Set far in the distant future, the game picks up the story of Aloy, a young woman who strives to save the world from calamitous ruin. (In the words of the classic Smiths song, “Stop me if you think you’ve heard this one before.”) Aloy is a genetic clone of the scientist who helped create GAIA, a terraforming system that rearranged the environment after a cataclysmic catastrophe precipitated by rogue AI-controlled war machines. Alas, the system has collapsed, leaving a form of plague to sweep the world – devastating crops and corrupting the animal-like machines that were once guardians of the land.
Upon opening, we find Aloy looking for a way to restart GAIA. After pursuing a number of dead ends, she has become frustrated with her task, though she is still determined to complete it. Eventually, she stumbles upon a promising lead that takes her to the land of Plainsong, a place where the board drives public policy through choral singing. Unlike the Nora, Aloy’s tribe who traditionally shun technology, the Utaru, the people of Plainsong, revere machines that roam the earth and call them earth gods. As in the first game, the most powerful narrative tension comes from Aloy’s interactions with people whose faith she finds misplaced. “Why does every priest I meet think blind faith is the answer? she says to herself at one point, emphasizing the skeptical humanism that defines her sensibility.
In a sacred cave dear to the Utaru, Aloy discovers a backup of GAIA, but any relief she feels is short-lived since, to make GAIA fully functional, Aloy must locate four of GAIA’s “subordinate functions” which are scattered throughout different regions. from the menu. As you explore the Forbidden West – the great landmass where most of the game takes place – you’ll encounter the same kinds of diversions found in a number of open-world games. There are puzzle rooms to explore, trials to compete in, and plenty of people to help. Considering Aloy is tasked with saving the world, it’s understandable that she seems more than a little embarrassed by people’s requests for her to track down cooking ingredients and the like. The problem is that no amount of refinement can hide the fact that “Horizon Forbidden West” plays like an open world game in numbers. As I worked my way through, I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that with a palette swap here and there, I might as well have been playing Tomb Raider.
Despite the familiar mechanics, what really threw me into a loop was the uneven quality of the cutscenes. The acting in Forbidden West ranges from impressive to abysmal. On the positive side, Erica Lutrell, who plays the strong-willed warrior Utaru Zo, is excellent. She plays the part with grace and restraint, unlike some of the other actors who seem preoccupied with maintaining their fake accents. Given Horizon Forbidden West’s AAA production values, I was even more taken aback by the poor quality of direction in several cutscenes. I texted a friend and fellow critic who, given how awkwardly they look at each other in some scenes, it didn’t even look like the actors were sharing the same space. My friend replied that they looked like they were glued to a background, like something from a 1990s game that used pre-rendered graphics.
The overriding question “Horizon Forbidden West” left me with is “when will its potential audience tire of the tired conventions that underpin so many save-the-world adventure games?” As much as I enjoyed the thrill of destroying robots, “Horizon Forbidden West” won’t earn a place in my long-term memory.
Christopher Byrd is a Brooklyn-based writer. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Byrd.