I’ve put off writing this review, because it’s going to sound more negative than I really feel.
I’ve said many times that my favorite console video game is Horizon: Zero Dawn. For me, it had the ideal combination of graphics, story, and gameplay that suits my limited gaming skills and love of a good story.
I looked forward to the game’s sequel, Horizon: Forbidden West. Unfortunately, this is one of those times where I let my expectations get ahead of themselves. H:FW is a good game, but it doesn’t live up to my memory of the first one.
Let’s start with the story, for which I’ll avoid spoilers as best I can. Once again, you play the role of Aloy, a young hunter whose main targets are giant mechanical creatures, including dinosaurs. In the first game, the story told how our world became the one in the game. As improbable as it may seem, it offered a plausible explanation of the origins of a tribal world where robot dinosaurs are the main predators.
H:FW picks up the story a few months after the end of the first game. There’s an existential crisis affecting Earth’s future, one hinted at in the first game. It’s Aloy’s task to find the solution. The trail of answers takes her to the Forbidden West, a region of the world that (mostly for political reasons) her tribes and people are not normally allowed to visit.
I liked this new story… but did not love it. My issue is one of comparison: In H:ZD, the story consisted of clever revelations as Aloy peeled back the layers of history to understand how her world came to be, how she came to be, and what she could do about it. In H:FW, there’s less revealing and more picking up breadcrumb quests as she follows a trail from one plot point to another.
Towards the end of the game’s story, I felt that the characters’ motivations began to crumble. The game seemed to be coming up with excuses for boss battles. While this is true of video games in general, in H:ZD they seemed more organic to the story. In H:FW, more than once I felt a character was simply being stupid, careless, or arrogant for the sake of being arrogant.
Graphics: There’s nothing to complain about here! Guerrilla Games put their best efforts into this sequel. It looks great on my PS5.
Gameplay: The main gameplay in H:FW is basically the same as that of H:ZD: You have various tools that rely on elemental properties (fire, shock, poison, etc.). You can scan your enemies in stealth to learn their vulnerabilities and plan your approach. In general, there’s no one way to conduct a combat: You can lay traps, or you can do ranged attacks, or (though this is rarely a good idea) you can go toe-to-toe with the ten-story giant mechanical cobra.
The skill tree is expanded from the one in the earlier game. There are now several ability categories, focusing on melee combat, ranged combat, stealth, traps, creature control, etc. It’s not possible to gain every single skill in the game (at least I could not, for reasons I’ll get into below), so you have to make some decisions about which skills you’d like to have. Some key skills have multiple levels with multiple prerequisites. All of this is laid out reasonably well in the game’s interface.
There certainly is plenty to do in the game. I spent about 120 hours exploring the world, going on side quests and such, before I went on the final quest in the main story. That sounds pretty good, and I suppose it is.
The reason why I spent 120 hours before the main quest is that I became increasingly concerned that I was not prepared for the big final battle. (My fears were justified: Though I played on Easy Difficulty, the final boss battle took me about a half hour to get through; on the web I saw a video in which a first-time player offed the final boss in three minutes.)
The reason for my concern: Horizon: Forbidden West expanded as a game not just because of its graphics, story, and world. It also expanded by including the tropes and mechanisms from other computer games, World of Warcraft and the Diablo series in particular. Now, I enjoyed both those games, but they were what they were. By venturing into “conventional” game territory, Horizon: Forbidden West diminished in my eyes as a unique experience.
Let me get into the nitty-gritty:
The weapons and armor in H:FW can be upgraded. This was true in H:ZD as well, but the mechanism was simpler: A vendor sold a better version of the item, you obtained the currency the vendor demanded, and you bought it.
It was generally very clear when an item was an improvement over what you already had. For example, if you wanted armor that gave you fire resistance, a simple glance at the statistics of the armor in the “sales window” would make it clear whether it was an improvement.
The currency that the vendors accepted varied. Sometimes it would be something that required you to slay a particular mechanical creature; the higher the item’s quality, the more powerful the creature that had to be slain. Other times it was a special crystal or something that required you to explore, rather than kill anything.
By the end of H:ZD, I had the “best” armor and weapons that it was possible to get.
The items could be upgraded with various weaves and such, but these were not difficult to acquire. I found almost all that I needed from parts that the monster dropped once they were killed.
In Horizon: Forbidden West, just purchasing an item was not sufficient. The items had levels, and required specific creature parts in order to upgrade them. To maximize the potential of an item, you had to slay lots of creatures, hoping they would drop the items you needed. As you might expect, the higher the level, the more powerful the monster had to be, and potentially the odds of getting that drop were reduced. Nothing can be upgraded solely by exploring and finding rare crystals and such; all the upgrades come from creature combat.
But that’s not all. The items system in Horizon: Forbidden West takes the “item rarity” mechanism from World of Warcraft as well. Near the beginning of the game, you acquire “green” (common) items; near the end of the game you can get “golden” (legendary) items. The statistics comparison between items of different levels and qualities becomes much more complex.
It’s possible, for example, that a fully-upgraded green item might be better than an non-upgraded purple (“rare”) item. Making this comparison became even more difficult because the statistics and potential slot upgrades for the items has become more complex in H:FW. Should I put more effort into upgrading to the third level of a Hunter Bow, or is it easier to upgrade to just the second level of a Sharpshooter bow with a fire upgrade?
As an example of the complexity of the system, I learned a meta-rule on the web: In H:FW, never upgrade a blue (“uncommon”) item. There’s always something better, and it’s never worth the effort to upgrade it.
That’s nice to know. But it’s not the game I like to play.
From my perspective, it got worse. Let’s say that you needed three Fireclaw Sacs to upgrade an item. (You never need just three Fireclaw Sacs; typically you need a bunch of hard-to-get parts from a variety of creatures.) You go to a location where you’ve seen a Fireclaw and kill it, hoping it will drop a Sac. There’s some skill here, because it’s easy to fire an arrow at the Sac, destroying it before the Fireclaw dies, and making the effort worthless.
Then you go to another location where there’s a Fireclaw, and try to get its Sac.
Then you go back to the first location, because by then the Fireclaw has respawned.
Then you travel again to the second location looking for yet another Fireclaw Sac…
This is typical World of Warcraft grinding for materials. Again, it was acceptable in World of Warcraft. But in Horizon: Forbidden West, it created for me an additional layer of unreality.
It was also grinding for the sake of grinding. If I’m asked to explore or to solve a puzzle to acquire a component, I feel that’s acceptable within the context of a game like Horizon: Forbidden West. If I’m asked to take advantage of the fact that this is a computer game with creature respawn, that’s a different matter… and I feel belongs in a different game.
I’m not going to say that the material grinding struck me the same way that the Batmobile did in Batman: Arkham Knight, as a feature that “broke” the game.
(Though I’ll add that H:FW does have a racing game within it, which while completely optional, may be necessary to be able to get enough skill points to purchase every last skill. Even with the game set at “story-telling” level, my gaming skill was not up to the challenge of these races and I gave up on them quickly.)
I will say that the need for WoW-style grinding to improve gear is what kept me from playing the game much after I completed the main story.
In the years after I completed the story in H:ZD and its expansion, I kept returning to the game. There was territory left to explore, and quests that I discovered by accident.
In H:FW, there was nothing left for me to do after the main story ended. Because I’d been so worried that my gear and skills were inadequate, I spent those 120 hours improving and grinding my gear, and completing all the quests I could find. The only thing left to do after that was… improving gear, and more grinding.
I contrast this with Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla. I still return to that world from time-to-time, to experience a festival, or because a small expansion is released with an interesting story. That game has kept my interest… while Horizon: Forbidden West lost it after the story was over.
Horizon: Forbidden West is not a bad game. 120 hours of gameplay is nothing to sneeze at. It provided reasonable value for my money.
But I was hoping for a great game, as I felt Horizon: Zero Dawn had been. The inclusion of the “item game”, the “grinding game”, and even the “racing game” punctured the chance at greatness.
In its story, Horizon: Forbidden West sets up a sequel. If one comes out, I will certainly get it. And I will hope that Horizon: Forbidden West is merely a sophomore slump.
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