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Review: 'Horizon Forbidden West' brings a personal saga to a primal post-apocalypse

Aloy surveys a vista from 'Horizon Forbidden West.'
Sony Interactive Entertainment
Aloy surveys a vista from 'Horizon Forbidden West.'

Horizon Forbidden West returns to a post-apocalypse brimming with wondrous scenery, bestial robots, and scrappy civilizations that arose a thousand years after ecological catastrophe. It's topped my most-anticipated games list for years — and I know I'm not alone in saying that its predecessor, Horizon Zero Dawn, is one of my favorite games of all time. Yet, I had some trepidation when I finally got my hands on the game. After all, could this sequel measure up to the majesty of the first? I didn't have to worry; Horizon Forbidden West surpassed my incredibly lofty expectations.

2017's Horizon Zero Dawn was a fantastic game for so many reasons, but for me the primary draw was its main character, Aloy. I adored getting to know this outcast who grew up shunned by her tribe. Her driving motivation in exploring the mysteries of the world around her was very internal — sure, she wants to uncover the secrets of what happened to the Old Ones and their ancient technology, but this journey is much more personal for her.

Aloy arrives at the Daunt, a valley that resembles National Parks in the Mountain West.
/ Sony Interactive Entertainment
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Sony Interactive Entertainment
Aloy arrives at the Daunt, a valley that resembles National Parks in the Mountain West.

Recovering an ancient past and urgent purpose

Aloy has no idea who her mother is — which is a big problem for the Nora, the tribe who found her as a child. Venerating matriarchal lineage, they deemed her "motherless" and cast her out after discovering her in their sacred mountain. But over the course of the first game, Aloy comes to understand that she was created by an artificial intelligence called Gaia that needed her help to save the world. Aloy is, in fact, a clone of Elisabet Sobeck, a 21st-century scientist who devised a grand plan to restore the Earth after a terrible swarm of machines destroyed the planet.

It's a relief for Aloy to learn about her lineage in the first game, but it's also a burden. While she strives to reconstruct Gaia and rescue the entire biosphere from an external threat, her chief aspiration is to live up to the legacy of her genetic "mother," Elisabet.

Aloy sees her genetic "mother," Elisabet Sobeck, in a recurring dream.
/ Sony Interactive Entertainment
/
Sony Interactive Entertainment
Aloy sees her genetic "mother," Elisabet Sobeck, in a recurring dream.

That quest is a lonely one, but Aloy's isolation is largely self-imposed. Early in Horizon Forbidden West, Aloy learns that while Lis devoted herself to saving humanity and sacrificed herself to see her dream come to fruition, she spurned close friendships. She loved people in the abstract but didn't make time for individuals. Aloy is left wondering what Lis was really like, and whether she wants to make the same choices.

For a character who's already reasonably well-developed at the start of this sequel, it's a fantastic and thought-provoking path. Aloy spends the bulk of the first game solo, reluctant to accept any help, and she begins the second game the same way. But over the course of Horizon Forbidden West, Aloy works through challenges to her conviction that she must go at it alone. In particular, the Nora warrior Varl refuses to let Aloy stand apart, and eventually she surrenders to the idea that accepting help is not a weakness. Even Lis had a team she relied on.

Aloy rides ahead of her ally, Varl, on conquered machines.
/ Sony Interactive Entertainment
/
Sony Interactive Entertainment
Aloy rides ahead of her ally, Varl, on conquered machines.

Charting another ground-breaking course

It's just one of the many ways that Horizon Forbidden West continues the achievements of its predecessor, even as it seeks to improve upon them in every way. The first game broke ground with gorgeous landscapes of frigid peaks and sheer desert canyons. But the creative team went even further in the sequel, from a lush Great Basin valley, to a Golden Gate Bridge reclaimed by greenery, to a bustling city nestled inside an array of ancient satellite dishes. It's a real, thoughtful, inhabited place.

The way Aloy navigates it is also purposeful. Climbing has taken cues from The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and it's easy to run off to the nearest mountain to scale it, just to see what's on the other side. Swimming can be a pain until Aloy assembles a gadget that allows her to breathe underwater — that opens entirely new biomes to explore, from oceans to caves to the underwater ruins of Las Vegas. And, as always, it's an absolute delight to hack robots and ride them.

A hostile machine can be overridden to become a flying mount.
/ Sony Interactive Entertainment
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Sony Interactive Entertainment
A hostile machine can be overridden to become a flying mount.

That thoughtfulness also extends to the combat and difficulty settings — you can make the game as hard as you want it to be (the "Story" difficulty setting is excellent for my fellow gamers who need things to be as easy as possible). But even more than its predecessor, Horizon Forbidden West rewards players who have the patience to scan machines, identify weak spots, and choose elemental arrows to exploit their weaknesses. I was surprised by how fun it was to play this way — I became adept at taking enemies down with just a few well-chosen hits. Combat is a hard trick to balance, but developer Guerrilla Games has excelled.

And that's the key to Horizon Forbidden West — every aspect is intriguing, from the stunning open world to the intricate combat to the unexpected story. But at its center is Aloy. The journey she embarks on isn't just to the Forbidden West. It's to the core of her "mother's" legacy and to her belief that she's the only one who can save the world. That may indeed be the case — but it doesn't mean she can't accept help, and even enjoy it, along the way.

Horizon Forbidden West will be released Feb. 18 on PlayStation 5 and PlayStation 4.

Swapna Krishna writes about space, tech, and pop culture at outlets such as Wired, Engadget, and Slate. You can find her on Twitter at @skrishna.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Swapna Krishna