Some people criticize some of my favorite open world games by saying that they “feel empty.” It’s a complaint levied against the likes of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and Pokémon Legends: Arceus. I never mind the open spaces. I enjoy doing a bit traveling and exploration.
But if you’re one of those people, then Horizon: Forbidden West is the antithesis of a “feels empty” open world game. This sequel from Guerrilla Games comes out on February 18 for PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5 (Sony gave me a PS5 code for this review). It’s one of Sony’s biggest exclusives since the launch of the PS5. And “big” is the operative word here.
In fact, it’s so big, I didn’t even get all that close to beating the game in time for the review embargo. Maybe if I had rushed through the story missions, I could have gotten there. But Forbidden West excels at making you want to see all of the extra activities.
Everything the light touches
In that respect, it reminds me of The Witcher III. Side quests don’t feel inherently “less” than the ones from the main story. The side missions expand on the world and characters, often ones the main scenario introduces you.
They also offer beefy rewards. Yes, Forbidden West has a traditional level up and skill tree points progression system. I like that you often earn points directly for completing a mission or side activity. That’s a pretty tangible reward, and it makes it worthwhile and fun to check out all of those icons on your map.
Ah, yes. Icons on maps. Forbidden West is what I like to call a “map game.” It’s a certain flavor of open world gaming where you’re constantly opening that map, setting a waypoint to the nearest activity, and then you start knocking them out like they’re items on a to-do list. If you ever played an Ubisoft game, especially the Far Cry series, you know what I’m talking about.
Sometimes, map games can feel tedious. It’s like you’re completing chores. Content is so dense that you never have a chance to actually explore. And while that latter point may still hold true for Forbidden West, the core gameplay and the quality of these map activities are fun enough that I don’t mind.
Especially when it involves combat. Fighting feels great in Horizon: Forbidden West, especially if you focus on ranged attacks with your bow. Yes, you can opt for a sneakier approach, and you usually want to pick off a few enemies with traps and stealth attacks. But usually, things will devolve into a brawl, and I enjoy the hectic action. I’m dodging out of the way of charging enemies and aiming my bow at specific body parts either to exploit weaknesses or to give me some extra crafting materials.
You also have a couple of cooldown abilities that you earn in the skill tree. While in, say, Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla, these attacks dominate combat, they take more of a backseat here. That’s a good thing. Combat is more about the basics — combos, stealth, aiming — and less about spamming abilities.
As much as I enjoy the combat, traversal can feel a bit stiff. I know how much you all love when we compare games to Breath of the Wild, so here we go! Breath of the Wild popularized the “if you see it, you can go there” approach to open world games. Sometimes, Forbidden West will straight up tell you with a text box that you can’t do progress further in the area you’re in until you unlock an ability later in the game.
That feels bad, especially when you already dedicated some time to explore an old ruin, getting excited about what may be inside, only to learn that you have no choice but to give up and come back later.
Aloy’s movement can sometimes feel as restrictive as the exploration. You have to do a lot of Uncharted-style climbing, and it’s sometimes isn’t clear what you can and can’t grab onto to. You can press a button to highlight what edges you climb on. That helps, but it’s also weird. It can feel like the game arbitrarily decides which parts of a cliff or building you can latch onto. You see the hand of the game designer here, drawing paths for you to traverse, when I’d rather have better and freer traversal tools that give me more options.
Even Aloy’s tools can feel underwhelming. Early in the game, you get a kind of grappling claw. You’d think this would open up a lot of traversal possibilities, but you can only use it on a select few spots. It’s mostly used to knock down walls or to zip yourself up to specific (and sparse) hook points. Later, you get a glider (yes, once again, like Breath of the Wild), but it’s slow and falls fast.
Learning about the end of the world
Honestly, those issues present moments of frustration, but I get over them quickly. I enjoy the game’s world — which is colorful, vibrant, and full of detail. I like its casts of characters, and Aloy is an interesting protagonist (even if her stubbornness and difficulty accepting help, her defining character flaws, sometimes feel illogically extreme).
And if you’re a fan of lore, there’s plenty of that absorb here. The world of Horizon takes place centuries after an apocalyptic event on Earth, which gives the game its signature blend of sci-fi and prehistoric sensibilities. It’s fun learning more about the downfall of the old world while searching for ways to save the new one.
Technical issues can sometimes be a drag, although you do expect some of those with any open world game. I will say, I find Aloy’s hair physically more distracting than anything. These long strands flail about at the slightest tilt of her head, often clipping through her armor and weapons. I have to stop myself from staring at her hair — and losing focus on the actual story — during those cutscenes closeups.
I also had Aloy get stuck in a T-pose during a boss fight. That was a bummer. It was a dramatic encounter, and I was doing well, but then she just sort of got stuck, and I couldn’t make her budge. There was nothing I could do but wait for the boss to kill me so I could try again.
But, again, those are minor annoyances. Overall, Forbidden West is an impressive, huge game.
Anyone who digs these kinds of dense, map-based open world experiences is going to feel happy with what Guerrilla Games is offering here. This is something you could spend a lot of time with, first enjoying the story, then going out of your way to see and complete every last bit of content.
Once I see the story to its end, I’ll be able to settle on a score. But if you’re just looking for a recommendation, consider it given.
Horizon: Forbidden West is out on February 18 for PlayStation 5 and PlayStation 4. Sony gave us a PS5 code for this review.