Since Syzygy turned just turned five, let’s keep celebrating eco-apocalypse science fiction with another story anniversary: Horizon: Forbidden West, (HFW) which came out a year ago this month. Why has it taken me so long to review this video game? Living overseas with an old American Playstation, I had to wait months for a copy with proper regional encoding to ship from the States. That put me behind the completion curve, so discussing it with fellow fans risked spoilers. I’m also just a slow gamer. Between a full-time job and precious personal time spent working on Beat In Her Blood, I could only scrounge a few hours on weekends to spend in Horizon’s world. Which was fine, because after waiting five years for a return visit, I didn’t want to rush the trip.
If you’ve read my review of the original Horizon: Zero Dawn (HZD), you’ll know that I’m an unapologetic fangirl. The single-player hit from Dutch developer Guerilla Games delivered everything I love (and so rarely get) in speculative fiction. A climate fiction vision built on plausible scientific and geopolitical trajectories. Rich world-building that doesn’t bog down the main narrative. A clever, courageous female protagonist. Biomimetic dinosaurs. Oh yeah, and the game is insanely fun as well, with lush open-world environments and strategic combat. Given my devotion to the original, I picked up the controller for the sequel with apprehensive butterflies (or perhaps Glinthawks) in my stomach. Would the new installment augment my delight in this series, or forever taint it with disappointment?
I’ll deliver my verdict in two parts. First, I’ll provide an overview of general gameplay, without story spoilers. Then I’ll indulge my writerly impulses with some spoiler-laden comments on the narrative.
Game Review (Spoiler-Free)
HZD is a hard act to follow. For what little my casual gamer’s opinion is worth, it’s a nearly flawless game. HFW had a monumental remit in surpassing such a predecessor. Guerilla tackled the challenge with like a charging Behemoth, and clearly invested a tremendous amount of work into beating its own high score. By most conventional metrics, they succeeded. But the drive for bigger and better cost a bit of the series’ charm.
Overall, HFW tells a good story that builds its predecessor’s foundations. Although it veers a bit too much into space-opera territory for my taste, the writers manage to do something extraordinary: they keep surprising me. Seriously, that’s a hard thing to pull off. I’ve read (and written) enough stories to predict plot lines with a fair degree of accuracy, but the Guerilla team never goes for the obvious choice. They take trickier, subtler, and ultimately more interesting paths. I applaud their guts, even if I don’t always love the outcome.
HFW takes place a few months after the previous story’s conclusion. A mysterious blight and other natural disasters are devastating North America (the story’s cli-fi aspects emerge stronger than ever). Determined to stop the cataclysm, huntress heroine Aloy ventures into frontier territory dubbed the Forbidden West. Allies old and new help her investigate. Her quest uncovers links to the ancient past and a deadly new threat to the planet’s future. Once an outcast, Aloy must now unite warring tribes against a common enemy before life on Earth is destroyed again.
Narrative elements felt somewhat less interactive than last time. Response options that elicit different results based on Aloy’s attitude—aggressive, clever, or compassionate—seldom appear, replaced with dense conversation trees for scripted exposition. Between that and the lengthy cutscenes, HFW sometimes feels like a play-though movie. But it’s one worth watching, and the world still offers a lot to explore.
Instead of simply animating a few shiny new monsters, HFW’s developers created entire new functions. I admire the effort they invested, although I missed the elegant simplicity of HZD’s mechanics. Aloy originally had a pretty simple kit: a variety of projectile weapons, about five potions she could brew from gathered herbs, and crafting resources scavenged from robot carcasses. Inventory limits lent a veneer of realism to playing a huntress in the wilderness. HFW overwhelms the player with goodies. New potions impact novel metrics like stamina. Aloy can collect ingredients for meals, with each recipe conferring different buffs. Artisans can dye her armor or paint her face with colorful plants. Challenging players in a board game earns prizes. All this content adds texture to the imagined culture, but it’s also a lot to juggle. I honestly forgot about most of the fancy new toys and completed the game with little more than a stealth outfit, a handful of medicinal berries, and a quiver full of sniper arrows.
Despite my basic approach, HFW seemed easier than its predecessor (even though I played both on “normal” difficulty level). Aloy seems to accrue resources with ridiculous speed. Caches at the site of every major engagement lavish her with equipment. A mediocre gamer like me can beat the most difficult bosses in only a few tries. The only combat element I didn’t master was the new melee options. HZD limited Aloy’s close-range fighting to a few staff thumps. The sequel expands her repertoire with combinations, and opens a whole new branch of the skills tree for melee development. Maybe it was just a failure of my old PS4, but the combos never worked quite right for me. I’d push all the correct buttons and Aloy just kept whacking at things, even when I followed the tutorials with painstaking precision.
Puzzles offered a welcome break from the frustrations of melee combat on an aging console. Shuffling crates and climbing through air ducts emphasized Aloy’s ingenuity as a survival skill. Generally, I enjoyed the puzzles, but some got a little tedious. Once I figured out the required sequence of moves, I got impatient about executing them, especially when it involved long climbs or repeated actions. At least they took place on a gorgeous set. HFW’s breathtaking open-world environments outshine even the stunning original, with graphical improvements on NPCs in particular. Small details impressed me, such as Aloy’s hair darkening and dripping for a few seconds after a swim. Coastal locations introduce underwater challenges (it’s cute that they think kelp will still exist in a thousand years). Exploring the ruins of familiar urban sites like Las Vegas and San Francisco reveals a climate-tinted backstory that seems more chillingly plausible by the day.
Evocative music haunts every scene. Composers Joris de Man and The Flight delivered a brilliant soundtrack for HZD, crafting a unique ethnic sound for each of the game’s tribal cultures. Their music for HFW reminds me more of a film score, with a consistent aesthetic throughout. It offers fewer distinctive tracks (except for “In The Flood”; one of these days I’ll post my solo piano rendition). However, the smoother continuous listening experience has made it one of my favorite background albums for writing science fiction.
HZD impressed me so deeply that I braced for inevitable disappointment in its sequel. How could anything clear a bar that had been set so high? I can’t honestly say HFW surpassed its predecessor. More elaborate plot elements and gameplay options make it feel slightly overwrought compared to the sleek original. But it’s a worthy companion and a marvelous game in its own right. From prancing in front of the television as I battled an opponent to gazing in quiet awe at virtual stars reflected in the ripples during a midnight swim, I enjoyed the experience. I don’t know how the Guerilla team will expand the game further unless they can introduce a VR headset version. (If they do, I’ll be happily stalking digital dinosaurs for days at a time.)
Narrative Critique (*Contains Spoilers*)
Since I’m far more qualified to critique stories than games, I’m compelled to review of HFW’s narrative as I would any book or movie. HZD presented one of the best sci-fi stories I’d encountered in any media. But sequels are notoriously difficult. Typically once the outcast becomes a hero, subsequent adventures find them basking in long-craved glory. They just swan about being a revered hero, saving the day and lapsing into two-dimensionality. But as usual, Horizon’s writers tread less conventional paths. Rather than revel in adoration, Aloy struggles with the mantle of “savior”. She remains a dubiously adjusted loner (which this homeschool brat finds relatable and endearing). Despite her formidable skills and courage, saving the world isn’t a one-woman job. Aloy must come into her own as a leader and rally others against an existential threat.
Forbidden West Meets Forbidden Planet
That threat turns out to be one of galactic proportions. As Aloy searches for a copy of the GAIA terraforming program to restore the ravaged biosphere, she collides with a group of advanced humans. Members of a program called Far Zenith, these survivors escaped the ancient apocalypse, technologically extending their lifespans. They attempted to colonize a distant star system, but when things didn’t work out, they decided to reclaim Earth…once they dispose of the pesky natives. Although this builds plausibly on existing story elements, the space-opera aspects took a bit of shine off the world in my eyes. I loved the grounded sci-fi approach of HZD, a climate-steeped twist on the “grey goo” thought experiment. Adding long-distance space travel, colony ships, and Star Wars-grade weaponry degraded some of that plausibility. It’s still a solid story, just not as aligned with my (admittedly particular) preferences as HZD.
One traditionally troublesome trope did turn out better than I expected. Aloy learns that she’s not the only clone of Old World scientist Elisabet Sobek, capable of accessing GAIA through genetic authorization. The Zeniths have their own copy, dubbed Beta. Clones? *Groans* There are so many ways for that concept to go wrong. Beta herself isn’t immediately likeable, either, with her passivity and victimized behavior. But she becomes more than just a plot device. Aloy’s journey began as one self-discovery, seeking her origin and identity. Now she must guide Beta through a mirrored process. Subsequent growth from both young women reflects the classic nature-nurture debate, as well as the often-fraught connection between siblings. Their ultimate reconciliation echoed my experiences with my own sister, which matured from youthful storminess into a rewarding friendship.
Sororal bonds offered a refreshing alternative to the more common romantic variety seen in genre fiction. Throughout the games, Aloy has proved amusingly impervious to come-ons from any gender. If there was going to be a ship, there were only two serious contenders: her friends Varl and Erend. (We’re not gonna talk about Avad’s declaration in the HFW tutorial sequence. Ugh. Which dialogue option summons Erend to pound on the Sun King for rebounding from Ersa so soon after her death?) Varl and Aloy’s semi-flirtatious exchanges early in HFW halt when Varl shacks up with new ally Zo about ten minutes after meeting her. The good news: I didn’t have to tolerate a dreaded love triangle. The bad news: that was because Varl gets killed, in one of those aforementioned narrative surprises I didn’t love so much. That left Erend as the only original candidate standing. Unfortunately, the writers neglected his character development in HFW, leaving him stuck in the archetype of good-natured-alcoholic-head-buster. That character is usually the protagonist’s sidekick, not love interest. So how do we interpret his arm around Aloy’s shoulders after the big victory? It could be simple camaraderie—Erend has a vacancy for a sister figure, and Aloy long sought to find her place in a tribe—or a really blunt clue. Horizon’s writers haven’t often indulged that kind of obviousness. Still, it feels like “Team Varl” wrote the beginning and “Team Erend” took over halfway through. I remain staunchly on “Team Aloy”, advocating for a post-apocalyptic Artemis who doesn’t need a romantic partner to satisfy her character arc. (I’ll scratch my shipping itch rooting for KotAlva. Did anyone else get a vibe there? No? Just me, then…)
Ecology and Ethnography
Set in a post-apocalyptic North America where humans have reverted to primitive lifestyles, HZD featured three distinct societies: the nature-based Nora, innovative Osseram, and cultured Carja. The excellent Frozen Wilds expansion brought Aloy into contact with the tough northern Banuk. HFW introduces a new trio of tribes, all suffering ecological crises that our heroine must address. I started writing environmental science fiction in part because it’s so underrepresented in the genre universe. Playing a game dedicated to such storylines both gratified and inspired me.
The desert warrior Tenakth prize water, and are reputed to drink blood when it isn’t available. The aesthetics of these people were almost distractingly outlandish, like the character design team overdosed on sugary stroopwaffles and lost all restraint. But conflict over water rights could have been torn from last year’s headlines. Needless to say the author of Blue Karma appreciated it! While the Tenakth wage a civil war, the agrarian Utaru cultivate crops, but a mysterious blight has plunged them into famine. (They plow their fields with ceratopsian robots! What could be more awesome? Blazing into battle astride a fire-breathing robotic therapod, that’s what. I admit, I really enjoyed the dinosaur-inspired creatures in HFW.) Meanwhile, ships of vaguely Asian-inspired Quen explorers have landed on the western coast, seeking solutions to environmental problems back home.
As in the original game, the different cultures are presented in a laudably non-judgmental way. There’s no “bad” tribe; rather, conflict arises from the behavior of flawed individual actors and their followers. A reckless Tenakth lieutenant clashes with a controlling chief. Utaru elders cling to tradition even though desperate times call for change. Conniving Quen bureaucrats prioritize personal gain over communal betterment. Higher-minded kinsfolk step up to challenge them, with Aloy’s support. Antagonists are not entire demographics, but misguided individuals and their followers. This approach to world-building achieves two important points.
- It resonates with modern social sensibilities. Casual inclusivity abounds in side quests that feature queer, transgender, disabled, and implied neurodivergent characters of every skin tone, yet without heavy-handed preaching. I particularly appreciated the arc of Aloy’s new companion Kotallo, a Tenakth warrior who lost his arm in battle. Feeling physically helpless and deprived of his martial identity, he asks Aloy to help him obtain a sophisticated prosthetic limb. By the time he puts it on, he’s realized that he no longer needs it to be a whole person. Coming to terms with disability resonated with me (and not just because Beat In Her Blood explores similar themes).
- It emphasizes that all humans share the larger threat of ecological collapse. Bickering with neighbors over some ancient grievance seems petty when storms, floods, droughts, and plagues consume the entire planet. Could there be a timelier moral?
Although I thought HFW’s fantastical sci-fi elements cheapened the series’ robust speculative premise, Horizon still ranks among the best sci-fi stories I’ve encountered in any media. A dynamic heroine, a richly textured world with complex backstory threads, and all-too-relevant climate change themes combine for an impactful narrative. Dialogue quips balance the action with a nice zest of humor. Aloy’s acquisition of a support team promises opportunities for ensemble drama–who doesn’t love a squad of quirky heroes saving the world? I’d recommend Horizon to even non-gaming fans of sci-fi and cli-fi. Play them on story mode, or watch playthrough videos online. It’s a better story than almost anything currently available on streaming platforms. My nerdy neurons will be smoldering until the next episode, analyzing how the story might unfold!