Since Horizon Forbidden West is still a relatively new game, I have tried hard not to reveal to many plot details in my piece. But I do discuss some, so if you don’t want to know anything about the story, maybe wait until after you’ve played the game.
Horizon Zero Dawn is one of my absolute favorite video games. I love the art, the vast, explorable world, and the machines–robot animals and dinosaurs. And the story is some pretty good science fiction. Horizon Forbidden West (2022) is a sequel to Guerilla Games’ Horizon Zero Dawn (2017). I’m happy that the game picks up where Horizon Zero Dawn (and Horizon Zero Dawn‘s downloadable expansion The Frozen Wilds) left off not only in terms of robots, beautiful vistas, and tech billionaire hubris*, but in the arc of Aloy’s character development. Where in Horizon Zero Dawn, Aloy rejects attachments that might get in the way of her mission, or so she thinks, in Horizon Forbidden West, Aloy starts to open up, accept help, and risk loss again.
Both Horizon Zero Dawn and Horizon Forbidden West are open world games set in a future American West 1,000 years after a war and massive extinction event caused by Silicon Valley tech bro Ted Faro* and his bad ideas. As an “outcast,” Aloy (voiced by Ashly Burch and modeled on Dutch actress Hannah Hoekstra and a team of stunt people and parkour experts) has been ostracized by her people, the Nora, since her birth and is raised by her outcast adoptive father, Rost (voiced by J.B. Blanc and modeled / acted by Mark Powley). In Horizon Zero Dawn, just when she’s about to prove her right to be accepted by the Nora, her people are attacked and Rost dies saving Aloy. Aloy ventures out on her own to investigate the attack, discover who her mother was, and, eventually, save the world. Horizon Forbidden West is set six months after the ending of Horizon Zero Dawn. Aloy has discovered the truth about her birth, uncovered the identity of her mother, and successfully ended a global threat, but has discovered her ally, the Faustian technological genius, Sylens (voiced and acted by Lance Reddick) has double-crossed her. At the same time, signs pointing to a malevolent AI intent on eliminating all organic life are everywhere. And so she foregoes celebration, ditches her friends and gets back to work.
Horizon Forbidden West builds on Horizon Zero Dawn. The gameplay is similar, but Horizon Forbidden West is a much bigger game and adds more complex melee mechanics and skill trees. There’s a whole new swank photo mode. There are new weapons and armor with more cosmetic customizability. Horizon Forbidden West adds races and a sort of chess minigame, Machine Strike. And there are new machines, both mounts to ride and hunter-killers that try to ruin everyone’s day. And while I enjoy the robot machines, I am so excited that there are more machines based on giant mammals. Hooray for the Miocene Epoch! There are also references to other videogames that you can find in the world. I enjoyed that you can encounter NPC rebel soldiers in the wild, and their ambushes seem more planned than the bandit ambushes in Horizon Zero Dawn.
After lower levels where it is probably best to play a stealthy game, Horizon Forbidden West does support a variety of play styles, or at least fighting styles. For my part, I enjoy using the sharpshot bow and didn’t get as much out of the new melee system or the fancier ropecasters as others might. However, I love the new spike-throwers (juiced up atlatls with explosive and flaming javelins) and had fun with the shredder gauntlets (juiced up jai alai cestas with explosive and corrosive discs). My playing style in the game tends to combine stealth and getting on top of something to shoot at any robot tyrannosauruses rex, giant robot snapping turtles or giant robot cobras. I do not like to be on the ground with a giant killing machine. But I know some of you like to run at a robot smilodon with future primitive machine guns or just your dang spear and you can do so effectively in Horizon Forbidden West.
Horizon Forbidden West also builds on the story and characters in Horizon Zero Dawn. I was glad that the story follows Aloy’s character development in Horizon Zero Dawn and I’m glad to see it continues to in the sequel. As I’ve said in a previous piece, I appreciate that Aloy is a straight up a hero and she would likely always be one. The ostracism and traumatic loss Aloy experienced are not why she is a hero. The shunning and Rost’s death negatively affected her. They have made being a hero harder. And I like that Horizon Forbidden West makes this clear, in case it wasn’t clear enough in Horizon Forbidden Dawn. We see the ways Aloy’s isolation and her belief that she has to fix everything on her own and that other people are impediments or just another person she might lose interfere with her saving the world again.
After so much of Horizon Zero Dawn was spent with Aloy trying to discover the identity of her mother and what it means for her, I appreciate Aloy coming to terms with the loss of her adoptive father, Rost. It is again, done thoughtfully. The game developers didn’t forget Rost. Aloy was just not ready to deal with her grief. Thinking about her own feelings felt selfish when she bore the responsibility for preventing the end of the world. Having Aloy focus on Rost didn’t feel structurally and narratively rote, where the first story dealt with the character’s mother and so the sequel will deal with the her father. There is an emotional continuity in Aloy not fully addressing Rost’s importance in her life in the first game and then finally beginning to explore it in the second.
Another thing I appreciate is the resistance to pairing Aloy up, at least right away. Other characters, even her companions, express interest–which usually leads to romance in video games. I am glad that Aloy did not take anyone up on their offers and that neither game has options to start a romance with any of the characters who are interested. I don’t have anything against romance in games, but like in any story, I prefer it to grow out of character. In Horizon Zero Dawn, Aloy doesn’t have time for it. She is damn busy. Her mission aside, Aloy has had little experience with intimacy with people beyond her adoptive father, the extremely stoic Rost. Rost himself tried to keep a distance between them because his fatherly, self-sacrificing goal was to ensure a good life for Aloy with the Nora. Because Rost was also an outcast, this meant never seeing him again once she returned to the tribe. Aloy’s mother, Elisabet Sobeck, was also alone for reasons I won’t get into here because they are explored in Horizon Forbidden West, but ultimately she put her mission ahead of other parts of her life. Aloy absolutely learned to sacrifice herself in a similar way. She has a hard time with friendship, fears losing more people she cares about, and is definitely not ready for a romantic relationship.
While she is always compassionate and heroic, Aloy is also impatient with people and her number one plan is bulling through obstacles, i.e., people, to do what she needs to do. But over the course of Horizon Forbidden West, Aloy begins to accept friendship and help from other people. Aloy’s growth is handled so carefully, that you can see a difference between Aloy in the beginning of the game–ditching her friends–to Aloy at the end of the game, thinking about what she might want and need beyond fixing everything for everyone else. Aloy’s change in attitude never feels forced, though. The game brings in old friends not only for the fun of seeing characters we spent time with before, but to reiterate the message. Varl, Sun King Avad, Erend Vanguardsman, and Petra Forgewoman all appear early on and remind Aloy that she’s not alone, that she doesn’t need to be alone and that they want to help. And even as Aloy’s old partner Sylens tells Aloy that “the exceptional walk a solitary path,” he also asks her if she really thinks she can save the world alone. The message is further underscored by new friends like Zo, Marshall Kotallo***, Beta and Alva to characters Aloy only meets briefly, like Marshal Fashav who tells Aloy that allies are crucial. Aloy learns that she doesn’t want to or have to be alone. And she learns that other people make her mission easier. Romance seems possible for Aloy after Horizon Forbidden West.** Aloy is still very busy, but she’s seen she doesn’t have to save the world alone and she’s even learned a lot about relationships, friendship, and love, good and bad, in this very game. All while shooting giant robots and racing chargers, of course. It’s a good story for our times, with things so frightening and apocalyptic. We’re not alone and we don’t need to save the world alone, even if sometimes it feels like we do.
*I think I might’ve liked the evil scheme I thought Horizon Forbidden West was giving me–tech douches remaking the world the way they want—more than the evil scheme it gave me, but I did appreciate the unexpected antagonist and their motivation. It does fit with all the stuff I wrote about above. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the fate of Ted Faro, but I think maybe it’s for the best.
**There is nothing wrong with loving your work and not wanting a romantic relationship. I see you asexual, demisexual and people who are just happy doing their thing without the bother of other people.
***Kotallo is the best.
Carol Borden would welcome any help you had to give in fighting a giant robot fire bear. Thank you.