For a big-budget blockbuster game, Horizon Forbidden West is extremely weird. It is a detailed science-fiction story about a red-haired outcast warrior, the tribes that inhabit a post-apocalyptic Earth a thousand years in the future, and a bunch of robot dinosaurs. It’s a tangle of different ideas and complicated systems that only reluctantly interact with each other. It’s also a damn good time, and especially on PlayStation 5, a stunning example of just how good video games can look in 2022. You kind of get used to its beauty whilst you’re playing, but I found that whenever I returned to the game after making a cup of tea I was newly struck by whatever awesome scene was frozen on the pause screen: Aloy mid-roll away from a murderous mechanical hippo, or standing in the foreground in her war paint with an extraordinary view of mountains and snow behind.
It’s when I was out in this world, following whatever trails I found, that Horizon made me happiest. I lost hours out there, retrieving random artefacts from old train stations or crashed planes, collecting SO MANY plants and materials to stuff into Aloy’s magic backpack, and scrapping with the intimidating mechanical creatures that stalk the place. Getting into fights with these things is the absolute highlight of the game. They are aggressive, impressive and varied in both appearance and behaviour; they respond to you intelligently, and the combination of bows, traps and elemental weapons that you hunt them with can make each encounter feel like a battle of wits. It just feels incredible. I could play around all day in this place, trying to shoot the tail off a screeching flying metal monster so I can upgrade my bow.
Following the story, I was less interested. Forbidden West’s plot is – and I say this with some affection, after more than 30 hours immersed in it – a barely decipherable load of MacGuffin-laden sci-fi, all painstakingly written and acted by an engaging cast and scriptwriters who’ve done the best they could with such a sprawling, unwieldy story. Briefly summarised, it boils down to this: Aloy must find a bunch of artificial intelligence subfunctions (riveting, I know) to rebuild a super-AI that can save her world. Conveniently these fleeing AIs have confined themselves roughly to the west coast of the former USA, whose deserts and ruins and mountains make up the enormous map that we’re given to explore with Aloy. (It’s always America, isn’t it? We’re never wandering the post-apocalyptic, overgrown remnants of, say, Liechtenstein, or Norway.)
Horizon’s linear chapters highlight its less endearing quirks – the controls, for instance, which are unbelievably convoluted. The first couple of hours give a terrible first impression, introducing all of the slightly annoying things that you’re going to need to get used to. Climbing involves three different buttons. Spend a couple of days away from the game and your fingers will entirely forget how to find their way around the controller in a way that makes Aloy do what you want. The game pulls up little text tutorials throughout, which always made me laugh; I’d suggest that if, after 20 hours with a game, you still need to remind players how to throw a rock or jump backwards off a ledge, then the controls might be a little idiosyncratic.
Other random minor frustrations, such as healing being tied to an ever-depleting stash of magic berries, or having to craft ammo mid-fight from collectible resources that can run out, cause minimal suffering out in the wilds – but not in the middle of a tough boss fight at the end of a long story mission, when they can stop you in your tracks.
There are a lot more of these weirdnesses, but I became almost fond of them over time. I always enjoy games that come up with entertaining justifications for the extremely video-gamey abilities and goals that they give you, for instance, and Aloy uses old-world technology to scan creatures for weaknesses and highlight all of the collectible doodads on the screen. This is just so bare-faced and convenient as to be straight-up endearing. And though I lost interest in a lot of the (many) conversations that Aloy engaged in out in the Forbidden West, I never lost interest in her. She is a great person through whom to experience this wild and stunning place, competent and inspiring even when you’re fumbling around trying to remember how to call your robot horse, but end up accidentally scarfing a plate of virtual stew instead.
I don’t think I’ve seen half of what Forbidden West has to offer. It bored me sometimes with endless dialogue and exposition, but is equally generous with things to do and places to explore and creatures to unwisely provoke. Unlike many open-world games it is continually offering you something new, and a couple of the tools you acquire later in the game really open the whole place up. It’s got the spirit of a Metroid or Tomb Raider-style puzzle adventure on the scale of an Assassin’s Creed. And once again: by god, it is beautiful. I’ll happily endure ten minutes of being lectured about terraforming, in exchange for marvelling at these sunken caves, forbidding plains and mechanical T-rexes.