Aloy walks across the back of a murdered world.
That’s the twist that lurked at the heart of 2017’s Horizon Zero Dawn—and that its sequel, the beautiful, addictive, occasionally frustrating Horizon Forbidden West, quickly reiterates in an opening story recap: That the “Zero Dawn” of the first game’s title wasn’t just a catchy bit of video game marketing word salad, but a last-ditch effort to reboot all life on Earth from scratch, after tech bro myopia managed to unleash a horde of murderous robots that swept the planet clean of all organic life.
In Zero Dawn, that reveal was The Big Secret, a mid-game explanation for all the small-scale tribal drama heroine Aloy had been suffering through, both for the entirety of her young life, and of the game’s bulky run-time. Freed from the specter of spoilers, its sequel is able to embrace the apocalyptic context in full, weaving an engaging story of life finding a way through the wreckage—complete with a bunch of robotic dinosaurs stomping across the landscape to inject a little chaos theory of their own.
It sounds grim. Sometimes it is grim: “It’s never a happy ending,” voice actor Ashly Burch quietly remarks to herself, after the nth time Aloy stumbles across an Old World audio log that ends with all involved murdered by rampaging machines. But it also foregrounds the emerging themes of the franchise: the war between survival and selflessness. The desire to create a better future for those who come after. And especially the question we all have to face in the end: What do you do when the inevitable comes for you?
At the center of it all stands Aloy, one of two not-so-secret weapons that keep Forbidden West from falling into the open world “here’s a map full of busywork” chasm it occasionally threatens to tumble into. As voiced by Burch—employing a winning mixture of sincerity, sarcasm, and exasperated sensibility—Aloy consistently defies the messianic archetypes the narrative tries to maneuver her into. From the moment the game begins, she reads as a person, not a blank slate or mere player avatar. She has nerdy obsessions she gets swept up in, grudges she holds, bad calls and moments of grace. Burch nails it all, from the game’s most emotional moments, down to the god-knows-how-many-lines of incidental dialogue she had to record to call out environmental obstructions, enemy attacks, and hundreds of other bits of the minutiae of post-apocalyptic life.
If the character has a defect, it’s one she shares with Forbidden West itself: a desire to do too much, pile too many responsibilities on her shoulders. Our playthrough of the game—accomplishing all of the main story content and major side quests, and a decent chunk of stuff that even the game itself writes off as “Errands”—clocked in at 60 hours. As a rule, though, that time was almost always better the closer we hewed to the game’s central story, which tracks Aloy as she attempts to recover and rebuild GAIA, the artificial intelligence designed to benevolently operate the Zero Dawn terraforming system, as the world teeters on the brink of total environmental collapse.
The thing is, though, that Aloy doesn’t just say “yes” to saving the world; she says yes to essentially everything she encounters as she makes her way across the hostile and, yes, forbidden west (covering a shrunk-down region of the demolished U.S. that starts somewhere around Arizona, and stretches to the ruins of San Francisco). These immediately-agreed-to tasks range from intruding in internecine blood feuds between various groups who worship the dead humans of the past as gods, to saving every schmuck who gets themselves treed by a gigantic robot weasel, to literally picking flowers for lazy NPCs.
As a character trait, this need to do it all is a problem the game itself is clearly aware of; a major part of Aloy’s arc in Forbidden West is in realizing that, despite being the most competent person on the entire planet, she can still turn to and rely on others for help. In practice, though, you might be at max level, possess godly weaponry, and be close personal friends with most of the heads of state of the region—but if you engage with everything Forbidden West has on offer, you’re still going to spend a lot of time feeling like the Errand-Woman Of The Apocalypse.
Whether any individual bit of side content works or not, then, comes down to a fairly simple rubric: Do you fight robot dinosaurs while doing it?
Because the second of the two saving graces we alluded to above—and the thing that truly elevates Forbidden West above so many other games in the crowded “big map full of crap” genre—is its combat system, and especially as it relates to fighting the giant, aggressive machines that populate Aloy’s world. For a style of game that rarely rises above “Apply Bullet A to Bad Guy Head B, repeat until dead,” Forbidden West—which builds on and expands the systems from Zero Dawn—somehow manages to keep its combat fresh and thrilling through the multiple days of playtime you’ll spend clearing it.
The key? Never letting you rest on your laurels. Aloy is a badass, and playing her at the peak of her combat abilities will make you feel like a badass. But she’s still going up against large, beautiful machines that are explicitly designed to kill her. As such, wading into combat by blindly button-mashing your basic attacks is a death sentence, even against simpler enemies; instead, you’ll need to use a savvy combination of stealth, special moves, multiple ammo types, and various ranged attacks to debilitate your enemies and whittle them down to size. It’s one of the abiding thrills of the game that, at multiple points during our time with it, we found ourselves desperately reaching for an ability or attack type we’d written off as superfluous against easier opponents, only to feel the battle tip in our favor as our understanding of the combat system deepened.
That focus on strategy in the face of overwhelming odds/metal spiniosauri with laser tails works in perfect tandem with the game’s hunting system, which grants you vital crafting materials when you manage to knock certain components of the enemy’s body. Few things feel more triumphant than seeing the tail finally go flying off the Thunderjaw that’s been knocking you across the battlefield—both because you’ll be able to harvest that part to upgrade your equipment later, and also because now the large robot dinosaur can’t, well, beat you to death with its tail. It is a testament to the unrivaled fun of Forbidden West’s biggest fights (and their take on what is, essentially, guilt-free robo-poaching) that, even as we were closing in on its endgame quests, we couldn’t resist veering off the beaten path to take down its biggest monsters for the sheer, visceral thrill of it all.
So: Those are the highs, and they are considerable—enough to recommend the game, even to people who might be feeling burnt out on the open-world genre as a whole. But no game this size can be free of flaws, and Forbidden West has a couple of doozies. Some are straightforward: Our review copy of the game experienced a handful of crashes, collision glitches, and animation snags; a Day One patch alleviated some of the problems, but the game never feels as seamless as you might expect a next-gen version of a big budget title like this to be. Meanwhile, the visuals, while striking when viewed from a distance, can often suffer from strange lighting effects. The game probably looks great on newer TVs built to accommodate the PS5’s high-dynamic range abilities, but on our older display, visuals were often either far too dark or completely blown out. Most of these complaints are surface stuff—but they are distracting.
More fundamental are the issues with those parts of the game that don’t revolve around either its story or combat, and which often center on clambering around caves, high-tech facilities, or riddle-filled Old World ruins. We’re happy to report that Forbidden West’s puzzle design is multi-faceted—which is to say that it doesn’t just involve pushing blocks across the floor of a ruined office building; sometimes you pull them, too.
Worse than the nigh-endless repetition of a few basic tasks—climb this, pull that, flip that switch, repeat until bored or dead—is the way these segments relentlessly pile friction on top of every single task. No objective in Forbidden West can be accomplished in two steps when seven could be jammed into it instead; we now have a possibly permanent phobia of seeing a climbing ledge positioned just above Aloy’s jump height, ensuring that a long sequence of slowly shoving a box around a ruined building is about to take place. If that feels too easy, don’t worry; the game will probably throw an arbitrary timer on top of it to ensure that nothing comes simple.
To be fair, most of the material we’re griping about here is optional. (Less so, the game’s endless series of parkour and mountain climbing challenges, which are at least eased by the addition of the same glider mechanic almost every other open world game of the last few years has wisely ripped off from The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild.) But they’re not fun, at all, and they’re extra galling thanks to the constant knowledge that you could be shooting a dinosaur with a lightning arrow instead.
But these complaints, like the content itself, are mostly just distractions. At its best—and, we’ll repeat: this game puts its best forward with a bracing frequency—Horizon Forbidden West is as good as open world gets, actively defying the mindlessness that can so often subsume the genre. Featuring wonderful acting that includes stand-out performances from not just Burch, but also Carrie-Anne Moss and a near-perfect Lance Reddick, it’s the rare action game where the battles and the story challenge each other to see which can engage the player more.
Because at its core, Horizon Forbidden West is a game about saving the world—both in the sense of preservation, and in the doomsday-averting action that involves shooting supervillains with pointy sticks. It’s about asking ourselves what we’re willing to pay, and lose, to ensure some part of our legacy persists. And it’s about what you can do in a world where the rich and powerful have murdered your future, while greedily ensuring their own lives on. It’s not a masterpiece—masterpieces rarely come this big. But it’s a world worth keeping, nevertheless.