THE WASHINGTON POST – When Horizon Zero Dawn debuted in 2017 I was struck by how well Guerrilla Games, a studio which, until then, was best known for their Killzone series of first-person shooters, was able to use its talent to create a blockbuster-style adventure game that held my attention despite its formulaic story line. After spending a couple dozen hours with the sequel, little has changed in my assessment of the young franchise, but the novelty has worn off. Horizon Zero Forbidden West is a competent, if conventional, action game that is undercut by its wildly inconsistent narrative elements.
Set far into the distant future, the game picks up the story of Aloy, a young woman who endeavours to save the world from calamitous ruin. Aloy is a genetic clone of the scientist who helped create GAIA, a terraforming system that reordered the environment after a cataclysmic disaster precipitated by rogue, AI-controlled, war machines. Alas, the system has broken down, leaving a form of blight to sweep the world – devastating crops and corrupting the animal-like machines that were once caretakers of the land.
During the opening we find Aloy searching for a way to reboot GAIA. After pursuing a number of dead-ends she has grown frustrated with her task, though she is still committed to seeing it through. Eventually she comes across a promising lead that takes her to the land of Plainsong, a place where the governing council conducts public policy through choral singing. Unlike the Nora, Aloy’s tribe who traditionally shun technology, the Utaru, the people of Plainsong, revere the machines that roam the earth. As in the first game, the most potent narrative tension comes from Aloy’s interactions with people whose faith she finds misplaced.
In a sacred cave held dear to the Utaru, Aloy discovers a backup of GAIA, yet any relief she feels is short-lived since, to make GAIA fully functional, Aloy must locate four of GAIA’s “subordinate functions” that are scattered in different regions of the map. Exploring the Forbidden West – the large landmass where most of the game takes place – you’ll encounter the same sorts of diversions found in any number of open-world games. There are puzzle rooms to explore, trials to participate in and lots of people to help out. Given that Aloy is tasked with saving the world, it’s understandable that she looks more than a little put upon by the requests people make of her to track down culinary ingredients and the like. The problem is that no amount of finessing can mask the fact that Horizon Forbidden West plays like a by-the-numbers open world game. Making my way through it, I was unable to shake the feeling that with a palette swap here and there I could just as easily have been playing Tomb Raider.
Familiar mechanics notwithstanding, what truly threw me for a loop was the uneven quality of the cutscenes. The acting in Forbidden West ranges from impressive to abominable. On the plus side, Erica Luttrell, who plays the strong-willed Utaru warrior Zo, is excellent. She plays the role with grace and restraint, in contrast to some of the other actors who seem preoccupied with maintaining their faux accents. Given Horizon Forbidden West’s AAA production values, I was even more caught off guard by the poor quality of the mise-en-scene in several of the cutscenes. I texted a friend and fellow critic that, considering how awkwardly they look past each other in some scenes, it didn’t even seem like the actors were sharing the same space. My friend replied they seemed as if they were pasted onto a backdrop, like something out of a 1990s game that used pre-rendered graphics.
The overriding question Horizon Zero West left me with is ‘when will its prospective audience grow tired of the tired conventions that underwrite so many go-and-save-the-world adventure games?’ As much as I appreciated the fun that came from smashing up robots, Horizon Zero Forbidden West won’t earn a spot in my long-term memory.