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    Horizon Forbidden West Review – A Beautiful Mess

    Developed By: Guerrilla Games

    Published By: Sony Interactive Entertainment

    Platforms: PlayStation 4 & 5

    Reviewed On: PS5

    Review Code Provided By PlayStation Asia

     

    Guerrilla Games broke out due to their popular Killzone series that was seen by many as PlayStation’s answer towards Microsoft’s Halo several years back. I wouldn’t say they managed to go toe to toe but did find a very solid fanbase that kept the series going. However, they decided that they wanted to jump from the FPS genre into the open-world RPG genre, and in the year 2017, Horizon Zero Dawn came out to almost universal acclaim. It had amazing graphics and truly outstanding robot dinosaur battles that were tense but provided an amazing adrenaline rush. I even got the platinum trophy for Horizon Zero Dawn because I just really enjoyed the game, but I must be honest in admitting I just couldn’t remember large parts from it. I remember the grand reveal and the amazing story aside from Aloy and Sylens but the rest of the characters and tribes were lost to just bits and pieces here and there.

    Thanks to PlayStation Asia, I got the chance to play Horizon Forbidden West early and spent a rather significant chunk of my time (95 hours to be exact) exploring and doing almost everything that can be done in this game. This is where it gets really hard for me as it has been a long time since I have been this conflicted on how I feel and what I want to write about. The reason for that is that there is such apparent labour of love present in every frame of Horizon Forbidden West and it’s that very love that manifested itself in me while playing the game. I know the developers have worked as hard as they could, and the pandemic crisis can scupper even the best-laid plans. Not unlike in relationships, love can be blinding but honesty can be healing, so I must be honest by saying as much as I love Horizon Forbidden West, this game is the absolute definition of a beautiful mess due to a combination of strange design decisions and a multitude of technical problems.

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    Every Secret Makes Its Own Maze

    Conveniently, Horizon Forbidden West starts with a recap video for those like me who couldn’t remember much from the first game, so I got to give props to the developers for including that. The story picks up after a significant amount of time has passed from Zero Dawn with Aloy seeking a backup of GAIA to restore the rapidly deteriorating biosphere even with the HADES threat eliminated. As her last resort falls through, Aloy and Varl decide to return to Meridian to seek help in searching for Sylens who has suddenly fallen silent in the wake of HADES’s demise. It’s not long before Aloy discovers that Sylens tricked her into trapping HADES instead of destroying it and has successfully taken HADES westward for motives unknown. And so, the journey to the West begins.

    There has been a lot of online discussion since the reveal of Horizon Forbidden West that it looks and feels like Horizon Zero Dawn 1.5 so to address that, the answer is both yes and no at least for me. The reason for that is the first 10 hours felt more like an expansion rather than a new journey as the game keeps building the Forbidden West as something entirely new and yet takes forever to get you there only for it to feel suspiciously familiar. That’s right, all that marketing of bright coloured beaches is only a very small fraction of the Forbidden West and is reserved for the tail end of your journey with the rest of it in the familiar desert, jungles, and the frozen wilds to traverse through but I digress.

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    Thankfully when you do get to the West the story does pick up tremendously as there are multiple plot threads that are meant to run concurrently with each other to really immerse the player into the world expanding. Aside from the mission to restore GAIA and heal the biosphere, Aloy will meet new and interesting tribes that populate the West. The first of which is the Tenakth that is embroiled in a civil war between their forward-thinking Chief Hekarro and his former marshal Regalla who only wants revenge against the Carja for the Red Raids. The Tenakth themselves are divided into the Desert Clan, Sky Clan, and Lowland Clan each with their own agendas.

    The Tenakth are a proud and fearless tribe which is quite the opposite of the Utaru who turned out to be a pleasant surprise due to how well realised their culture is and the beautiful way that music plays into their way of life, especially around Plainsong. The last would be the Quen and how they are technologically more advanced but are also strongly ingrained with faith shaped by the knowledge left behind by the ancestors.

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    What really worked for me was how there was so much effort put into storytelling in even the smallest quest. Like typical RPG’s there are side quests here, but they do try to take it a step further by having multiple chain quests that pick up in different locations and added on some follow-through. The latter was especially surprising because I don’t know about other players, sometimes I wonder what happened to certain NPC’s involved with quests after the fact and the developers added something small but significant. Complete a quest for any tribe member and you can usually find them at their capitals or a relevant spot with a dialogue exchange that expands on the wrap-up and what happens next for these characters. I think that was one very effective way to show how important every interaction can be for the player and goes a long way in creating memorable characters.

    Speaking of memorable characters, old favourites return like Erend and Talanah who is given ample time with her quest chain or a character who I won’t spoil revealed at the end of a hilariously weird Need for Speed Underground meets Fury Road style racing activity. New characters like Zo, Kotallo and Alva are brought to life with amazing performances and rich characters backgrounds. I especially enjoyed Alva due to how animated and earnest her performance was but all of them were just so satisfying to watch. What’s great about all these characters is they will all come together at Aloy’s new base of operations so these interactions with them will be more frequent with active dialogue that opens in time or with passive conversations they have with each other that the player can eavesdrop in on. This is further enhanced by how with the passage of time the base gets decorated and lived in more until it looks teeming with life of these characters that came into Aloy’s life.

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    I can safely say that every side quest and mission thread completed was quite satisfactory for me but there are also moments where there are bizarre interactions. An example I can give is when the player has fulfilled a quest completion requirement. Now in some games, the NPC will acknowledge you having done that but here it does but also plays the default dialogue like you haven’t. This kind of dialogue bug does pop out here and there and it’s a shame how it sours the experience a little.

    The main narrative plotline faltered a little bit towards the end when it came to certain characters and their motivations. Due to strict embargo guidelines, I’m not even allowed to spoiler tag, so I’m completely barred from talking about certain characters and events. What I can talk about is I didn’t really like how right at the end, the grand reveal was Horizon Forbidden West is just a way station for the inevitable third entry in the series. It really isn’t as bad as how some plots resolve themselves with the convenient twist, it just could have been so much better with a credit tease that sets up what comes next.

    The average player can probably blaze through the story in around 15-20 hours or less, but it really does feel like experiencing all the content in one area before continuing to the next is the way to go and players will be in for a treat.

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    Walk With The Ten

    Graphically, Horizon Forbidden West is the best-looking game ever made. The attention to detail is overwhelming and every character and location is just breathtakingly rendered. As usual on the PlayStation 5, there is the Fidelity Mode which renders the game in 4k 30fps, and Performance mode that feels like 1440p 60fps. I chose Performance mode because it doesn’t feel too much of a graphical leap between both modes and it’s just smooth all the way but I do have to mention how Fidelity Mode doesn’t look like it holds a steady 30fps at times especially when a lot is going on screen. The HDR in this game is best in class with absolutely fantastic lighting that just piles on how gorgeous this game can look. There are scenes that are framed to perfection with the textures and lighting almost indistinguishable from CGI that we are so used to seeing.

    Thankfully, accompanying the beautiful graphics is also an impressive soundtrack that returns better than ever. There are so many memorable tracks on every part of your journey that evokes hope, bravery, and just the joy of exploration. When battling machines, the roar of a Thunderjaw or deafening scream of a Dreadwing heightens the adrenaline rush of each encounter. Have I mentioned how amazing the voice acting is? Each character feels so effortless in how they are portrayed and is truly a joy to watch the actors. It works so well due to how each of them is given space to just breathe life into their characters in a very believable way.

    All the usual PS5 enhancements are here with 3D audio, fast loading, adaptive triggers, and haptics but I really have to be honest in saying it feels slightly underwhelming and that’s because it didn’t take me long to realize that Horizon Forbidden West feels like a cross-gen game. The problem plaguing cross-gen games is how they look impressive but don’t really feel impressive due to obvious cross-gen development and it speaks true to Horizon Forbidden West. Haptics doesn’t feel defined enough and the adaptive triggers work for some actions but are noticeably absent from others which is puzzling. And this is where it gets ugly because oh boy does this game feel like a matchstick house at times.

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    Now I really don’t want to be mean, and I really hope the developers know that I still love this game that they created but this really must be one of the jankiest and buggy Sony first-party studio games I have ever played. When the game autosaves the screen will flicker so imagine during battle getting that screen blackout at a critical moment when even in the open world it feels annoying while moving around. It really starts to get to you especially when it happens one too many times and is another puzzling bug to be plagued by especially since most games don’t have any visual problems accompanying autosaves.

    One of the very first side quests I did had the surface of the water looking green but the actual water below was not which was so weird. Heck, when I first controlled Aloy she somehow developed water bending powers when I walked into a river and the water moved aside like I was Moses. Random crashing for no reason whatsoever like going to the main menu causes a crash. Opening your map can cause a crash. Fast Travelling also can cause a crash. The most hilarious one was at the end of a game a character that clearly was not supposed to be in a particular area but was and it’s like the game itself got confused and crashed. Now, these crashes aren’t rampant but in my 95-hour playthrough, I experienced at least 6 or 7 of them.

    I even managed to break Aloy a couple of times where when I activate her Valor Surge she just sits in a crouched position, and I can’t do anything except sliding her all over the area hilariously. I had to restart the entire game to fix that issue as fast traveling didn’t. There are even times when if you activate her Valor Surge the camera breaks and you basically can’t see what you should be doing. Doing a stealth kill can also cause the same issue. Sometimes it fixes itself, sometimes it doesn’t. Audio dropouts also happened. Aloy’s Valor Surge will suddenly be unequipped for no reason. There are dialogue bugs that re-highlight dialogue already gone through or notification bubbles that pop up when they shouldn’t and disappear when they should pop up. There is even (what I’m assuming) accidental dialogue reused for the same character in a different dialogue choice. Even during dialogue scenes, the edges of the screen would pulse the same way it pulses when you activate your Valor Surge in battles. There would be NPC’s in two places at the same time (I guarantee he is not a twin).

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    There are UI issues that can get immensely grating especially in an open-world game where icons don’t properly reflect whether a particular collectible/activity/location has been completed as some disappear and reappear or don’t change colour as they should. This is particularly irritating as I am probably a trophy or two away from a platinum and I have gotten all collectibles except for three which I’m not even sure where I’m supposed to be finding them because nothing shows up on the map. It could be a secret thing, but I really wouldn’t know any better.

    There is also the wrong enemy spawns like the map showing a Bellowback and yet no matter how many times I quit and reload in its place are Fanghorns. Missions like the hunting lodge or melee pit can never seem to be completed for some reason. There were a few rebel outpost missions that were also stuck but got fixed in the last patch (more on this later). There are also frame pacing issues. The biggest one would be texture/asset streaming where how fast things load in when the player moves around the world and pre-patch there would be some assets that would not be fully loaded and would just pop in even right in front of you.

    These are just some of the issues I experienced, and I honestly really want to give it the benefit of the doubt because again like I said I really grew to love this game. However, the last patch 1.03 was meant to fix some issues most notably the frame pacing and texture streaming issues, but I feel that patch (which is the day one patch) somehow made the texture streaming worse. This is the most apparent when flying (I’ll talk about this later) and the most unique way I have encountered an asset not streaming properly as how when you get closer to a building it somehow makes the textures disappear/worse and only kind of fixes itself when you get very close or stays broken either way.

    There were so many technical issues that I tried to power through and just put in the background but they kept piling on and on.

    Taken in Performance Mode

     

    Feast, Fight & Flourish

    If you loved how the gameplay was in Horizon Zero Dawn you will be glad to know that it is back and has been greatly expanded. For starters, there are six skill trees now (Warrior, Trapper, Hunter, Survivor, Infiltrator, and Machine Master). Each skill tree corresponds to an aspect of Aloy that you could improve, weapon techniques to unlock but also the new Valor Surges. In Horizon Forbidden West, Aloy can build up her Valor in three extendable phases and execute a Valor Surge (it’s morphin’ time!) to give Aloy a temporary burst in abilities until the Valor runs out. Some of these boosts include an increase in weapon damage, health recovery, tear damage, and so on. Presently, the only way to switch between Valor Surges is to manually go into the menu and switch them out but as I’ve stated earlier the game does have a habit of unequipping your Valor Surge from time to time so players might want to keep an eye on that.

    There is an expanded number of weapons as well with the Hunter, Warrior, and Sharpshot Bow, Boltblaster, Ropecaster, Tripcaster, Shredder Gauntlet, Blastsling, and Spike Thrower. Among these, there are ammo types that will probably force players to make hard decisions early on about which weapon to bring along while resources are still low. There are the common damage type weapons with Impact, Tear and Explosive joined by elemental damage like Fire, Frost Shock, Acid, Plasma and Purgewater. I haven’t even gotten into the special ammo types like Piercing, Shieldwires, Staggerbeams, Elemental Charged Ropes and Canister Harpoons.

    The wealth in weapon options is necessitated by the fact the machine roster has been greatly expanded as well. There are 43 different machine types each with a significant number of variant types populating the map including the new and fearsome Slitherfang. Players really are spoilt for choice when it comes to enemy encounters and I for one really enjoyed how much variety the team brought to Forbidden West.

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    The map in Horizon Forbidden West feels like isn’t big but I assure you it is dense enough to make it feel like it’s perfect. There are tons of activities and collectibles, and players will still run around the map completing quests and unlocking shrouded areas via the Tallnecks but I did like how they tried to change it up and expanded on that core experience. There are some missions involving the Tallnecks that weren’t your standard climb and activate and provided some variety with some puzzle solving.  Cauldrons are back and are still fun to complete. However, there was one aspect that caught me off guard and I loved what they did, but I just wanted more of it.

    There is dynamic world progression in Horizon Forbidden West. When you start out the game the biosphere is affected by blight and even when you open your map you clearly can see affected areas. I just assumed it was a neat cosmetic overlay, but I did not expect that there were future quests that I could actually do that would directly change the blighted areas. Not only those certain areas would grow and change after clearing a previously blocked tunnel that linked East to West and unlocked more quests. Certain NPCs that I met in the first 10 hours would be traveling and I’d meet them again at the 40-hour mark in a new area with a new quest. When these started happening it blew my mind, and it was nice to see these little changes on the map and directly in certain areas. Unfortunately, it wasn’t as extensive as I thought as not doing them just didn’t really affect anything in the long run. It was just a matter of when you did them.

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    As much as I love how visceral the battles can be with the machines, exploring the beautiful landscapes, and reading up on the interesting lore that they build the world on but there are just some things that I couldn’t look past as it bothered me too much during my playthrough. The first and biggest would be how the climbing mechanics seem to have both gotten better but also worse. I might be remembering this wrong, but I think Zero Dawn followed more traditional Uncharted mechanics of following the highlighted path. In Forbidden West, they expand upon it by allowing players to climb freely however as simple as that sounds it ended up unnecessarily complicated.

    The reason being is that only certain pre-determined areas are climbable (easily seen by pressing R3) however those areas themselves are problematic with Aloy unable to climb or traverse them for no reason at times. You would think it might be a surface too uneven but even hanging from a ledge against a flat surface still requires Aloy to just move slightly to the right or left to allow her to climb onto it. Traversing with Aloy herself is inconsistent. She doesn’t stick on ledges or beams when she should, she falls way too easily off them even when traversing. Sometimes she would hop from one beam to another but then falls midway for no reason whatsoever. It bothered me so very early on even from the first area and just didn’t really get better. Why couldn’t they adopt something simple like from Ghost of Tsushima? The player should know when to just push the thumbstick to traverse or press the jump button to make a leap. I don’t understand why it’s inconsistent in Forbidden West.

    Then comes the battles. There is no lock on mechanic but melee attacks for Aloy seem to have a soft lock that could just propel her quite a distance and it’s the same for enemies. Theirs in turn seems like a much harder lock on that can get frustrating especially when dodging because they just rubber band to you sometimes excessively so. This can get really irritating when battling machines as they expertly course correct to hit you with an attack even though the player has dodged out of the way. You can get stunlocked with multiple attacks and that just doesn’t feel fun. Stealth attacks from behind or above constantly get miscued because the input is either too fast or isn’t detected which causes Aloy to perform a standard attack instead of the intended one. What also feels kind of shitty is how you can never seem to knock an enemy off a ledge, but you get hit slightly and Aloy just flies away.

    Taken in Performance Mode

    Flying feels like an afterthought because it is cool that you get to fly but like a lot of things in Forbidden West there seems to be a rollout issue. What I mean by that is usually in every game mechanics are slowly rolled out to the player to experience and in some cases, it is front-loaded for the player to do as they choose to. Here flying is unlocked right at the end of the campaign and feels redundant because there are so many fast travel points littered about the map compounded by only certain places allowing the player to call and land the mount, and you can’t attack while flying. So if you need to get to a place you can’t land at you awkwardly jump off and glide but if you call the Sunwing it can pick you up. If you get attacked while flying the devs expect you to jump off then either call the Sunwing or hook back onto it and resume whatever you were planning to do. What’s also hilarious is how enemies get triggered from you flying overhead even though they aren’t looking up. At times I just felt like the game was trolling me.

    The other issue I have with how quests and activities are rolled out is there seems to be something completely broken about quest levels. There was a relic ruin quest level set for level 15 and yet the item needed to move forward in that ruin is the last special item Aloy will unlock behind a level 30+ main quest. So why was the ruin quest level 15? I just gave up trying to understand how the flow is supposed to be and just did everything region by region which felt somewhat right as the game’s UI and tracking itself feels very off.

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    What I Loved

    • Characters – The highlight of Horizon Forbidden West must be how there are so many amazing characters brought to life with amazing performances.
    • Graphics – Truly the best graphics in a game bar none. This is the level of detail and graphical fidelity to beat.
    • Soundtrack – Dynamic and beautiful soundtrack bringing so much culture with sound.
    • Dynamic World/Quest Progression and Follow Through – I really like the attempt on how they tried to make Aloy’s contributions to the community more visible and lasting.
    • Expanding the Lore – It really feels like there is so much more to discover after Forbidden West and it does make me excited for what comes next.
    • Base Of Operations – It’s a simple concept but I do love how there was a neutral space for Aloy and the gang to just chat and hang out.
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    What I Really Wished Was Better

    • Main Story – It’s not bad but it really should have been done much better especially when some characters motivations just felt uncharacteristically short-sighted.
    • Climbing Mechanics – At the end of the day it could just be me complaining about it but there really is something off with it. It should be simpler and smoother than it currently is.
    • Bugs – There is a tremendous number of things that are just not working the way it’s supposed to in this game.
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    I Had A Dream, Which Was Not All A Dream

    My journey in Horizon Forbidden West was a beautiful but flawed one. For every frame of triumph, there was another that challenged and disappointed. I battled daily on how I was going to score this game because sometimes it’s easy to just put a number on something and on other rare times it’s hard.

    One thing that is undeniable though is this game really needed a delay to iron out all these issues because some of the rough edges of this game are really rough. At one point I was even making an inside joke of how I was playing Horizon 2077, but I have hope because somehow the game really won me over in a major way.

    Horizon Forbidden West marks a very unfortunate flawed experience and with video games being priced as it is now it’s going to be tough to recommend playing this game at the moment without a huge BUT accompanying it. If the issues and bugs were non-existent, I can even see myself scoring Horizon Forbidden West as high as a 9/10 and it could very well be adjusted there if it’s fixed and improved in the near future. I very much enjoyed my time with Horizon Forbidden West and look forward to what comes next. Hopefully, that will be a much more polished and unforgettable experience.

    Final Score – 7.5/10

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    Jashvir Sandhu
    Jashvir Sandhuhttps://bunnygaming.com
    Proud barbarian to her monk, Wondrous Peashooter to her Sunflower, Blue Yarny who will never let go of his Red Yarny, Loving husband of Cadet Cuddles. Also on PSN known as ZDKilljoy

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