Horizon Forbidden West and the buffet philosophy

What are you in the mood for?

I had to decide to be done with Horizon Forbidden West. It is not an infinite game by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a very large one. Eventually, I could feel my relation to it slipping toward the obligatory, a kind of sunken cost fallacy of entertainment (Well, I’ve played this much…). At this point, I hurried myself along and only did the things I wanted to do before seeing the story through its conclusion. I don’t know exactly how much of Forbidden West I completed, but I do know that I played the original, Zero Dawn, much more thoroughly. I would count both among my favorite gaming experiences of the past decade. The story is sci-fi nonsense (AI! Terraforming! Robots! A vague explanation of why it’s a post-racial society!), but the moment to moment gameplay always feels so good that I lose focus on all of that. You come to Horizon for the robot dinosaurs, and by god, you will be given robot dinosaurs.

The sequel has a bit of a middle child thing going on. The story of Zero Dawn had a sense of finality, though of course some questions remained that the sequel dutifully pursues. Still, it did not assume, as Forbidden West clearly does, that it would be followed by a sequel. Even the DLC for the first game, fun as it was, felt more like a coda than a bridge. To that end, I think I found the story of the first game to be more satisfying, if only because it ended with An Ending and not a grand gesture toward the plot of the next game. Forbidden West, in a similar narrative feint to Star Wars: Episode IX - The Rise of Skywalker,1 undoes much of the finality of the previous entry within the opening act in order to crack those eggs and get to omelette-making. Without getting into much detail, the story of Forbidden West is serviceable and engaging, but clearly understands itself as part of a franchise at this point, and thus begins to spin the web of future entries in the Horizon series, all while trying to tell its own, self-contained story. I didn’t come for a compelling plot, though. I came for the robot dinosaurs. I can’t stress this enough.

Which is why I was happy that Forbidden West serves up the robo-goods in spades. Immediately, the game introduces several remixes of familiar enemies from the first game, requiring new strategies and approaches to even the game’s Littlest Guy. Melee combat is improved as well, which I got into far more this time around. Aloy now has a choice of what may as well have been called superpowers, as the animation (in which Aloy magically paints her face mid-combat before absolutely wrecking house) is something straight out of a Marvel flick. They borrowed the glider from Breath of the Wild, because why not borrow the glider from Breath of the Wild? I’m sure traps are also fun, but I wouldn’t know, because I have never used traps in these games, as I am an impatient boy and enjoy running and screaming and don’t take time to set up encounters to my advantage. In all, Forbidden West is the kind of sequel where the developer clearly knew what people liked about the first game and did everything in their power to provide all of that, but more and better.

Which brings me to the world: it is big! There are a lot of things to do! This is still a pre-Breath-of-the-Wild-style open world, in that there are almost as many categories of quests in your quest log as there are types of robot dinosaurs. This game is a list, and if you don’t like lists, you wont like this game. As I rounded hour 40, though, I began to suspect that if you like lists too much, you might also not like this game.

See, Horizon Forbidden West is a buffet. It’s got a lot of things to eat, and in this case they are all for the most part tasty and good, and not, as is sometimes true of buffets, kind of gray and startlingly unappetizing under the red light of a heat lamp. But in the mythic buffet that is Forbidden West, you are offered up as much food as you could possibly eat, seemingly with the expectation that you probably won’t want to eat all of it, and that you probably wouldn’t even attempt it. You could, of course, and there would be no shame in that. But I really don’t think they expect you to.

For me, I liked the melee-focused side quests, so I did all of them. I did not, however, like the side quests that task you with climbing to the top of something tall and grabbing a drone out of midair. I did two of those and then didn’t do any more. I enjoyed the arena to a point, but didn’t feel compelled to finish all of it after I’d gotten the two pieces of gear on offer that I wanted. I did most of the game’s Cauldrons,2 but not all. I skimmed the game’s final area, because I was kind of tired and just wanted to see the main story through.

And you know what? I’m okay with that! I bet all that stuff would be fun if I wanted to do it, but I didn’t, so I didn’t. I also bet I would’ve liked the game less if I played every bit of everything it had to offer, which is a strange and very game-specific problem. Sure, I’ve often liked a novel less for a meandering middle, but I’ve never had the option of skipping such things.3 But in games, I can actually have a better time with titles like Forbidden West via… spending less time with them.

The buffet game tempts you toward indulgence, but really just wants to leave you sated, whatever that looks like for you. For me, it was playing a lot of the game, but definitely not all of it. I’m walking away from this buffet happy. And hey, maybe one day I’ll go back to this particular buffet and try out all the things I didn’t taste the first time around.

Though probably not, because I’m playing Elden Ring now, and it’s all I can think about.

  1. Gotta give it up for titles that have to have a hyphen because you already spent your colon.

  2. Another massively improved element from the first game, with much more variety, both visually and in terms of gameplay.

  3. Except, I guess, in short story collections. Which, you know: consider this another plug for more short story collections.