Horizon: Zero Dawn is one of my all time favorite games, and I sang its praises in my review. Everything from the visuals to the music to the writing was fantastic. So of course, I started playing Forbidden West as soon as it came out. And it was a good game. I had a great time with it. But the writer in me was bit disappointed by its overall story and the ending. Like in the original game, there are moments of brilliance, in fact I’d say 90% of this story I loved. But that 10% was a doozy to get around.
So let’s talk about the poor choices that led to a lackluster ending.
All That Matters is the Ending: Horizon Forbidden West
Now I want to point out some positives because this game had a ton of them. The writing the sidequests was absolutely phenomenal, whether it was helping a Tenakth warrior find her old mentor, and passing along his final message when he didn’t survive, or helping some Tenakth recruits finish their final trial, they all featured great moments. There were a few sidequests where I legitimately shed a tear or two from them. And as always, the art team deserves all the awards by bringing the setting to life, from stunning vistas to the amazingly detailed dinosaurs to the awesome costumes of the characters.
And I truly did love most of the characters too!
I Loved (Most of) the Characters
One of my only complaints about Zero Dawn was the fact that the characters felt rather one dimensional aside from Aloy. Forbidden West seems to have taken that criticism on board, and gave us a much more thorough exploration of the side characters in the story. The story is so much better served by giving us characters to connect with the new setting, factions, and giving Aloy an opportunity to grow as well in her interactions with them.
I’m glad we got to see and interact more with Erend, who’s always struck me as a very cool character with questionable facial hair choices. Erend is a classic rebel without a cause, looking for a good fight but lacking a good cause to fight for. In this outing we get to see Erend find his cause, fighting alongside Aloy as she attempts to prevent the extinction of all life on Earth. I also enjoyed Zo, a new addition to the cast. She starts off a naïve girl wanting to save her “gods”, the machines that help cultivate her lands, but through the game she is forced to confront the belief system she’d grown up in is largely false. That the machines are just that, machines following programs, not gods that love her people. But more than that I love the resolution of that conflict, because she ends up honoring the parts of her religion; the spirituality of her connection with the land and the reverence of the machines that help maintain it, while also allowing for a change in understanding it as she became aware of the history and purpose behind the machine’s she worshipped.
But my absolute favorite character was Kotallo. A casualty of Regalla’s ambush, he’s lost an arm and is now seen as a liability by most of the others in his tribe. Cast out, feeling like he can no longer be a warrior, resentful of being assigned a babysitting mission, he starts off cold and hostile. Yet as the game progresses we get to learn more about him, and perform incredible feats of strength even one armed, including scaling sheer cliffs. We get to find out how much losing an arm has cost him, his reverence for his people and culture, and his growing respect for Aloy as she demonstrates her understanding of his culture and abilities. He eventually gets a robotic prosthetic, but in one of the finest character arcs in the game, he rejects it in the end and accepts there is nothing wrong with his new normal.
Unfortunately the one character the story required to feel the most important and human was Varl… and I just could not connect with his character. Unlike the other, he lacked a central purpose or motivation that could have given him more substance. Erend had his fight against the remaining Eclipse, Zo had her desire to bring back the Land Gods, and Kotallo had his journey of accepting his disability. Varl by comparison, is defined by the relationships around him. First it’s his unwavering faith and devotion (and let’s face it, unrequited love) for Aloy, and then he turns his attentions to Zo when they fall in love.
There was a potential here for Varl to operate as a foil to Aloy’s character and journey. One of the pieces I loved about this new game was Aloy learning to rely on others. In the first game she keeps everyone at arm’s length, and though she rationalizes this as keeping everyone else safe, it’s a defense mechanism. She has been an outcast, a pariah, hated by everyone she’s met aside from the man who raised her. In this game, it was wonderful to watch her start letting down defenses that she spent a life time building. In fact I wish they had explored this further, because I felt there was still so much untapped potential in it, and a great way to explore it further would have been to use Varl.
Varl, at least in my opinion, seems codependent. He’s always latching onto someone else, his mother in the first game, then Aloy, and then Zo. What if his journey in the game, was to learn to exercise some independence? Perhaps he could have slowly come to realize he was becoming overly attached to Zo, or had some kind of questline where Varl has to confront something or someone from his past, and while Aloy helps him, he has to finish it himself. The two stories could have dovetailed nicely, showcasing one can neither completely isolate themselves from the people around them as Aloy does, nor can you dedicate your entire existence to someone else like Varl. Just like everything in nature, balance is essential.
Something Regalla fails to understand, and why her war ultimately fails. Regalla was a great villain, whose motives were understandable given the culture she came from. A warrior culture that values strength over all else would obviously view a politician, and his own way a diplomat, like Hekarro as weak and a threat to their way of life. And I really wish she had been the only villain in this story because the one’s that show up later ruin the story.
The Villains Were Literally Unbelievable
The biggest misstep that hampers the larger narrative is the choice of villains. The Zeniths were over the top, cartoonishly evil, and I didn’t find them in the least bit believable. Which is odd, since in a story that features robotic dinosaurs, cavemen with plasma weapons, and run-amok AIs, my suspension-of-disbelief threshold is pretty damn high. A lot of this comes down to the fact that the Zeniths were barely in the game’s story, and what little we see of them doesn’t establish them as credible villains.
The Zeniths first introduction comes when retrieving the Gaia kernel which is about a third of the way through the narrative, and though their return is foreshadowed in the opening mission, it felt pretty late in the story to introduce them. This is sometimes a downside of open world games, by the time I’d gotten to that point I’d been playing for about 20+ hours and the prologue at the Zenith launch site was a distant memory. The biggest problem though is their technology, which is so advanced that they float in the air like Superman and are just as invulnerable. The power disparity here is on par with a caveman with a rock-spear facing off with a Predator drone. The caveman doesn’t even possess the ability to harm its opponent. The problem with a power disparity that big is that, by necessity, they can’t show up in the story too often.
Credit where it’s due, the writers realized if the Zenith’s became a recurring threat, we’d have a situation like “The Long Night” episode of Game of Thrones; where we get so many near-misses and miraculous survivals, that it deprives the story of all its drama and danger. However, because they’re kept in the background, we don’t get to interact with them, or learn their motivations. I couldn’t even remember any of their names by the end, including the big muscle-head who kills Varl. A scene which is neither as surprising, nor emotionally charged as it was hoping to be since Varl was such a shallow character. It also lacked impact because I really didn’t understand what the Zenith’s end goal was, their motivations were conveyed through exposition from Beta and later Tilda instead.
To be fair, this was similar to how the villains in Zero Dawn were treated too. Hades was kept mostly in the background save for a few interactions, and The Eclipse were largely just cannon fodder to fight. Expository dialogue from other characters revealed their motivations, but there are two key differences between the Hades and the Zeniths. The first is that Hades wasn’t an invulnerable superman, it literally lacked any body to act with so it had to work through human intermediaries that could be harmed, so it still felt possible to defeat it. And secondly, the motivations were believable. It made sense that The Eclipse, eager to reclaim power, would follow Hades since it played into both their religious beliefs and political ambitions. And Hades was simply a run-amok AI following its directive, to cause extinction.
The Zenith’s plan made no sense. First it appeared their objective was to annihilate all life on the planet so they could start anew, create their own Garden of Eden. Ignoring the fact this comes across as the motivation a Captain Planet Villain, why go through all that when you already have a more-or-less functioning ecosystem? Then the final reveal is that Earth was nothing more than a way station on their flight from some gigantic AI called Nemesis. And if that’s the case, why on Earth would they be wasting time trying to re-terraform the planet? Strip it of whatever resources you need and run!
What I find interesting is that a much better villain with better motivations was just waiting in the wings as a minor subplot: Ted Faro and the Quen. I would have found it more believable that Ted had found a way to extend his life, though I think going with some kind of mind upload into an AI versus a weird zombie, would have fit the setting better. In fact, you wouldn’t even necessarily need Ted Faro alive to make this work. The Quen’s canonizing of Ted Faro, due to their inability to access historical records showing he was responsible for literally ending the world, would give them their holy cause.
Or even more boldly: why do we need to have a main villain? Why not have the impending collapse of the terraforming network be the stakes of the story? We could still have had the rebellion of the Tenakth to add some flavor, but why is the extinction of mankind not enough of a threat?
But the Zenith is what we get, and it’s these villains that really hamper the ending.
The Ending Feels Strangely Disconnected
Leaving aside the narrative problems presented by the Zeniths, there was plenty of great stuff to work with here in the end. A race for Hephaestus, the last piece of a puzzle required to get the terraforming system back online and save humanity. A group of friends we’ve gotten to know who are willing to risk their lives to help. Overwhelming odds against a powerful enemy. All good building blocks to create a pulse pounding and emotional finale. And yet as I played through it, I felt strangely detached from the whole thing, I wasn’t excited or afraid of what might happen to my cast of beloved characters. And this comes down to several factors.
First of all, Aloy seems to have the least important task in the final mission. Alva, with Kotallo as escort, are sent to destroy the “regulator” that will disable the drones on the island and then hack the Zenith network, this is the lynchpin of the plan. Without that, the entire attack fails, so you’d think that you’d send your strongest fighter, namely Aloy to make sure it succeeds. Aloy is more part of a diversionary attack and admittedly, is also there to make sure Sylens can deploy his weapon, but an important part of this plan essentially occurs off screen. A better way to structure this to make it clear how the character is helping, would be like how the Virmire mission in Mass Effect plays out.
Shepard and his/her team are deployed as an infiltration team, but along the way the decoy team encounters various obstacles and enemies, and the player can change the outcome of the decoy team’s fate by tackling optional objectives. Now I know Forbidden West isn’t made to be a branching narrative, so the outcome wouldn’t need to change, but giving this final battle context would have made it feel more real. Instead of just going through environments and engaging enemies in battle like we’ve done the entire game, give us some objectives to aid the others: disable a shield, attack a specific position, etc. And give us story context onto why it’s important, how it helps the group achieve its goal.
The second problem is just how isolated Aloy feels from her group. She escorts Erend sure, but out of a team of six, she’s only ever with one person. Aloy’s whole arc in the game has been learning to rely on others, and the fact she has this group of allies willing to aid her is a huge step. Yet we hardly ever see them. I believe this is probably a mechanical limitation as the game seems to only allow one ally in any given battle. However if that’s the limitation of the engine, let’s give it story context, another excellent reason she should have been the one escorting Alva.
This isolation leads to a lack of danger and urgency, where in theory it could have been used to create that danger and urgency. Calling back to the Virmire mission, mechanically it doesn’t matter how quickly you perform the optional objectives, but hearing Captain Kirrahe’s voice shouting over gunfire and explosions, hearing him call out orders, and report casualties creates a sense of urgency. This mission features plenty of voice communication from other characters, but all of it seems strangely calm given the circumstances. Throughout the entire mission I never felt like any of the characters were in any actual danger, which robs it of any excitement. Save for one optional character you can bring with you.
I spared Regalla’s life and had her with me in the final battle, fully expecting her to make some kind of heroic sacrifice, which she does. And yet there was something about the way even this scene was setup that just didn’t land as powerfully as I would have liked. It was too fast for one, one minute the team is walking through a cavern, then beset upon by dozens of Specters, and I think Regalla gets a few half-hearted swipes in there and then she dies. Instead of so many Robots, make it two or three. Give Regalla a fighting chance, show her get a few good shots in there, slice a couple armor plates off while she collects wound after increasingly critical wound before finally succumbing or setting off an explosive that takes the robots out with her.
I had a similar problem with the final confrontation with the Zeniths. There was all this buildup of getting Sylens to deliver the super weapon that would disable their shields and I was expecting a stiff fight to try and protect it, but there’s only some half-hearted fire from them. They’re largely uninterrupted as Sylens delivers the payload. Give us a fight with them, similar to our first encounter with muscle-head at the Gaia Kernel, where all we’re doing is holding them off and buying time. That might have gotten the adrenaline pumping, especially if our entire team is there too, and part of our goal is also to try and keep as much attention focused on Aloy as possible to try and save our friends. But instead the weapon simply goes off, the Zeniths lose their shields, and the majority of them simply die to the robot dinosaurs, and most of them off camera. Again if you’re going to build the Zeniths up as these irredeemable assholes, then at least give me the satisfaction of putting some arrows in them, don’t let the dinosaurs have all the fun!
And again this could have worked to give the Zeniths a little bit more relevance to the story: because once their shields are down, make them as weak and vulnerable as all the other human adversaries. In fact, make them weaker, because they relied so heavily on their technology, they would lack the heavy armor plating of the rest of the human baddies. Let us absolutely destroy them, like it’s not even a competition. Again one of the core themes behind both Horizon games is the need for balance, yes technology is necessary but not at the cost of environmental destruction. So bring that theme to life in this final fight, show what happens when a people are so reliant on technology and having it ripped away. Technological supermen brought down by spear-wielding savages.
We’re given one fight with the muscle-head, but even there Zo is the one to strike the killing blow, and the other is again killed off camera by Tilda, which leads us to the final fight which is as underwhelming as it is frustrating.
When victory seems certain, Tilda reappears and tells Aloy about Nemesis. The Zenith didn’t leave their world because of an ecological catastrophe as had been established before. Instead, in their decadence they had created a virtual reality, run by an AI that gave them everything they dreamed of. And then the AI went haywire, consuming the Zenith’s consciousness and forcing the survivors to flee, but it’s following them. What?
Now obviously this is them building the villain for the third game in the series, but I was still left flabbergasted by just how weird this premise is. How oddly it’s introduced, with Tilda just casually strolling in and telling Aloy about it. It’s clearly meant to be this huge, ominous reveal, and I was left completely uninterested in it. Then an even weirder twist as Tilda demands Aloy come with her on the ship, to continue fleeing from Nemesis. Tilda seems to have been in love with Elizabet Sobek, and has transferred that desire to her clone as well. Now, yes, there are hints to Tilda’s infatuation with Elizabet in some of the recovered logs you can find and a few lines of dialogue. But since Tilda hasn’t been in the majority of the game, and the audience has no opportunity to get to know her, this choice just seems… weird. So when Aloy rebuffs her Tilda responds like we all do when we’re rejected.
She dons a giant Mecha-suit.
Mechanically I didn’t enjoy how this fight played out, it was probably one of the most frustrating fights of the entire game for me. Mostly because it’s tactics were the polar opposite of my play style, I enjoyed long range stealth attacks, and this thing constantly closed distance. But the fact it fell flat for me narratively was even more disappointing.
And then Aloy kills her, Tilda burns up in the cockpit of Specter Prime, and we get one last weird narrative choice before the end: Sylen’s redemption. When the game started out, Aloy promised Sylens she was going to kill him for his betrayal. Like Tilda, Sylen’s has barely been in the game at all aside from some taunting at the beginning sections. So there was nothing in the narrative to justify his sudden about-face at the end. Presented with what he’s always wanted, all of humanity’s knowledge at his disposal and a way to explore the mysteries of the galaxy, and somehow Aloy convinces Sylens to put that aside. Had Sylen’s been a part of the story from the start, perhaps been able to learn from Aloy’s journey of seeing her open up and acquire friends and allies, perhaps this could have worked. Instead it seems like he stays because… the story needs him to stay for the third game.
So it’s a shame the ending didn’t live up to its predecessor, but perhaps that was a high bar to vault. The game is still worth playing of course, I enjoyed the gameplay so much more than the first one, and there’s so much more here than just the ending so I’d encourage everyone to still play it. I just hope our next outing with Aloy delivers an ending worthy of the character.