Ben Plays: Horizon Forbidden West
A dangerously dark playground
You'd be forgiven for reading this and coming away with the impression that I don't like Horizon Forbidden West. I want to dispel that notion. It's not that I don't like it. On the contrary, I found myself peaceably content sinking into that hypnotic state which, when generating creative output gets reverently labeled 'Flow', and otherwise might be better described as catatonia (or at the very least, procrastinating in what Tim Urban aptly dubs, ‘the dark playground').
I like Horizon Forbidden West the way I like devouring a family bag of chocolate buttons - it tastes good and makes me feel like shit. What I don't like is what it represents: unimaginative and lazy game design with a big budget and a high profile sucking the talent and the oxygen from more innovative games. Because whatever there is to admire in the graphical fidelity (the sunlight scorching the hillsides is certainly postcard pretty), and however soothing and satisfying the fetch quests and rare component farming can be (it rivals Stranglethorn Vale), when compared to all the other books in the teeming library that is the world of video gaming, Horizon Forbidden West offers a story and story-telling that is about as sophisticated and nuanced as an Enid Blyton adventure: basic and basically fun, but not exactly HG Wells.
I don't want to do a disservice to anybody's childhood so don't get me wrong, there's a place for The Famous Five just as there's a place for Horizon Forbidden West, I just wish everyone would recognise it as trivial, put it down, and move onto reading The Time Machine, or The Island of Doctor Moreau, or The Country of the Blind. Or fuck it, why not skip to EM Forster's The Machine Stops? Sadly, the Horizon franchise already shows all the signs of morphing into the gaming equivalent of a Marvel film - how many times can they reuse the same formula and sell it as a new product? I promise I'm not deliberately shit stirring (but I am eager to hear your impassioned disagreement). Let’s dive into it. Spoilers follow.
The plot of Horizon Forbidden West picks up more or less exactly where it left off, albeit a bit later in time, with spritely Dr Elizabet Sobeck clone, Aloy, stumbling around looking for Cauldrons and Old World ruins that might have a GAIA backup in them in the hope that she can stem the blight continuing to ravage the planet. (Yup, the didacticism hasn’t gone anywhere. Climate change is coming peeps.) Aloy is bitter that Sylens tricked her and stole HADES rather than killing it, but not so bitter that she doesn't follow him to the ends of the Earth all over again in pursuit of a mysterious signal he sends her at the start of the game.
Naturally, as you fill her little leather moccasins, you’re confronted with obstacle after obstacle while pursuing the basic macguffin of rebuilding the GAIA backup from scratch (which in practice means finding its parts which are scattered about the lands). Aloy is basically back to square one in terms of equipment, despite accruing a kick ass armoury and skillset at the close of Horizon Zero Dawn, but don’t worry, it’s all seamlessly explained: she cryptically announces at the start that she's inconveniently lost her gear somehow. Maybe she got royally pissed up in the festivities and got robbed while nursing her hangover (though knowing Aloy, it seems unlikely).
Straight away, the world is your juicy oyster. Give or take a few blocked areas behind rubble, deep water, tangled vines or fiery red crystals that unlock as Aloy learns new skills and gains new gear through story progression, you can go anyway, anyhow, anywhere you choose. We’re not talking Red Dead Redemption 2 here, but credit where credit’s due - this is an expansive, and visually interesting world, particularly when viewed from altitude; a mountain top or gliding through the clouds beneath your electronic parachute. While much of the world can feel a little procedurally generated, the art team have definitely shaped distinctive and vibrant biomes, ranging from jungle to desert to the flooded neon lights of Las Vegas. Draw distance is impressive, and like in Breath of the Wild and Immortals Fenyx Rising, exploring capped peaks and craggy canyons littered with vegetation and huntable fauna is, in itself, a joy. Unlike both those (vastly superior) games, Horizon Forbidden West doesn’t encourage you to really actively engage with and enjoy these regions. Instead, they are the backdrop for repetitive fetch quests, grinding gameplay and an underwhelming story. In short, a rich world with a poor plot.
The story unfolds in a torrent of endless cutscenes seemingly designed to propel the plot forwards in huge chunks because the actual gameplay has nearly no narrative pulse. There's an urgency to these story cinematics that doesn't chime with the open world, free roam, laid back, take-your-time-to-explore-and-do-irrelevant-side-quests vibe of the game. It’s actively contradictory at times. Aloy doesn’t have time to speak with some characters because she’s in such a rush to be a hero, but she seems perfectly content to go exploring ruins, or hunting, or machine racing, or collecting random Old World artefacts, and never nags when you wait at a Shelter for the bland darkness of night to morph back into a glorious sunrise. (Aside: does everyone else skip night scenes in games? Also heavy rain? They’re a real drag, right?) Even though side quests are explicitly tangential to the main story, Aloy seems happy to answer everyone’s beck and call, putting her race to save the planet and its denizens on the backburner until the next impassioned cutscene revs her up again.
These unimaginatively directed ‘talking head’ cutscenes also have that vexing quality of defying the logic established in the rest of the gameplay, whether through allowing Aloy to perform manoeuvres that are impossible as the player, or undermining the stealth that is encouraged elsewhere. In one case, I crept cautiously through a camp like a redheaded tribal Batman, delivering death on the wind and then vanishing again, only to reach the camp leader, his back turned to me, oblivious to my menace, whereupon the game jumped into a cinematic and Aloy strode out and called to grab his attention, prompting the usual battle arena boss fight. As the Eclipse cultist Vezreh gloated at the time, "How kind of you to deliver yourself!"
In a similar way, outside of cutscenes, some animations try to brute force suspense on the player. The first time you make a distant jump and your grip slips and Aloy swings out over the cliff or ravine, dangling precariously by one hand, I suppose, generously, a naive gamer might think, 'phew, that was close'. But even then, once would be enough. In a game where jumping is an overused core gameplay element (does anyone find the protracted mountaineering stretches fun?), it's irritating to wait for her to dangle and cling on every few leaps. In contrast, the animation for Aloy interacting with or examining any point of interest, appears to be identical every time: she squats, her hands move around for a few seconds, she makes a prosaic observation. Some quests she’s examining things every few metres (‘A spot of blood! Tracks! Footprints! Maybe my focus can help me here?’) and her little crouching chat routine is a yawn. Thankfully, the game at least permits you to disable the harvesting animations which would otherwise fire every time you collect wood or pick flowers. Repetition is the name of the game.
Somehow Horizon Forbidden West always feels a step, or several miles, behind the gamer. The first time you climb a Signal Tower, before you even begin scavenging the glass lens from the abandoned dish (the only interactable object there, but still Aloy wonders: 'Hmm, maybe I'll find something interesting in the salvage'), it's evident you're going to need to collect them. Aloy spells it out anyway: 'There might be other towers around'. No shit, Aloy. This becomes a key, recurrent gameplay motif: whether it’s this random lens collector, retrieval contracts for salvagers, reaching the heart of a cauldron or discovering a rare ornament in the ruins, the game introduces an idea, then rinses it over and over in every corner of the map. Even camp fires seem distributed by algorithm, nearly perfectly equidistant on the map. Some, due to erratic placement in undergrowth, resembling burning bushes that I half expected the voice of the Lord to emanate from.
Early on, numerous quests involve finding a power source that lies within feet of a locked door - an issue I've lamented on the pod previously following particularly egregious examples in Greedfall - and there are tonnes of other quest objectives with 'puzzles' or path-finding that seem so simplistic as to feel condescending.
Listen to the Greedfall episode here:
Aloy exacerbates this patronising style by musing aloud to prompt you with obvious solutions. 'Hmm, what's above my head...Maybe if I look up...That panel looks like I could rip it off the wall...I need to use my focus'. I can imagine this might be forgiving for very young children or players returning to the game after a long absence and re-finding their footing, but after tens of hours of gameplay, it’s insulting.
There are other areas the game feels dense, and not interesting dense like a jungle overflowing with excitement and adventure, but dense like that kid in school who was kept back for consecutive years. Take the time Sylens, who has plotted and schemed and pulled Aloy's strings during every major game development and who both figuratively and literally plays 'the teacher' to Aloy, decides to just give up on his devious aspirations because one challenge in particular seems a bit difficult, and it's left to Aloy (the genius scientist who is somehow willingly, even enthusiastically, being manipulated yet again) to provide a painfully obvious solution, for which he congratulates her. As always with pop culture and story telling - genius only looks like genius if it is genius. Otherwise it looks like bad writing.
As the plot progresses, Aloy gives out Focuses like candy, diluting the awe of the 'second sight' she's apparently famous for. Likewise, her unique ability to override machines and physically ride them, not so unique this time around, with all the enemy groups in the game having mastered the same skills. In fact, even her genetics, which Sylens reminds her means she is uniquely placed to open gene locked doors, turn out to be unremarkable - she's just one of several Elizabet Sobecks and you meet another fairly early on.
Sylens gives Aloy short shrift, and rightly so. I did too after a while. Aloy's a pretty unlikeable protagonist. She's snooty, rudely assertive, unsympathetic and often sarcastic, ironically, given that she's so often a few beats late herself. The game tries to portray her as morally righteous by having her endorse and believe every deviant and underdog she encounters. Every victim is an innocent one. Multiple times, characters awaiting execution for some crime protest their innocence to her and she gives them the benefit of the doubt, investigating and finding them wrongly accused. Interestingly though, she doesn’t seem to find fault with the trio of Delvers hoping to reopen Las Vegas’ casinos and strip joints. That’s considered a happy ending.
Aloy is pissy and unreasonable with just about everyone who wants to help her succeed, including her own clones. She isn’t a character I was proud to embody, nor who I particularly rooted for. Instead, I ended up jumping through her conversations as hastily as possible to save time and skipped every cutscene where the dialogue felt like padding (most of them). By the latter half of the game, I was giving all optional dialogue trees a hard pass - this included listening for ‘Rumors’. These nuggets of wisdom aren't overheard in the tavern or imparted by loquacious itinerant merchants like in the Forgotten Realms universe, they're subtly and naturally blended into the fabric of the world with a huge, fuck off green exclamation mark over an NPC’s head. In a characteristically clunky animation, Aloy slowly approaches, sits beside them to listen (much more patiently than I), and their gossip imparts something you already knew or reveals a location that’s already marked on your mini-map. Padding, padding and more padding.
Combat with machines follows the same rhythm. Perhaps appropriately enough, they seem procedurally generated and located, scattered in the area designated as their spawn point. Highlighting their tracks illuminates the only path they will ever take in the world, usually a small circle or a straight line back and forth. Variety and challenge is introduced not by the AI of these machines, but by the sheer volume of them on a battlefield simultaneously and by the hit points and number of attacks each of them performs. It works well enough for general open world combat, but at best it doesn't feel curated, and at worst it feels thoughtless. The shapes of your enemies change, but your strategy is always the same: identify vulnerable components susceptible to elemental damage and target them accordingly. At least this time many upgrades and quest items require detaching from machines before they’re killed, which necessitates marginally more thought and planning than a regular fight to the death. Still, the surplus of unexciting skill tree updates are mostly wasted, and mechanics like Valor (a slowly accruing power which unleashes a special attack) and Weapon Stamina (a slowly accruing power which unleashes a different special attack) by and large feel like more effort to use than they’re worth.
To be fair, some of these issues arise from compromises you anticipate in a vast open world game, which isn't to say they're forgivable, but that they're not unexpected. You want a 100 hour game set on a map the size of Texas, don't be surprised when a few corners have been cut to bring you that scale. The result is quantity over quality time and again. Lamentably, this seems to be an order of priorities shared by many triple A titles these days: Day's Gone, Assassin's Creed, Just Cause, Far Cry, to name just a handful. You could be forgiven for thinking it’s only Rockstar and CD Projekt RED striving for scale and substance. Everybody knows, size only matters a bit, it’s what you do with it that counts. (🍆)
At the end of the day, Horizon Forbidden West provides a comfortable space you can while away your hours in; a calming, familiar canvas offering mindless, therapeutic escapism in much the same way bingeing Lost once did. There’s something to be said for that, but it’s disappointing when the game promised, and could have been, so much more.