By Harold Goldberg
Update: About 15 hours into Horizon Forbidden West, my PS5 began slowing down to one frame per second. I have no idea why. But I couldn’t leave the game to reboot because I was in the middle of a boss fight. Once I was done, I began to look for a campfire, the place to save your game. The video below includes part of the journey to the save point. Once I rebooted, the frame rate was normal once again. But in all my years of playing – from the first PlayStation to the PS5 – this kind of slog has never happened before.
Horizon Forbidden West really moved me narratively at one point during its first half hour. There was a moment in this open world role playing game when the hero, the long-haired warrior Aloy, embraced Elisabet, the woman she sees as her mother, also the doctor who created her as a clone. The lead up to it was dream-like and the emotional hug between the two caught me off guard. I’m not saying I teared up as I did (unwillingly) during the ending of Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story,” but I gulped and got the chill of recognition that comes with reuniting amid the deep bonds of family. I believed this boded well for an anticipated offering on which so much is riding for Sony; it feels like it’s been so long since a compelling, mega-budget game for the PlayStation 5 has been released.
The emotion I felt indicated I was in for a wide-ranging, dramatic story, which has been Sony’s signature style a least for a decade, closer to two. But the game is at its roots an adventure and Aloy is involved in figuring out a science fiction mystery which deals partially with a wacky, culty hipster dude’s hologram. In a game rife with the potential for the ultimate tragedy, this guy upset me; he was somewhere between humorous and deadly serious, something that’s hard to pull off. His appearance wasn’t simply annoying in the sense that his personality was off-putting but something I could roll with. Rolling my eyes after every sentence, I didn’t like the guy at all. He needed to be more deftly written and better acted. Thankfully, he didn’t stick around for all that long.
If you didn’t play the first installment of what will likely be a trilogy, you’re brought up to date with Aloy’s life during Horizon Zero Dawn – right away. It’s spoiler-filled, so you may want to indulge in its wonders before tackling the many twists and turns of Forbidden West. In the early hours of this latest iteration, Aloy is all about puzzle-solving as her amiable cohort Varl follows along and occasionally gives her a light verbal jab when she becomes too much about a hero’s well-worn obsession with saving the world. Here, Varl doesn’t accomplish all that much except to add a necessary positivity as you learn about the varied game play, some of which is ingeniously created, like a grapple that only uses one button, not two, when it becomes available to use.
Aloy is ensconced in a magnificently lurid world. The flowers and herbs are realistically wild, sometimes moving chaotically during a swift mountain gust, and the rushing waterfalls and water features are hypnotically beautiful. (I did miss seeing fish early on as I crossed creeks, rivers and dove into pools, but I think they came in with an update later.) It’s the kind of world in which I took a fair amount of time to look upon from a high perch, kind of meditating and bound by the beauty as I did in both entries of the Red Dead Redemption series. Below, gigantic, choking roots and trees cover the rusted technology Aloy must ascend as a kind of acrobat of an apocalypse. The thrills here are Uncharted-like, occasionally outdoing anything I’ve seen in that long-running series.
But the push for excitement becomes so all-encompassing as I learn to control weapons and abilities that Aloy as a character with personality isn’t developed well enough. She is ever stoic and sometimes angry and if she’s wary of trust because of her difficult past, that’s not really shown. When the action stops briefly, the dialog that comes from non-playable characters as you deal with quests can be quite bland. It either needs humor or requires deft touches of a multi-faceted personality by the inquisitive Aloy and the answer-filled NPCs.
By the time I approached what’s called an Interlude, I wasn’t feeling anything like the emotion I felt at the beginning of Forbidden West, except for the weight of knowing there are many secrets to be solved and unraveled. If there’s an analogy to be made, the first hours are more like a television procedural akin to the predictable steps of a “Law And Order” episode rather than the richness in characterization of “Mare of Easttown.”
Yet during the Interlude, I got to know Aloy as a more well-rounded character because I sought out interactions with everyone around me. Aloy likes the cute kids she meets (and man, they are charming). She is happy to reunite with her old pals, but refuses a drink from one of them. To rephrase one of hip hop’s greats, she’s got her mind on her mission and her mission on her mind. That makes her (and you), a loner of sorts.
Yet there are signs of empathy that threaten to make her a part of each community she visits, however brief that visit may be. High on a mountaintop, she discusses the vagaries of faith with a wounded, priestly leader from what’s called the Shadow Carja tribe as she wishes that science could triumph over religion. She’s especially touchy about religion, I think, because everyone who recognizes her sees her not only as a hero. They call her Savior like she’s a woman Jesus of Nazareth. This idea is kind of brilliant because it’s not just Aloy who can’t deal with the heavy moniker that comes with so much burden. It’s you; while it’s compelling to think of Jesus as a woman, as a player you feel weird as well. If you’ve ever dealt with moments of celebrity in any way or if a your partner ever called you a savior, you’ll feel even more uncomfortable about that word. But uncomfortable transforms into something good because a few hours in, you realize you know Aloy a little better. Therefore, you can better tolerate and enjoy playing as her heroic self for the dozens of hours that are to come.
There are some barriers to this, though. Honestly, if I have to deal much more with wacky hipster hologram guy or folks like him, I’m going to have to sit on many mountaintops to commune with the waterfalls and flora to recover. That’s OK. I’m not in a hurry because I like to take it all in. In fact, I spent over an hour in a rundown house trying to procure to a green glowing treasure from which shamrocks emanated. For me, it was difficult to finish because there was always one more thing to find in order to reach the key to the wealth.
I was so happy with a feeling of accomplishment when I finished the puzzle, but I also thought there was too much effort involved for what I got as a prize. And, as I proceeded farther west, this micro moment indicated what I think of Aloy’s recent outing as a whole. Yes, there are expansive, gobsmacking vistas and wisely crafted level designs that inspire the curiosity to move forward. But there may be just too much of Forbidden West to consume. And this is coming from someone who is more Thackeray than Hemingway, someone who’s not that often about ‘less is more.’ Again, I’m in no rush to complete the game. But when I do, I’ll let you know how much could have been edited or cut. Because while I’m not in a hurry, I don’t have time to waste.
Author/journalist Harold Goldberg is the founder and president of the New York Videogame Critics Circle and the New York Game Awards. His narrative history of games is All Your Base Are Belong to Us (How 50 Years of Videogames Conquered Pop Culture).