Review: Horizon Forbidden West is a spectacular sequel which flies high and only occasionally crashes

Horizon Forbidden West is a sprawling sci-fi adventure which improves on its predecessor in almost every way while occasionally struggling under the weight of its ambition. 

Hugely expanded combat, dynamic environments teeming with detail and a staggering amount of quality content make Forbidden West a world I was glad to lose myself in for 40 hours over the course of my review. 

While its immense open-world comes with some trade-offs - including frequent technical issues - Forbidden West is a worthy sequel to one of Playstation's most iconic modern titles.   

The World

For the uninitiated, the Horizon games are set in a post-apocalyptic period where a primitive hunter-gatherer society has flourished in the ruins of futuristic America; the immensely silly twist being what these tribes hunt and gather are robotic dinosaurs mysteriously left behind by their forebears. 

This game takes place six months after the original, with returning heroine Aloy attempting to avert another species-ending catastrophe by traveling into the titular Forbidden West, encountering new tribes, machines and ancient threats along the way. 

I want to keep this review as spoiler-free as possible so all I'll say on the narrative front is Forbidden West believably ups the stakes from Zero Dawn while giving a larger cast of characters room to shine alongside the ever-compelling Aloy.

While there are some occasional pacing issues in the late game, I was happily swept along for the campaign's entire length, particularly because every beat of the story looked so spectacular.  

While Zero Dawn is still impressively beautiful even in 2022, its sequel is the best looking game I've ever seen. From sandstorms scattering the sunset into an orange haze to flying machines stretching their solar panel wings to catch the first light of morning, Forbidden West nails a thousand visual flourishes to create a world that isn't just breathtaking but also very believable.   

Horizon Forbidden West screenshot.
Photo credit: Guerrilla Games / PlayStation

On top of being visually stunning, Forbidden West is a joy to navigate due to Aloy's new traversal tools. A mechanical grapple zips her across both battlefields and up cliff faces while a new 'shield wing' glider lets her jump from those cliffs and drift down through the scenery. These abilities create a sense of verticality the first game lacked, while extensive underwater environments add literal depth to the level design.

This depth isn't just restricted to the wilderness. Upon entering my first major settlement I was shocked at how many unique animations, lines of dialogue and narrative threads were given to almost every NPC. Forbidden West's world feels like it exists independently of Aloy and continues on without her, instead of just waiting for the main character to arrive. 

This feeling is reinforced by exceptional side-quests which tie into the overall story yet stand alone as self-contained experiences. Even the more minor side activities labeled 'errands' never feel like a chore and have enough narrative context to be continually engaging.  

Unfortunately, all this rich content in a game designed to straddle console generations has come at a cost. Even running on a Playstation 5, I experienced several hard crashes during my playthrough and one complete system freeze which forced me to unplug my console to restart.

Less aggravating but still unfortunate were textures and objects frequently failing to load, along with severe frame rate dips during hectic combat encounters. These issues compounded as I unlocked new traversal abilities in the later game which allowed me to move through the world much faster but often pushed the game to render more quickly than it could manage. 

Switching to performance mode to favour frame rate over resolution made hiccups less frequent, but not disappear entirely. As I was playing a pre-release version, many of these technical wrinkles will likely be ironed out in early patches, but it's hard to shake the feeling this game was pushed out a touch too early and needed a few extra weeks in the oven.

The Hunt

'Hunting robot dinosaurs' is a pretty powerful elevator pitch for this series and the signature slaying of jurassic machines is even more ludicrously enjoyable the second time around. 

At first glance, combat isn't markedly different, you still take down foes by systematically stripping their armour, exposing the weak points and riddling them with arrows. However in Forbidden West both the roster of weapons and array of enemies is substantially fleshed out, from rocket powered javelins to hulking metal mammoths to hurl them at. 

Horizon Forbidden West screenshot.
Photo credit: Guerrilla Games / PlayStation

The much expanded arsenal of armour and weapons is obtained by trading scavenged machine parts and each piece can be upgraded multiple times, with the cycle of crafting more powerful weapons to hunt larger dinosaurs in order to craft even better weapons never getting stale. 

The sense of verticality and dynamism present in exploration is reflected in combat, with new abilities which launch Aloy into the air mid-combo and allow her to move fluidly across the battlefield. 

Using melee is now a much more viable tactic and the rhythm of moving in and out of striking range while cycling between bow, bombs, spears and a host of other weapons adds complexity to combat that I was still mastering after dozens of hours.  

For battle gluttons, an optional arena is available from relatively early in the game which pits you against an escalating series of foes and rewards bragging rights for the fastest kills on multiplayer leaderboards and along with access to exclusive legendary loot. 

You can further customise Aloy to suit your playstyle through large skill trees which contain several 'valor surges' in each specialisation. These are powerful, cinematic abilities with unique animations that charge up through combat and allow you to potentially turn the tide at the click of a button. 

The throughline between everything this sequel adds is more freedom. Freedom in how you traverse the world, freedom in how you approach combat and freedom in how you tailor Aloy to make her your own. 

The only place the game undercuts this expanded sense of possibility is in main story missions, where there is often only one way to proceed and very little flexibility in how you approach puzzles or combat. This is compounded by Aloy incessentantly commenting on whatever task she is performing and pointing players towards the solution without waiting for them to figure anything out on their own. 

It's a relatively minor but persistent problem which pulled my focus from the beautiful sandbox around me and provided an unwelcome reminder that no matter how big its world became, the game only provides one path through it in the moments that really matter. 

The Verdict

Horizon Forbidden West takes everything the original excelled at and pushes it to new heights. While occasionally held back by technical issues, the game's lush world is such a joy to explore that even after 40 hours I feel like I've only scratched the surface. 

Four stars.

  • Horizon Forbidden West releases on Playstation 4 and 5 on February 18. Newshub was provided a copy of the game by Sony for this review.