Horizon Forbidden West isn't asking you to focus on Aloy's face; it's asking you to focus on everything else. The smarter robots, updated arsenal, lush open world, and the new ways to explore it. Each of these are signs that developer Guerrilla Games is taking Aloy's latest adventure to the next level, offering a sequel with more nuance, agency, and an enhanced sense of player connection to it all.
And the evolution between the two games is going to be palpable for anyone who played through the 2017 release. With the story of Horizon Forbidden West landing just six months after the events of Horizon Zero Dawn, it's clear that the two chapters are bound by a strong narrative thread. Aloy has survived Hades, aided by a bank of new companions, but since then, a new threat has emerged – the Red Blight that's spreading across the land known as the Forbidden West.
Although it does sound like at least some of our adventure may well take place in the original Colorado setting, with narrative director Ben McCaw stating that "the vast, vast majority of the game takes place in the Forbidden West", the game's focus is on this new locale.
Referred to in the original game as a place of immense danger, Guerrilla Games is enjoying the idea of the Forbidden West being a place we're actually going to explore. "It's mysterious, and it sounds dangerous, so I actually want to go there," laughs Mathijs de Jonge, game director.
Rebel at heart
It all feels very Aloy – who's not exactly known for following the rules – but as with the original game, she's driven to fixing a problem that could cause the end of this post-post-apocalyptic world as they know it.
"During that time, Aloy has observed this Red Blight, and that signifies the degradation of the planet's biosphere," says McCaw. "She's been trying to figure out a way to stop it. So essentially, she's been on a mission and she's pursued this with the same determination, the same strength, the same drive that she showed in the first game, and in that sense, you know, she actually really hasn't changed. The real change for her is coming as she ventures into the frontier of the Forbidden West."
Thankfully, Aloy won't be alone in her mission. She'll be joined by allies like Erend and others that featured in Horizon Zero Dawn's final fight. Our heroine has evolved, moving from a motherless outcast to a leader, aided by those allies, who are traveling with her to this unknown land. "We've greatly expanded the role of her companions as she ventures into the Forbidden West. So you're going to see old friends, there's going to be new comrades, there's going to be whole new tribes," says McCaw. "This was a major focus for us, as we shifted from the first game to the sequel, to just make sure that she gets to spend more time with them."
"Everyone that starts Aloy's journey into the Forbidden West is going to start from the same place," adds McCaw, regardless of which allies stood by your side in the final Zero Dawn fight. "One of the things that's great about the kind of mysterious frontier that she's going into, is that reputation isn't necessarily going to go along with her. So there's a kind of starting over that she has to do. The way her companions see her definitely has changed for sure, and will continue to change throughout the game."
Connecting and evolving
But that's not the only thing that's going to change for Aloy, as her weaponry and abilities are evolving too. As the State of Play demo showcased, Aloy's about to get a whole load of new tools to fight the robots, as well as those that will aid her ability to traverse the world. In fact, all the new features Guerrilla is introducing are about building connections – between you and your arsenal, between Aloy and the robots, and between you and the world of the Forbidden West.
Along with new ammo types like adhesive grenades, you'll now find workbenches at settlements where you can upgrade your weapons and outfits. De Jonge says that this is part of Guerrilla's desire to really dial into the core RPG and action elements of the game's mechanics – more than the original game did – but also to heighten your attachment to specific loadouts.
"It comes from just the desire to make the weapons more engaging, that you have a little bit more of a bond with these weapons. By investing time and resources, and by upgrading them, you get that feeling of like, you actually spent time to make this weapon better, rather than getting an upgrade from a machine and just slotting that in," explains de Jonge. "You have to fight sort of machines or get other resources throughout the world in order to upgrade. So the whole loop is more integrated, in that sense with the rest of the world."
The entire skill tree has also been redesigned for the new game too, with the idea of giving the combat more depth and allowing players to hone their playstyle. A big part of that is the new Valor Surge system – which you'll have seen in the demo as that very cinematic pause where Aloy slams a glowing canister into her spear. This is Guerrilla dialing more into the action of action-RPG, offering up a selection of these Valor Surge moves to unlock and equip depending on how you like to wield battle.
By being tactical in battle – shooting plates off machines and now also off human enemies, along with using traps and other tools – you'll start earning combat XP. By building this up, you'll fill your Valor Surge bar, which when filled lets you pull off one of these cinematic, impressive moves. The one in the demo is known as the 360 Blast, but there are more to discover. "For every play style that's on the skill, there are specific Valor Surges that you can purchase with skill points. So they're really kind of designed to fit all sorts of play styles to enhance those and to reward the tactical play," adds de Jonge.
"What this also comes from is that, because we're making an action-RPG, we really looked at the start of this project at, okay, how can we focus more on the action? How can we provide more depth into action? How can we make it even more like an action game, and the Valor Surge move felt like a typical action game kind of move."
Exploring the West
Horizon Forbidden West will also make the landscape a bigger part of combat too, by opening up the world with free traversal. Gone are the hand-placed climbing ledges, with Aloy instead able to move freely and use her Pullcaster grapple hook and Shield Wing glider to aid that exploration even more.
"The climbing tools for the first Horizon were a little bit limited and restricted," admits de Jonge, "so we really just wanted to open that up and give players the freedom to climb anywhere they like in these open worlds."
The new Focus ping – which is activated with a quick click, rather than the long press of the full Focus mode for machine scanning – will let you see on the fly what's around you, especially in terms of climbing points, quick pick-ups, and more.
"So now you also don't have to go around the mountain. If there are no handholds, you can just go over it in a straight line, which is great. And then combining that of course with the glider that you can glide back down. You can go down even further into the water. We just add a lot of verticality in that sense to exploration," says de Jonge.
Horizon Forbidden West seems to be streamlining out the gripes of the first game without reducing its appeal. With a whole new world to explore and more ways than ever to do it, Horizon Forbidden West just moved to the top of our list of hotly anticipated upcoming PS5 games.
Need to get caught up on Guerrilla Games' latest? Here are 5 things we learned about Horizon Forbidden West gameplay from State of Play.