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The premise of the 2017 video game Horizon: Zero Dawn might sound a little silly to the uninitiated: It’s the story of a teenage girl Aloy, an outcast with no parents in a post-apocalyptic world filled with giant robotic dinosaurs known as “machines,” which are terrorizing the tribal populace. As Aloy, you run around the game’s facsimile of Colorado and surrounding states, settling community disputes, completing quests, upgrading your gear, spelunking old world ruins, and using your bow and arrow to take down lots and lots of dinosaurs. Zero Dawn is both a coming of age story for Aloy, who comes to terms with her identity as a chosen one, and a sort of bildungsroman for Earth itself, as Aloy slowly unravels how the old world—our world—crumbled and was reborn in such a strange state, filled with both neolithic humans and robot dinosaurs.
Robot dinosaurs terrorizing regressed humans in the future sounds like peak video-game nonsense, story-wise. But in practice, it’s surprisingly grounded, weaving classic hero’s journey comfort food with coherent sci-fi world building, varied combat, and a satisfying arc that largely resolves its central mysteries. Zero Dawn was not without its flaws, but the thin side-quests and middling non-dino combat were easy to overlook in the massive, lush open world that Amsterdam-based developers Guerilla Games created. Critics agreed: The game went on to win numerous accolades, including Game of the Year from several outlets.
Five years on, the sequel, Horizon: Forbidden West, matches Zero Dawn’s ambition. Out for both PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5 on February 18, it picks up just a few months after the end of Zero Dawn: As a blight spreads across the land, Aloy seeks a backup copy of the massive terraforming AI known as Gaia to help restore the ecosystem to balance. With Zero Dawn’s original mysteries solved, this one looks westward—both in the literal sense, as Aloy explores the game’s Utah, Nevada, and California-inspired geography to find that world-saving AI, and also as a more subtle critique of the fantastical notion of the unspoiled, unfamiliar American West as an escape from one’s troubled circumstances.
Forbidden West is an iteration and extension of the first game, not a reinvention. It assumes a certain amount of familiarity with Zero Dawn’s lore and gameplay, and though it reintroduces many of its big ideas and characters, there are aspects of both the story and gameplay that you’ll miss without some familiarity with the previous game. (I recommend at least watching a brief story recap to catch yourself up, although Forbidden West makes an effort to provide one as it begins.) The general flow of Aloy’s adventure here is typical of both Zero Dawn and other modern open-world games: You more-or-less get to decide which missions to pursue and when, advancing the story, doing side jobs, and uncovering new areas as you go. Among other things, you can choose to spend time helping scavengers recover rare machine parts by carefully shooting them off of wild machines or help tend to the world’s bigger problems.
Among those is the growing dysfunction of the Utaru, the agriculture-based tribe, who rely on friendly farming dino-bots that they worship as gods. As the Utaru’s farmlands wither, and their gods begin to malfunction, you first investigate the problem and eventually follow up to make things right. Part of this storyline is tied into the main plot, while others unfold over completely optional side quests. These, unlike the rote side missions of the first game, are fully fleshed out; they still mostly involve killing dinosaurs, sure, but they also have their own characters and stakes and pathos, as the people of this world seek to honor their dead, heal their land, and just try to survive.
Playing the game on PS5, this attention to detail extends to every part of Forbidden West. It’s hard to overstate how tremendous every facet of this game looks. The environments are varied, from desert, to jungle, to the ruins of Las Vegas, all with regionally appropriate flora and fauna. Each tribe is also designed with its own customs and beliefs, which filter down into clothing styles and architecture. The machines themselves are composed of a fascinating combination of mechanical and organic elements, with unique, weighty animations and attack patterns that help establish these inorganic creatures as part of the natural world. The animation and lighting on the human characters is exceptional too; while characters this detailed might be in danger of slipping into the uncanny valley, here they appear, move, and emote with realistic subtlety.
Combat is largely unchanged from Zero Dawn but comes with some tweaks to melee combat and human fighters, and is significantly more fun to engage in. There is even a new board game to play within the story, called Machine Strike, a fun if undercooked distraction in between bouts of dino-mashing. While the sound design is strong (I especially love the snap of Aloy’s bow being pulled back), the music itself is the weakest element of the game’s aesthetic package. It’s typical orchestral stuff, distinguished by soft choral wailing and vaguely tribal percussion to inspire awe. (Sometimes a synthesizer arpeggio wafts in to remind you this is a science fiction game.) It’s mostly serviceable but occasionally emotionally confusing, one of the few artistic elements here that doesn’t feel particularly inspired.
The only major element of the game I found myself actively annoyed with was the climbing system, which is used to scale rock faces and muck around inside machine factories. It’s slightly finicky and isn’t quite as enjoyable as the game wants it to be. I was also beset by occasional glitches while playing my pre-launch copy of the game, both minor graphical problems and more significant game-breaking bugs—like when I was fully locked out of fast-traveling to previous locations. I lost about an hour’s worth of progress when I had to reload a previously saved game as a fix, but luckily the game’s autosaving system is generous. Sony has since released an update as well, which has purportedly solved a few of these issues. In any case, I found these problems easily forgivable in a game as generous in spirit (and content) as Forbidden West.
That spirit is most closely felt in the game’s storytelling. As science fiction, Forbidden West is soft—more Star Wars than Red Mars. But that isn’t a criticism, as the game makes the most of its somewhat magical approach to in-game science by using it as a means to explore sociologically ideas. The tribes that populate the West feel apiece with the world. I was especially drawn to the Quen, a slightly more advanced society from across the ocean, who’ve built a social structure around corporate hierarchies based on misinterpretations of data from the old world. For example, they refer to their leader as the “Ceo”—as in C.E.O., but pronounced like “see-oh.” It’s a wonderful little detail that might be a little on-the-nose in less self-assured contexts, but it feels authentic to the well-defined world of Forbidden West, as do the grander themes of sisterhood, sustainability, and escapism that play out over the course of the main story.
Early on in Forbidden West, as Aloy explores a ruin looking for a copy of that terraforming AI, the game reminds you of a minor detail from Zero Dawn. Long ago, we learned in that game, a group of old-world tech billionaires attempted to escape the dying Earth for a new world, only to have their ship explode on the way. This Musk-ian, escapist folly runs through the main story arc, reading as a litigation of “going West” as a meaningful resolution to our problems, be they environmental, political, or technological. Escapism is reserved for the elite, however. For Aloy and the companions that join her throughout her journey, their concerns are focused on how to survive in an abandoned world mired in degradation and flux. What Aloy is really contending with here are the critical, but earthly problems of this world: environmental blight, tribal factionalism, and the long term political consequences of atrocities committed in wartime.
If Horizon Zero Dawn was a game about Mother Earth, then Horizon Forbidden West is a game about Father Time. It’s not concerned with uncovering the hidden origins of the world, but with living through the cyclical nature of human conflict, and how running away from one’s problems dooms us to repeat them. By the end of the game, Aloy travels so far toward the edge of the continent as to encounter the submerged ruins of San Francisco, where skyscrapers jut out from the ocean. It’s the western-most point on the map, the literal end of the game world. It’s a reminder that though the hope of the American West may seem infinite, it too is bound by geography and the vastness of the Pacific. Our world has its limits too, and if you run west long enough, far from escape, you’ll be drowned by the current.
Slate reviewed Horizon Forbidden West on PlayStation 5 via a pre-release copy provided by Sony.