Horizon: Forbidden West is a Worldbuilding Disaster

I've just recently finished Horizon: Forbidden West, and unless you've somehow made it to this page without reading the title, you can probably guess what I thought of the writing. I'll explain why I think it's such a mess, but first I want to clarify that this post is primarily a rant for and by me because of how frustrating I found the many missteps in HFW. I don't imagine much of anyone will read it since this isn't the kind of game most regular readers play, and I also don't intend this as a general statement on the game's quality (which is overall better than the writing) or on the writer's abilities, as I'm sure there were many factors and personalities involved in creating what we ultimately got. There will be heavy spoilers because it's impossible to talk about worldbuilding without them. That said, it should make sense even if you have zero familiarity with the story of this game or even the original.

That out of the way, what's Horizon? The original game released in the packed year of 2017 but still managed to stand out thanks to a striking combination of what initially looked like an paleolithic setting combined with robot dinosaurs. Your expectations for a mindless Rule of Cool story thoroughly established, it then surprised players with some interesting explorations of humans dropped into this world with no context might come to understand the ruined and working future technology all around them.

Its primary narrative hook was the mystery of just what happened to the old world. You'd find (inexplicably still working) datapoints throughout the world that hinted at some kind of violent downfall and see signs of frozen conflicts throughout the map, but you had to get very near the end of the game to learn the true answer: A swarm of military robots able to use organic material for power had gone rogue and consumed all life on Earth in its pursuit of endlessly building more copies. It progressed slowly enough that humanity had enough to build a dead hand AI system to terraform the Earth back to normal with robots (the aforementioned dinosaurs) and then repopulate the life from stored genes of modern species. The new humans were intended to know all this, but don't because big bad Ted Faro wiped the educational database to cover up his culpability for the AI swarm.

Everything went wrong a second time 1,000 years after the tube-grown humans were let out when a mysterious signal hacked the terraforming AI to trigger the extinction protocol. It creates Aloy (you) as a clone of the original project creator (Sobeck) so that you can put everything back to normal, and you succeed after a long string of deeply unlikely coincidences and encounters with a technowizard. Already you can probably spot plenty of implausible things here, but it's nothing too jarring when your introductory premise is robot dinosaurs. Does it make sense that all the new humans have random regional accents? That there aren't any farms? That children only show up when Aloy is a kid? Of course not, but it's not egregious next to a giant T-Rex with guns for hands.

More importantly, it at least used its nonsense for some cool concepts. Most of the games tribes are built around some semi-functional pieces of technology that they've found and misinterpreted to be gods, and their cultures revolve around the odd lessons they've drawn from the ruins. Even if some of this was silly, it was distinctly Horizon, and the vague premise of "what if Aztecs but robot dinosaurs" had certainly not been done before. That originality and the very cool process of working out what happened to the old world carried a story that otherwise suffered from thoroughly forgettable characters and tropey quests.

Five real years later, Forbidden West comes along with the idea that the corrupted terraforming system has started to mess everything up, so Aloy needs to go collect all the Greek god-named bits of it starting with the Gaia kernel to reboot it back to normal. It opens with a mission that mostly serves as a plot refresher in the base of a corporation called Far Zenith that planned to have rich people escape to Sirius but apparently failed when their ship blew up in orbit. After that leads to absolutely nothing important, you're conveniently contacted by Sylens, the techno-wizard from the first game, who has found the backup you need in the Forbidden West!

Conveniently, the king you helped restore to the throne last game is about to make it the Permitted West and sends you to help facilitate the prisoner transfer that will normalize relations. The game introduces a choice system of three emotionally different ways you could respond to his request to live nearby after your quest. Pay close attention to your choice, because this system will barely ever show up again and the king is never mentioned after this point, so none of it matters anyway.

A brief montage later, you're dumped into a region with a bunch of quests and characters of absolutely no importance whatsoever, which in retrospect was a worrying sign of things to come. You'll soon learn that the prisoner exchange is also of no importance, because it's attacked by the evil rebel Regalla and everyone except you dies. Almost all of your existing choices conveniently canceled out, you now have access to the rest of the map! The quests and activities here are mostly pretty fun, but unfortunately entirely irrelevant to this rant.

Once you're ready to go back to the main plot, you'll end up in an old world ruin that has a Gaia backup! Only you can enter it because the door was gene-locked to only open for Sobeck for... some reason. The game does not address why such security was necessary when the enemy was robots and everyone was going to die anyway. But nevermind that, Far Zenith is here! They conveniently show up right after you grab the backup so that they can run off with the... second backup? Sure. Anyway, they're here because they actually just faked their ship blowing up so that no one would follow them. The game does not address who exactly would be following them after the apocalypse.

You survive the encounter just well enough for the game to set up a very hamfisted message about how friends can help (an exact quote, by the way) and Aloy should stop doing everything alone. This is confusingly reinforced by some datapoints implying Sobeck acted the same way, and then unreinforced by the revelation that the Zeniths also have a Sobeck clone who doesn't act that way. Thankfully, it doesn't really matter what the game was trying to say here because it immediately forgets about that contrast entirely to instead focus on how clone 2 (Beta) is sad and Aloy isn't.

So far I've talked about things I noticed in retrospect, but the first red flag I saw in real time came on the mission to grab the Poseidon subfunction from the ruins of Las Vegas. Here you find out that Vegas is still mostly intact thanks to the efforts of a genius who got rich off of gambling and just couldn't say goodbye to his adopted home. It even turns out that all the light shows still work after you complete the quest! That makes for some great promo shots in the trailers, but unfortunately, you probably recognize it as basically just being the plot of Fallout: New Vegas. That game came out a decade ago and did this idea in a far more interesting way since it had an entire game to work with instead of just one quest, so I really don't know why HFW felt the need to copy it.

Alas, it really only goes downhill from there. I'll skip over all the other smaller things you've already seen in New Vegas and instead make a comparison to the prequel: In Zero Dawn, there were three main tribes with distinct cultures that you met over the course of the game. In HFW, you also meet three different tribes, but one of them only matters in the first fifth of the game, one of them only matters in the last fifth, and the one you spend all your time with is basically just Mass Effect's Krogan with face paint. It pretends that there are three Tenakth subtribes to meet so that there's more variance in each reason, but in reality they're distinguished by literally nothing other than paint color.

The quests involving them are similarly shallow. There's a chain that leads to choosing the leader of the Desert Tribe, but nothing whatsoever changes based on your choice, and toppling the leader of the Sky tribe also has zero impact later in the story. The Lowland tribe, by contrast, was just forgotten and barely features in any way at all.

Remember the Far Zeniths? You'd be forgiven if not since they've hardly been mentioned in twenty hours at this point in the game. You might expect them to show up during one of the subfunction quests, but instead the only new faction you meet is the Quen during the third and final mission. They're a technology loving faction who came from across the ocean. The game does not address how there are humans from across the ocean or why the speak English and explains their limited knowledge of the old world as being down to somehow only finding access devices from before the 2040s. Did they live in a smartphone dump?

It turns out that you need Ted Faro's admin access now, but conveniently he had a bunker in San Francisco. That's where the Quen are, who even more conveniently have already found the supposedly secret bunker and consider Faro the greatest hero of the old world. The bunker is Egyptian themed (because his name sounds like pharaoh, get it) and you soon discover the momentous revelation that Faro is still alive! He sounds like he's become some kind of Resident Evil monster, but a villain I haven't mentioned because he's also about to die kills him off screen. What was the point of making Faro still alive if we're just going to kill him before he's even seen? No idea!

The remaining two missions compound on all these issues. Get ready for a lot of things that just happen despite having no real significance and a whole lot of techno-magic-nonsense that makes you wonder why they didn't just actually write a story about magical spirits instead of having AIs literally floating around in corporeal form and instantaneous hacking.

All of this builds up to the big reveal that the Zeniths were the bad guys at all! They're being chased by a forgotten failed AI experiment called Nemesis that hates them, razed their colony on Sirius, and is now determined to kill all humans everywhere. They came to Earth to get Gaia for some reason and then stuck around for months after doing that for... also some reason. Meanwhile, Nemesis is physically coming to Earth instead of just launching a rock at it for, you guessed it, some reason. Oh, and one of the bad guys who turned out to be a good guy turns out to actually be a bad guy after all, but it's balanced out because Sylens was a bad guy who turned out to be a good guy who was actually a bad guy after all who it turns out is a good guy. Yikes.

There are many more smaller issues I could go into, but this post is already far too long for what it is. At the end of the day, the game's issues come down to trying to be too many things at once. It's an action game, but it tries to shove in RPG choice systems it doesn't have time for. It's a technological story, but it wants to have magic and fantasy tropes. It wants to riff on ideas from Fallout, Mass Effect, and other classics, but can't spend long enough on them to be more than a pale imitation. It's a narrative juggling act where half the balls fall to the floor, half on the other side of the room, and the juggler somehow finishes with another half that wasn't there to begin with. I just didn't care by the end.

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