What I'm Playing - No. 185
Welcome back to another weekly wrap-up of the games I’ve been playing over the past week!
Click a title to skip to that section. Games contained within this post:
Horizon Forbidden West (PS5)
It wasn’t that long ago that I played Horizon Zero Dawn. Its sequel, Horizon Forbidden West released in 2022 for PS4 and PS5. My wife and I picked up a copy just a few months after launch, and while I didn’t play it right away my wife did. I watched parts of her playthrough, and I remember thinking the story sounded okay, but not as good as Zero Dawn. After playing the game myself, and experiencing the story in its entirety, I think I’ve mostly changed my mind. I still think Zero Dawn’s story is the better of the two, but both games have very good stories. Zero Dawn tells Aloy’s incredible origin story and offers more of a sense of mystery and discovery in its narrative, while Forbidden West features more sci-fi elements and sets the stage for the next game in the series nicely.
Many things from Zero Dawn return in Forbidden West, with a few tweaks and additional polish. Most noticeable right away are the graphical improvements. Zero Dawn was already a gorgeous game, and Forbidden West somehow manages to improve the visuals even further. This game is stunning. Many times I had to just stop and take in the scenery for a while. And this was with the settings set to performance mode rather than quality, and it still looked beautiful! Plus, it has a photo mode, which I always enjoy messing around with, and the photo mode is better than ever, with a bunch of new silly poses to mess around with.
The Shieldwing is one of my favorite new additions to Aloy’s kit, it’s awesome. I loved being able to jump from whatever height I wanted and glide safely back down to Earth. Another cool new tool is the Pullcaster, which Aloy can use in mid-air to pull herself to anchor points. On the ground, the Pullcaster serves another purpose, and lets you pull down fragile structures marked with a distinctive pattern, and you can also use it to pull around crates that you can’t reach otherwise. The Pullcaster is used in a bunch of puzzles in this game, and it was a nice addition that added extra variety to those sections.
Aloy isn’t limited to exploring just the land anymore, and she can now take to both the seas and skies too. You can freely dive underwater, and once you unlock the Diving Mask you don’t have to worry about oxygen anymore and can fully explore the watery depths of the Forbidden West. Underwater gameplay is pretty limited though, you can’t fight machines while swimming so it’s limited to exploring and sneaking. Not being able to defend yourself underwater really changes things when you see a machine swimming your way though, and it was cool to have the power dynamic flipped like that.
Very late in the game, you unlock flying mounts, and can override the pterodactyl-like Sunwing machines and fly around. It’s understandable why you unlock them so late, because being able to fly lets you to skip significant parts of a lot of stuff around the map, like Tallnecks and Relic Ruins. Flying was wonderful though, it shows off how stunning the game is from a brand new perspetive.
Combat has undergone a lot of adjustments in this game. Melee combat is hugely overhauled, with several different melee combos available to unlock in the Warrior skill tree. There are also several new elemental statuses including acid and purgewater, which means a lot of new weapons capable of using ammo types specific to those elements. There are a number of brand new types of weapons too, like rapid-firing Boltcasters and armor-piercing Spike Throwers. Weapon Techniques are another big addition to combat. You unlock these for each type of weapon by acquiring the associated skills in each skill tree. Using them requires weapon stamina, which replenishes over time, and these are very useful in battle. Hunter Bows for instance, offer the Arrow Volley skill, where Aloy quickly shoots several arrows into the sky that rain down on a small area.
Melee Pits offer a place for you to practice the new melee combos, including challenges that serve as nice tutorials for chaining attacks together effectively. Each of the Melee Pits includes a challenge battle against the pitmaster after you’ve cleared the other challenges, where you’ll want to use what you learned to take them down. Clearing all 3 Melee Pits in the Forbidden West unlocks the final melee challenge: a battle against a legendary fighter known as the Enduring, who’s trained several of the greatest Tanakth warriors. The Enduring’s identity is played up as a pretty big secret, so I won’t spoil it here, but the battle with them was awesome. The rest of the Melee Pits hadn’t been too hard to clear, I cleared most of them on my first or second try I think, so I went in to the battle with the Enduring assuming it would be just a little tougher, maybe it would take three tries or something. Oh, how wrong I was! I lost to the Enduring many, many times. On normal difficulty, Aloy can only withstand about three of their attacks before losing, they deal so much damage. When all was said and done, I think defeating the Enduring took me something like 30 tries, at least, but I finally did it. That fight really gave me a new appreciation for the melee combat in this game, the combos you can chain together feel really fluid and it’s a super cool fight.
In Zero Dawn, characters were pretty stiff during dialogue a lot of the time, but here they’re much more animated and conversations are more interesting to watch as a result. Once you make it through Utaru territory after roughly the first quarter of the game, you unlock the Base. This is a nice place to chat with Aloy’s allies on her journey. They have fun dialogue amongst themselves that you’ll overhear when passing through the Base’s common area. It’s through this dialogue that you learn Erend, one of Aloy’s companions and a returning character from the first game, has gained an appreciation for heavy metal after discovering it in the Old One’s data. It’s a fun little detail, and a really great character moment for him.
The 10 Commandments of Game Design state that every serious open world video game series must have some kind of in-game tabletop game. I’m happy to report that Horizon has cemented its place as a serious open world series by introducing Machine Strike. I’m pretty bad at it, probably because I got impatient, never finished playing the tutorial, and jumped straight to harder opponents. I love that it’s in the game though. It’s a little tabletop strategy game where you collect Strike pieces, buying them from shops and carvers, and each piece is based on a different kind of machine and has its own stats, like movement range, health, and attack. Then you use your pieces to try and outmaneuver your opponent and knock out enough of their pieces to win while they do the same to you. Like I said, I was bad at it, but that didn’t stop me from playing against the lower difficulty players a few times and scraping out a couple wins.
Gauntlet Runs are basically Horizon Kart. It’s a kart racer mini-game, you collect items, mostly arrows, and you can attack the other racers and use the arrows you picked up to shoot them. After finishing my playthrough and looking back on the experience, I thought I enjoyed this mini-game. There’s 4 difference race tracks, and I didn’t have any real problems with the first two tracks the first time I played them. Sure, it was a little stressful trying to win the race, I felt like I was always mashing some button or another to shoot other racers with arrows to keep them from pulling too far ahead, or to recover after getting hit by an arrow myself, but I managed. The final two tracks were a bit rougher, one because I kept losing and then fell through the ground during one of my attempts, and the other because I really had to focus in order to win, and it was very nerve-wracking. But still, after all that, I somehow came away from the experience thinking “that was a fun mini-game.” But then, I replayed the first two tracks on my wife’s New Game+ save file to help her get the achievement for completing them, and it was awful. My mount kept coming to a complete stop for some reason when I was trying to aim my bow sometimes, leading to me mashing the run button and shouting at it to move. That experience brought back the memories I’d repressed from the races in my playthrough, of the times when I had similar problems with my mount stopping during the races. Gauntlet Runs are a stressful experience, and I don’t want to talk about it anymore.
Just a few weeks after I finished the game, the Burning Shores DLC released exclusively for the PS5 version of Forbidden West, featuring a new adventure for Aloy in a brand new explorable area. Having thoroughly enjoyed the Frozen Wilds DLC for the first game, I was looking forward to this extra content in the sequel. And…it was alright. The environments are beautiful, with landscapes that are just as breathtaking as the base game. There’s a really cool final boss battle. It’s quite a setpiece, I think it makes for a better final boss than what the base game had, it’s definitely much more of a spectacle during the battle itself. There’s also a Jurassic Park type region added in the DLC. The T-Rex statue has to be an homage to the visitor’s center scene at the end of Jurassic Park, you can’t convince me it’s not. But other than that, Burning Shores was just alright. Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy my time playing it, but it seems a bit light on content compared to Frozen Wilds. I also didn’t particularly like main new character it introduced, Seyka. I think you’re supposed to like her, she accompanies Aloy on all the main quests in Burning Shores, but she just didn’t click with me. It feels like they were trying too hard with her, I guess? It doesn’t help that you really don’t have much time to get to know her, because there’s not very many main quests in the DLC.
Purchasing the DLC does unlock some cool new abilities for Aloy that you can use both in the new area and in the base game. There’s a couple new skills added to the existing skill trees, but the coolest new addition was the Grapple Strike. This lets you use the Pullcaster to hookshot yourself toward a downed enemy and give them a good stab. It’s fun to use, cool to see, and it does a bunch of damage, so it’s a win-win all around.
Here’s a fun fact about Burning Shores: the main villain is played by Sam Witwer, who also played the main character in Days Gone, Deacon St. John. I guess I’m a fake Days Gone fan, because I didn’t recognize him at all on my own, and instead found out thanks to a Reddit thread on the Horizon subreddit. I couldn’t stop seeing his character in Horizon as Deacon St. John afterward, even though they’re nothing alike besides sharing Sam’s likeness and voice.
Horizon Forbidden West is a real gem of an open world game. It’s a blast to play through, and also paves the way for Aloy’s next adventure in Horizon’s machine-riddled world. I’d easily recommend it to anyone who enjoys open-world action RPGs, especially if you already played the first game. Burning Shores isn’t such an easy sell for me. It was fun, but I don’t think it adds any new must-play content to the game. Whether or not you should buy it depends on much of a Horizon diehard fan you are, I guess. My final time for Horizon Forbidden West was 49 hours 36 minutes, and Burning Shores added add additional 7 hours 14 minutes on top of that, for a total final time of 56 hours 47 minutes.