Let's get one thing out of the way first: If you've enjoyed Horizon: Zero Dawn and are already looking forward to the sequel, there's likely only a very small chance you won't enjoy Forbidden West. Guerrilla Games made sure of that by giving you a game that is functionally identical to a lot of Zero Dawn. You will take on herds of machines so you can harvest them for parts. You will shoot animals for their hides. You will climb Tallnecks and rappel down. You will take out countless camps of near-identical human opponents.
And, if you're anything like me, you will also take a lot of pictures - of swirling red sandstorms, snow-tipped mountains and views of sprawling forests. In truth, I can't calm down about the way Forbidden West looks. Someone made this, and you can walk around in it!
All of these elements worked well before, and I expect many players to embrace Forbidden West just as they did in 2017 because of them. What I'm interested in, however, is change. Since this is a sequel, it feels fair to ask whether Forbidden West improves on elements that could have done with improving. I can recognise and appreciate that Guerrilla made attempts to address some common criticisms of the first game. However, in most cases these intended improvements don't actually improve a lot.
The new map is once again a stunner. I got a lot of enjoyment from just discovering each new part of it and taking it in. I often made my own quiet moments - coming up to a star-studded sky after a night swim, or watching trees sway in a storm for a while before moving to the next objective. It's not an entirely bug-free journey at this point, but I consider most bugs I encountered to be minor and most should be fixed with the day one patch that arrived towards the end of the review period. (Side-quest progression bugs, due to an NPC not going where they're supposed to, cleared after reloading my save, and the rest of the bugs were camera or lighting-related, with music overlapping sometimes, plus some pop-in that's since been reduced by the patch.)
Characters are almost always just as gorgeous as their surroundings. I especially live for the skin in this game. Aloy now has the ruddy cheeks of a perpetually pale redhead, and beautiful freckles, and I'm obsessed with the several different shades you can clearly distinguish on darker-skinned characters. There are still unnaturally moving, dead-eyed characters in sequences, likely due to not using mo-cap for everything, but even that is a lot less noticeable.
As for what you do in this world, and with these characters? After a lengthy tutorial which establishes the basics, all bets are off.
In short there is a discovery problem. New weapons and monsters are very often not organically introduced as part of the story, but come across as entirely optional, no matter how useful or exciting they could be to encounter as part of Aloy's adventure. This happened in the previous game, too, but now, you will often fight familiar monsters during the main quest, only to find new ones only outside of the critical path.
This is a shame, particularly since the new weapons in particular are a lot of fun - bolt blasters, essentially the machine guns of the Horizon universe, are perhaps slightly overpowered, but make up for this by the slow reload times and weight, which influences Aloy's dodge. My personal favourite is the shredder disc, which functions like a boomerang - if you manage to catch the disc twice after firing it, the third shot will explode on impact.
But with Forbidden West's new elements, new potions and traps among them, comes a sense of being overwhelmed. I often went into the menu to switch outfits and weapons mid-fight despite the weapon wheel, or desperately thumbed through a large array of traps while running away from a monster. Since rarer versions of a particular weapon type don't just have improved stats but also fire different ammo, I was never comfortable with selling anything, and often stared at the screen just crunching numbers.
The variety of weapons would ideally mean that players have the freedom to use whatever weapon they like best, but too many of them are expensive, or sold in unlikely places, to make that happen. I can't speak for the higher difficulties, but the fact that I just didn't need most of the new additions is part of why a lot of them felt like stuff, rather than useful new tools.
Elsewhere it's the same story. You get to pick your skills from large skill trees with much better UI design now, for example, but the new skills themselves just didn't impact play for me - Forbidden West feels like a game that wants to be more than the original was, but in reality it can be played with the same skill set and items from its predecessor, and does not feel worse for it. So why are they there? (In terms of more, more, more, however, I should mention the extensive list of accessibility features, including button layout customisation, vibration intensity settings, subtitles of different sizes and a long list of volume controls.)
Food, which you can forage for and have someone make for you at a settlement, and a stash for items Aloy can no longer hold on her person, are two more new additions I didn't really know what to do with. Both are prime examples of RPG elements lifted from other games that just won't work in the context of Horizon. The world is so full of all kinds of stuff I didn't feel the need to access my stash. Usually I just didn't know what was in there, having forgotten how many times the game told me "pouch full, sent to stash". And, left with no easy way to check unless I wanted to travel back to a settlement and take a peek in there myself, it was easy to ignore. Granted, food may well make an impact at higher difficulty levels, but again you eventually carry so much of it that, ahead of a battle, I sat in the menu for minutes to crunch stats.
Other improvements are equally troublesome. One frequent criticism of Zero Dawn were its many rather stupid human enemies. The main quest at least lowers that number, but of course you can still spend countless sidequests shooting at bandits. In Zero Dawn, I enjoyed nothing more than taking out entire camps stealthily. Granted, it was probably too easy - I could hop between tufts of tall grass, and lure half the camp to my position without anyone wondering why bodies were piling up right behind them. But in Forbidden West, I don't think enemies have become smarter - they still overwhelmingly remain standing in the same spot while you shoot at them, and tend to shoot the wall beneath you whenever you're in a slightly elevated position.
But this time around, if one of them hears you, almost always all of them hear you. They can see you from what feels like miles away, and more often than not, very open level design completely forbids me from actually sneaking up on anyone, with tall grass often positioned in a way that makes it impossible to sneakily detonate blaze or acid cannisters. Additionally, any human opponent seems to be able to withstand some ten odd arrows.
Monster battles meanwhile, in many ways the heart of Horizon, feel practically unchanged, probably because they worked fine the way they were. You can now fight several new types of monsters, including hippo-like Widemaws, something that looks like a coati and more dinosaur-adjacent creatures. I generally enjoy the battles and think they are exciting just due to how ferocious and big these machine animals are. But for the first time I noticed that just adding new types of monsters actually doesn't add variety to the fundamental gameplay - you still really just shoot a lot of arrows at them. For these encounters, too, the level design now just forbids some of the more tactical gameplay - in some areas I just wouldn't know where to put a tripcaster, or put a trap down without being seen.
In terms of structure, Forbidden West's main quest structure is now much more geared towards visiting dungeons. I like that a lot more than visiting different cauldrons and killing everything inside (which of course you can still do) or tracking after the condescending know-it-all Sylens because otherwise you wouldn't know where to go. There is more of a clear goal to what you're doing this time around. You get coordinates to a place, navigate your way through it, fight a big monster and then get some computer bits at the end. The dungeons often look pretty cool, showcase Forbidden West's greatly improved climbing, and allow for some good indoor level design. There's much more climbing and pathfinding to do than before, and while it's never a challenge to find out where you need to go (because Aloy will tell you, as she never shuts up), I think there's a good mix here between climbing, scanning your surroundings and even swimming.
A lot of what hasn't improved - or has, in places, become markedly worse - is connected to the story. Aloy travels west because she's trying to find a working copy of the sentient computer that's been running earth. Let's just sit with this sentence for a moment. Enjoying Horizon always meant accepting the inherent video game-y ridiculousness of its premise, but given how much work Guerrilla put into Horizon's world-building, I felt there was almost something akin to a balance there. It was fun to discover where things came from along with your protagonist, and the answers she found were silly but just believable enough.
But that thrill of discovery is now mostly gone, and what we're left with is the story of a world that's dying because someone didn't debug it regularly. Much of Forbidden West's narrative issues are frustratingly embargoed, but know that at times it will go fully off the rails into wild, nonsensical sci-fi. Its ending is tedious and anticlimactic. Before you get there, you'll encounter some oddly pro-military cringe, oodles of "don't ask" logical leaps, and antagonists almost entirely devoid of personality and, strangely, screen time.
Horizon Forbidden West is still evidently not a game that has anything of interest to say about its apocalypse... It's a game that exists to be looked at.
In other words, Forbidden West successfully manages to undermine most of what was interesting and fun about Zero Dawn's story, because the deeper you look into things, the more you get confronted with pseudo, sci-fi fantasy stuff that even in a video game is difficult to take seriously - and oh, does it want to be taken seriously. Beyond the story, in Forbidden West Aloy herself is the real disappointment to me. She's now known as a saviour and a champion - soon even in the West, which at least provides an excuse for why everyone would ask her for help. But Saviour Aloy is also absolutely unbearable. She isn't just accepted, she's revered, and while she at least partially rejects that new status ("Varl, uh...helped"), she's also incredibly obnoxious all of a sudden.
Aloy will repeatedly state what she needs to do, such as "I need to go west, I need to go west," but she'll never explain to anyone why, only hinting, cryptically, at how she's the only one who can save the planet. The constantly sullen way in which Aloy says everything now becomes particularly difficult to bear at times, because she just sounds so done. That isn't a knock on Aloy's voice actress Ashly Burch, but on whatever process led to her being asked to perform this way, mumbling her way through every line and ending everything on an exhale so it sounds like a sigh.
Meanwhile, Aloy's constant "gotta go" attitude leaves no time for other people's troubles - characters are frequently brushed off because they simply couldn't understand, but her character's urgency feels entirely fabricated when there's always time to hunt Pelicans and help a diplomat or two. Aloy recklessly endangers the people she's supposed to save, just to get her way, causing destruction and threatening murder in service of her mission, completely without remorse. This Aloy will kill you to save you, but before that she will belittle you and speak in technobabble.
Granted, I did enjoy some of the multi-part sidequests, as they highlighted the day-to-day struggles of the new clans you meet - but here too, the number of recognisable characters has been greatly reduced, and the number of interesting female characters, a major part of what worked so well with Horizon Zero Dawn's storytelling, seems to have markedly and frustratingly reduced. What's more, narratively, almost the entire campaign is structurally identical. Usually some bureaucracy or another will keep Aloy from doing the thing she needs to do - like win some clan chief's trust, usually, again, by killing a lot of people - and then, only once she's done that, she can finally get her world saving done. It's a well-trodden criticism of the open world genre's storytelling issues, but a pertinent one, and one that Forbidden West does little to counter.
As a woman with African roots, it was also startling to see Zulu face paint in the game being treated as a cosmetic, something you can get at a settlement for shards, as if it were fun Halloween makeup - completely removed from its cultural significance. As a result of all this, Horizon Forbidden West is still evidently not a game that has anything of interest to say about its apocalypse, brought about, essentially, by a few Silicon Valley idiots, other than "look how pretty these holograms are". It's a game that exists to be looked at.
There are other frustrations. While Forbidden West is not a difficult game to understand, it acts like it is. Aloy will narrate your every move, and I mean every move ("I should scan this." "I fell off and need to find my way back up"), robbing you of all agency to discover anything for yourself. Characters will explain the same issue over and over, but feel like empty, quest-giving shells otherwise (also a frequent criticism of the first game). And again, there's the lingering sense of borrowing without meaning, without understanding the original context of what's being borrowed.
To seemingly counter that issue of shallow side characters, for instance, Guerrilla once again lifts a mechanic from somewhere else - characters who accompany you for stretches of the main game and fight with you, God of War-style. I really like these people, and would give each of them their own main game over Forbidden West's Aloy immediately. They convene at a hub, Dragon Age: Inquisition-style, where you can watch them banter and ask them how it's going. This is again a good idea in practice that just doesn't, and won't, fit Forbidden West the way it does other games, as after characters arrive at the hub you don't take them with you again. They're just sitting in a large bunker, without much to say on your progress. I didn't get a lot of added value from it.
It's a real shame. While it's undoubtedly another accomplished game in terms of technical achievement and sheer visual spectacle - I'm reminded again of those incredible faces, and one particularly outstanding underwater level - I've enjoyed Forbidden West less than Zero Dawn. The main story has major issues, and the level design made it difficult for me to play the way I had previously enjoyed, while making a lot of the newer systems feel redundant. Beyond that, the sense is of a game where Guerrilla has cobbled together RPG building blocks often without making them work within the context of its own game, and in some cases actively worsening Horizon Forbidden West as a result. I don't expect groundbreaking innovation, but with using well-established elements there's always the danger of them having been done better elsewhere. Unfortunately, with Horizon Forbidden West that's often the case.