felt unsure of what it wanted to be tonally, thematically and ultimately structurally. It was a bit of a mess, weighed down by more and more plot twists and turns that never really had time to breathe and most of which weren’t really that engaging. Zero Dawn gives you, at first slowly and then all at once in a genuinely pretty bleak setpiece, the details of the apocalypse. How it was so bad, caused by such a terrible calamity, that all people could do was wipe the slate clean and start again – and even that didn’t work properly. (Coming into Forbidden West and remembering this off the back of Shadowbringers and Endwalker shaped my preconceptions here a bit too, if we’re talking about worlds brought to ruin by hubris). But ultimately, while it wasn’t trying to be subtle, it was smart. It told you the story, it let you see how bad things were, it found moments of humanity and humour in the despair, but ultimately its whole deal was everyone died. There wasn’t a magic solution to stop the apocalypse, there was only a way of making sure something survived a thousand years down the line. That’s quite bold.
Forbidden West begins with a massive Chekov’s Gun in the form of a spaceport. We are told that to escape the calamity, some people went into space. They did not seem to succeed, but anyone with a modicum of narrative sense knows they’re coming back this game. This is fine. It’s not perhaps the best storyline, not one I was expecting, but I was willing to go with it because I love so many mech anime where the big twist is the villains are actually us, or rather more like us than you’d think. Layzner, Baldios, Turn-A Gundam, Nadesico, Ideon, the list goes on. So I was actually quite excited for the Moonrace/Spacenoids/Aliens to arrive and start messing things up. Unfortunately Forbidden West’s space civilisation are kind of rubbish. They’re a couple of dozen people that look like extras from The Eternals (or, more charitably, Dune) with arm cannons and a ready supply of robots I’m pretty sure I fought in one of the later Halo gamesor Supreme Commander. They exist for most of the game as a bunch of fairly characterless mooks who have exciting personalities like “likes fighting”, “is rich” and “likes Old Earth art.” There’s not really any opportunity to characterise them, either, because they rather like shooting first and not asking questions. You get some of it later in the penultimate mission or so, when one of the space people has doubts about the others, and tries to backstab them, but even so they’re just doing it really to trick you. It’s the blandest, safest way to do something that could be really interesting. Your space colony has millennium-old super cyborgs with immortality, posthuman tech, AIs, mobile suits, everything, and yet they are just a bunch of very bland looking smartprice Harkonnens.
But wait, there’s more, because Forbidden West can’t do anything without adding a whole mountain more plot twists to it. The space people have enslaved a clone of the protagonist, and aren’t actually coming back to Earth to conquer it because they want to, but because the rest of their civilisation turned themselves into a killer super AI that destroys planets. Hold on a minute here. There’s a point, and I think that point is long passed, where your game about Earth being destroyed by a rogue AI can have too many rogue AIs and that point is probably where you start inventing one that’s a giant nanomachine cloud destroying planets which exists mainly as a sequel hook for your next game but also to unnecessarily explain why one of the AIs in the first game went rogue. Also there are two final boss fights, both of which are quite funny. The first is against a big man with a square head who likes to fight and comes out with really terrible threats in combat. He can fly, summon swords and shoot a gun, and is very weak to having arrows shot into his groin. The second is the one actually good combat mech the space people bring out, and it is actually a very cool mech but a very disappointing boss fight because it is also weak to being shot in the robot groin with arrows. Of all the space civilisation aesthetics the mech and their big sort of art deco spaceship is the part I like the most.
So, right, Forbidden West is a game about fighting off the space civilisation, whatever their motives may be? Right? Well it’s also a game about fixing the terraforming AI you kind of broke at the end of the last game, which involves gathering allies from a bunch of different biome-themed zones to find AI parts, and before you can do that it’s also a game about sorting out a civil war between a bunch of different tribes who are living on top of the AI parts you need, and it’s also a game about the main character’s weird maternal relationship with her own clone who is a child. You can see now why I said the story is an unwieldy mess. Any one of those plot arcs – invasion of super-tech precursors, race against time to find fragments of a broken AI, dealing with a nation on the brink of war that could easily cause all manner of problems – would be a great game. All three in one game means none of them have time to breathe and that’s a really serious problem. I wanted less story so there could be more of the bits of story I liked.
And there’s another problem I’ve not mentioned yet, but which kicked me in the face about ten minutes into the game. You come into Forbidden West after having played a game for 30-60 hours entirely about how man’s scientific utopianism and hubris destroyed the planet. After having played a game about how even in the post-fall reconstructed society, the same problems – prejudice, nationalism, short-termism – are holding society back. You don’t play Horizon unless you’re on board with this being a game about dealing with the fallout of science gone wrong. Yet, ten minutes in, your hero and her friend turn, look directly at the camera, and say outright “I can’t believe that rich people would only look out for themselves and lie to others!” as if this is some new and unfamiliar insight (despite a big part of the first game’s plot focusing on post-fall society being held back by people looking for personal wealth and power.) I don’t mind my post-apocalyptic fiction and science-fiction being as subtle as a brick, but I do want it to respect my intelligence.
I can be trusted, I would hope, to by willingly choosing to play a game about the consequences of unchecked corporate greed and scientific hubris not need someone to look straight at the fourth wall and say “wow I didn’t know that capitalism was bad.” But that was one scene, I thought, and then the writing got back to being generally pretty good. Except it happened again. Aloy turned to the camera and all but said “religion sure is stupid” in a sidequest where you see a group of refugees being put in danger because they value preserving their cultural and religious traditions over common sense compromise. Which felt really weird because the game was increasingly becoming “your rational and liberal hero who knows best because she’s best at computers and knows the most about the past goes to a bunch of primarily non-white groups with variously indigenous-coded aesthetics and gets mad because their traditions and cultures are irrational.” And then it happened again at the end of the game when in another scene another audience surrogate side character does the same turn to camera and say “I can’t believe that the people of the past were self-serving.” It felt like the game didn’t trust the player to read its story, to look at the very world they were playing in, and remember the thesis of the first game. And I didn’t like that one bit.
I’m going to go on a bit of a tangent here actually about the game’s handling of tradition, superstition, myth and religion because at times it’s quite clever and at others it feels quite dismissive. The big thing of the Horizon games is people misinterpreting the distant past and finding the “wrong” cultural significance in things. When done well it’s rather good – there’s an excellent bit in Forbidden West where military heroes commemorated in a half-ruined museum have become gods and legendary warriors for the people living nearby, and even when you “fix” this misconception by repairing the museum exhibits they just adjust their perception to focus more on how the pre-fall world admired courage and skill at arms and mythologised great soldiers. It’s unsubtle, for sure, but I liked it. It was a credible kind of misconception, the payoff didn’t dismiss them as stupid or credulous but instead as people who had identified a part of something and logically extrapolated from it. Compare this with, say, a part where you go to the ruins of Las Vegas and literally, in text, amaze the locals with a pretty light show. It’s similarly presented as hopeful – they’ve been exposed to a fragment of the past glory and it inspires – but also feels somewhat uncharitable, the blandest, most flanderised depictions of people amazed by basic Christmas symbology (which doesn’t quite work, given the extremely intact city ruin they’re living in, which must have had some other instances of that imagery).
So what does all this mean, in the end? The game has a thesis, because it won’t hesitate to tell it to you plainly. But it’s actually a pretty confused and centrist one, hiding behind a blunt, simplistic liberalism. Greed, short-termism and having poor scientific ethics are all bad. That’s fine. Society should aspire to being better, and community and tolerance are good. Still fine. But also it keeps hammering home that in this case it’s been replaced by superstition, by blind faith in religion that is self-destructive, that we should be more rational and scientifically minded to ensure survival. It feels like it’s having its cake and eating it – “science is bad if too much, but also religion is bad.” It feels to me also that the first game came down generally more fairly – it was no less harsh on the techno-utopianists and corporations, but was somewhat more charitable in how it depicted the cultures that replaced them. They could be wrong, they could be antagonistic, but they were reasonably depicted even so. Forbidden West seems to skew a bit more to the caricature, and I think that’s where my disquiet lies.
At their best, the Horizon games feel like walking through the aftermath of Twilight Zone episodes, they are properly alien and bleak and yet hold some hope. At their worst, they are hamfisted parables often without any kind of strong payoff. The best example is the mission where you visit the tomb of the man who arguably caused the apocalypse, because you need a keycard, and a lot of potential is wasted. The setup is good. A culture has emerged living right at ground zero of the whole thing that has deified the man who caused all the problems because they only see the flashy technology left behind. They are led by someone claiming to be a descendant of him. It’s got the right level of wrongness, of frustration (for here the cynicism of Aloy throughout the game works to its favour, this is very clearly a place where the people in charge are very stupid, not just possessed of different cultural norms). They venerate someone who can walk into their society and actually use the technology they’re worshipping.
You go down into the tomb and find out it is a survival bunker, and that your villain was the world’s first immortal. He tried to hide away and live out the apocalypse, and in the end when the world fell his supply of the treatments needed to stay healthy and sane dried up, so he ended up an undying mutant entombed in a bunker. I love a bit of biological body horror, so this reveal should have been excellent. The game decides this is where it tries to be subtle and instead of anything fun like being pursued through a volcano lab by a mutated, invincible villain or getting to fight him, you get your keycard and the base self destructs so all the stupid leaders of his cult can die in vaguely ironic ways. I get the best monsters are the ones you imagine. I get that what strictly matters more here is the thematic irony of immortality not being all it’s cracked up to be. But as much as I’m playing Horizon for bleak post-post-apocalyptic worldbuilding I’m also playing a game where I can shoot some mecha T-Rex from the back of my velociraptor steed, and this was a big let down.
So all told, I’m not here to “fix” the game, I don’t want to propose some extensive rewrite, but I just think it shows very much that in striving to include as much as possible, to up the stakes in every direction, something was lost – and that something was I think a lot of the respect the storytelling had for the audience. If nothing has time to breathe, if everything is huge and has to be dramatic, you lose a lot of the moments of quiet dread, the moments where you as a player can reflect on things without needing to be told what to think right now.
I’ve not even touched on the few mechanical quibbles I had with the game, but they can largely be summed up as there’s too damn much of it. The platinum trophy needs only a fraction of the activities completed, and hardly any of the collectibles. The loot system is cluttered and halfbaked, combining a weak upgrade system with a steady flood of weapons with no neat way to make preset loadouts beyond a single weapon wheel, crafting is even more unwieldy with so damn many things to farm, there are collectibles I spent most of my 40-odd hours in the game not even knowing what to do with so when I turned them in the rewards were long out of date, there are so many sidequests I hit the level cap about 2/3 of the way through the plot, and just the game does not stop giving you things to do. There’s a whole board game minigame, there’s ox racing, there’s scavenger hunts and puzzle rooms and resource caves and more and it is just way, way too much.