Warning: Full spoilers for Horizon Forbidden West below.
After 60 long hours of fighting machines and discovering what lies beyond The Daunt, I finally completed my play through of Horizon Forbidden West. As I sat staring at my TV, watching Aloy fly over the absolutely stunning landscape the game provided us with while the credits rolled, I tried to wrap my head around how I got here.
A Strong Foundation
When I saw the E3 reveal trailer for its predecessor, Horizon Zero Dawn, way back in 2015, I wanted to play the game from the moment I saw it. The trailer alone absolutely blew me away, and the game lived up to the hype.
It’s safe to say that Forbidden West was among my most anticipated games of 2022, let alone the last few years. And, for the most part, it lived up to my expectations.
Nearly every element was improved. The visuals are unbelievable and the natural world feels so real; as an avid outdoorsman, seeing America’s Zion and Yosemite National Parks brought to life so carefully in a video game made for a spectacular experience. The settlements are the first I’ve come across in games to truly feel alive, rather than areas with buildings and NPCs standing in place, waiting for you. And the Tenakth showed us a new culture in the world of Horizon–one that feels primitive, even by Horizon’s post-apocalyptic standards, but also so much culturally richer than the tribes we’ve seen so far.
The Power of the Tenakth
The addition of the Tenakth introduced us to new characters, and, more importantly, a new conflict, one that is driven by the infamous Red Raids we heard so much about in Horizon Zero Dawn.
I found myself engrossed in Chief Hekarro’s grace as a leader striving for peace following a war driven by a madman, his wisdom transcending his position. Kotallo quickly became my favorite ally; I loved that he recognized Aloy’s strength and drive as a reminder of who he was before he lost his arm, and a reflection of who he wants to be moving forward.
And of course, I was instantly captivated by Regalla, whose first appearance is the moment that truly kicked Forbidden West into the next gear for me. She immediately stole the show, and I could tell from the onset that she was a worthy villain. As I got to know Hekarro and the rest of the Tenakth, and learn what drives her hate for the Carja, I found myself more and more excited to see how the story of her civil war played out. (Side note: I would absolutely play a prequel focused on the Red Raids–the map is already there! Do it Guerrilla!)
I was so interested to see this war that was brewing and how it would create a political roadblock for the world I was trying desperately to save, awaiting a final showdown between Regalla’s forces and the Carja that would come to the edge of the Daunt again at Barren Light where my quest started. It felt inevitable that the army she was amassing would storm through the West and come to a climax with the stake of the entire world I knew on the line.
…But then the Zeniths showed up.
A Greedy Storyline: the Tenakth, the Zeniths, the Quen
That was certainly a plot twist. I mean, we’ve spent our entire time in this world thinking everyone died a thousand years ago, and now it turns out that there were a bunch of billionaires who not only escaped to space, but discovered immortality while they were at it? Oh, and they have a clone of Elisabet Sobek too?!
I was so eager to learn more… but the Zenith storyline of Horizon Forbidden West never landed the way that Regalla’s war did. The game ended up becoming too bloated with what felt like a sudden shift of the story from a conflict in the world we know to something we didn’t really get the chance to care about.
And this is where the problem with Horizon Forbidden West lies for me. I wanted more. It kept giving me more. But it wasn’t the “more” I was looking for.
From that point on, the game drifted further and further away from the reasons I’m here–as a player, and role-playing as Aloy–in the first place. It was no longer about the blight, or Regalla, and it hardly even felt like it was about GAIA. It’s all about the Zeniths, a faction who we barely get to know outside of Tilda’s very lengthy exposition. Their background is bland, a people so rich that the only thing left is to go evil.
Guerilla repeated this move as the game went on. There was the new faction of the Quen who stood out as religious fanatics worshipping Ted Faro (his tomb-harem is a whole other conversation). But again, we see another interesting tribe squandered by lack of development, and they more or less disappear after a quick detour to meet them. At least in the Quen’s defense, it feels as though they will make an appearance in a future sequel or DLC.
I can nitpick all I want, as I feel you can in every form of entertainment. And because I really did like this game so much, I won’t. But I can’t get over the fact that we had such an interesting premise that we never really got a resolution to. Playing through the first two thirds of the game, my goals were pretty clear:
- Secure the GAIA reboot to prevent the blight from spreading
- Find HEPHAESTUS and overcome another rogue AI
- Prevent Regalla from plunging the known world into violence
By the end of the game, the goal had shifted: Stop the Zeniths at all costs. Sure, makes sense, but I could never really pinpoint the why in this besides that they’ve got GAIA and Beta. We’re told they want to reboot Earth as a clean slate. Makes enough sense for the evil rich spacemen, even if a little limited. But then, in the final moments of the game, we have the rug pulled out from under us. They’re not looking to reboot Earth at all. They’re trying to escape their worst creation: NEMESIS.
Let’s Talk About the NEMESIS Reveal in Horizon Forbidden West
The NEMESIS reveal has me feeling all sorts of different ways.
First of all, why are the Zeniths even here? They’re just trying to grab GAIA and escape a monster they created? And, even with the stop on Earth, how did they plan to escape NEMESIS forever? It had tracked them so far, what’s stopping it from following them further?
And second, more importantly, the NEMESIS reveal took away all payoff from the story I’d spent 60 hours chasing answers for. Everything I’d done suddenly didn’t seem to matter, because we suddenly shifted into the setup for the final chapter for the trilogy setup. It felt like the writers wanted to be so sure they could have a story to continue, that they sabotaged the amazing story that they had in hand.
Story Successes and Mistakes in Horizon Forbidden West
Let’s revisit the goals I outlined above for a moment, and discuss them in light of the way the game suddenly shifted:
1. Secure the GAIA reboot to prevent the blight from spreading
The entire premise of Horizon Forbidden West is that the world Aloy has just supposedly saved from HADES is dying. Without GAIA and her subordinate functions, it is impossible to keep the environment stable as it recovers from the apocalypse. We learn this right away. But by the end of the game, GAIA feels like an afterthought, despite being our main hope in Horizon Zero Dawn and our strongest ally in Forbidden West.
Sure, the premise of the finale is to rescue GAIA from the Zeniths, but it is immediately thrown aside in favor of dropping the plot for Horizon 3. And, once you get past this, there’s no wrap-up of the story. We literally can’t even talk to GAIA after completing the main quest line.
We’ve being thrown headfirst into a sequel of a story that hasn’t really felt finished. I never really felt like we got to see the blight and extreme weather developed as the global threats they were–there’s a side quest where the Utaru seem to figure it out, but for a major plot point it felt waved away for the rest of the story. Maybe the landing didn’t hit for me, but the threat of environmental collapse is what got me here in the first place. To see it pushed to the side in favor of an enemy we’ve heard nothing about yet feels like a disservice.
2. Find HEPHAESTUS and overcome another rogue AI
Look, I didn’t need a rehash of HADES in Forbidden West. In fact I rather enjoyed that it was killed off early in the game to give us a clean slate. But the reveal that HEPHAESTUS was still out there building violent machines, especially for those of us who played The Frozen Wilds DLC, felt like a natural continuation of the rogue AI story.
I really appreciated Guerrilla for giving us not only an expansive DLC pack for Zero Dawn, but for doubling down on it as a launching point for a major plot point of the sequel. But this is where it differs from NEMESIS’ introduction.
In The Frozen Wilds, we learn all about HEPHAESTUS and come to know it as a worthy adversary. Its arrival in Forbidden West offers a foreboding look into the challenges we will face. HEPHAESTUS is an amazing AI enemy–while HADES corrupts, HEPHAESTUS is the one with unlimited resources to keep spawning machines. This feels like an earned challenge following the first game. Again, though, as soon as you overcome it, you are once again confronted with the Zeniths, who take it away for still-unclear motives.
And on top of this, they use releasing HEPHAESTUS AGAIN at the end for more sequel baiting. To be fair, I personally didn’t hate this decision, as Aloy is forced to make a choice to stop the Zeniths and realizes HEPHAESTUS is the only way to stop their Spectre army, but the moment didn’t really feel earned, and there aren’t really any consequences addressed by this choice. This should be a huge decision for Aloy, as HEPHAESTUS is the key to restoring the Earth. We’re so far removed from the environmental collapse story that we don’t even get the chance to reckon with the consequences of her decisions.
Let’s be clear here: Allowing the Zeniths to win dooms Earth. But letting HEPHAESTUS escape also dooms Earth, just with time to spare. There was no winning here, and Aloy made the right choice given the situation, but the fact that it’s glossed over so quickly really takes away from the gravity of this decision.
3. Prevent Regalla from plunging the known world into violence
And finally, we get to Horizon Forbidden West’s greatest mistake. Yes, Regalla’s war is a distraction from Aloy’s quest, but it’s one that feels true to the world we’ve come to know over these two games. This not a united world–it’s a very young one, and we’re seeing it grow as we explore it. Upon reaching the gates of the West, Fashav explains this conflict to us, masterfully bringing us up to speed on the history of the Tenakth and Carja’s relationship.
Let me be clear: Regalla is wrong for chasing a war that already ended. But her motives are understandable, and, dare I say, sympathetic at times. She and Hekarro are polar opposites: one fights for a future of peace, while the other clings to a conflict that nearly destroyed her people. Seeing this war play out in real time, and getting to know the various Tenakth tribes and how they feel about it, was the most interesting part of the game for me. I couldn’t wait to see how it came to a head and, just as much, how Aloy would end the conflict.
Aloy has been a beacon for peace since we’ve known her, but now she is going up against a bloodthirsty enemy in Regalla. A tipping point felt inevitable. I thought perhaps, as I previously mentioned, Regalla storms across the West gaining more and more Tenakth support until a true battle breaks out at the gates of the Daunt, where Aloy has to find a way to end this while bringing the peace between the Tenakth and Carja that Fashav dreamed of.
Instead, we see the best narrative of Forbidden West once again sidelined in favor of the Zeniths. The “war” becomes a bit of a stepping stone. Aloy has to protect the Kulrut in a great mission, but we don’t really get much more than this. Regalla’s failed attack on the Memorial Grove is simply run back again, with Aloy more or less ending it immediately with an EMP. This isn’t a satisfying end to the rebellion. This is a fast forward over a well-developed plot line to get to the forced sequel building, and the lack of an exclamation point on the Tenakth rebellion does a vast disservice to such a great story.
Horizon Forbidden West Jumped the Shark
The issue in Forbidden West is that I never felt like I saved the world Elisabet had worked so hard to secure a future for. We were rushed into Sylens’s momentous decision to stay; it felt unearned. Horizon Forbidden West ultimately feels not like a self-contained story by the end, but rather a setup for the future. Guerrilla easily could have held some cards close to the vest instead of going all in on the doomsday space machine at the eleventh hour.
With Aloy rising to the status of global hero in Forbidden West, a third installment could have still brought us the Zeniths in a much more focused narrative, with NEMESIS still arriving as a final threat to Earth brought on by careless ancestors, all while Aloy races against time to finally catch HEPHAESTUS.
Instead, the Zenith problem is that we were given two thirds of a great story with a clear mission that makes sense for it protagonist followed by what felt like a prologue to the Horizon endgame. (Even the majority of the best side quests in Horizon Forbidden West exist in the first two thirds of the game.)
We didn’t need the complication of the Far Zeniths in order to do the major three plot points shown above, for a people that are ultimately introduced with little background or motivation and wiped out within the same game. Beta is the best part of the Far Zeniths, and even then, I think there are ways she could’ve been introduced without them. The conceit of surprise space people felt cheap for a game that we know can do better.
This brings me to what I believe is the key flaw with Horizon Forbidden West: the story told here was not one we were ready to hear yet. It needed its chance to be nurtured, for the threat to grow, but the shark has been jumped. I can’t help feeling that the story we’ve just been told has been minimized.
The world Guerrilla has given us in Horizon Forbidden West is among the most incredible I have ever seen. The Tenakth feel like a living culture, and we see a young reborn humanity struggle with the consequences left by their ancestors. There is a beautiful world here, one worth saving, and serves as a stark reminder of the world we put at risk ourselves today.
I just wish they’d spent more time focusing on the world we have on Earth than what’s coming from off of it.