The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a masterpiece, arguably setting a new benchmark for open-world design that a number of developers have taken inspiration from in the years since its release. Ironic, since Nintendo took the formula of Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and similar games before turning the entire concept on its head, swapping a tiresome gameplay loop of being a collectibles janitor for a cohesive land to explore that constantly rewarded natural exploration. It remains a joy to play, and the imitators that spawned in the wake of its success have all failed to match or exceed it in terms of quality. Some have tried, with Immortals Fenyx Rising being the most blatant culprit, but they’ve never come close. Now, Guerilla is taking many of the ideas first introduced in Breath of the Wild and adapting them into Horizon Forbidden West – and I couldn’t be more excited.
Launching within weeks of Breath of the Wild back in 2017, Horizon Zero Dawn was subject to critical and commercial acclaim. Unfortunately, I found myself bouncing off it again and again, the presence of Nintendo’s masterpiece only worsening matters as I kept comparing the two. Zero Dawn just couldn’t stack up, the game featuring a number of bad habits the genre has amassed over the years such as a world dictated by bland markers as opposed to player discovery, alongside a world and characters that I struggled to invest myself in. Robot dinosaurs are amazing, but Horizon didn’t do enough to justify their presence in the world for me, with many of its more serious moments coming across as comically underbaked.
Now, in the face of Breath of the Wild, many of these comparisons are unfair, and I’m basing my opinions on an incomplete vision of Aloy’s entire journey. But the flaws surrounding its overall game design and narrative remain, and it seems Guerilla is aware of such faults and aims to build upon them in Forbidden West. Earlier this week we were treated to 14 minutes of gameplay for the next-gen sequel, a curated slice of gaming excellence that aimed to showcase what the next entry is all about. It’s more of the same, but refined with a number of improvements that all combine to make the experience far more engaging. Aloy is no longer dictated by specific parts of the environment she can climb upon. Now, a press of a button will highlight all aspects of her surroundings that can be mounted, making it easy to escape enemies and make new discoveries of your own accord.
If this element of the game is as extensive as the debut seems to show, the entire world should be far more inviting, no longer a visual spectacle to marvel at before mindlessly moving toward the next objective. It also presents the possibility of a more realistic world, one where animals aren’t dictated by mechanical habitats and predictable movement patterns that only serve to highlight how Horizon Zero Dawn is a world made to be played with, rather than one that continues to exist when you step away from the controller. Breath of the Wild managed this, the lifeless husk that Hyrule had become still bursting with life amidst its farms and village. NPCs wander the roads, greeting Link with anecdotes about their own travels or goods to sell.
I was never sold on Horizon’s larger cities or the people within them. They felt like stilted stage productions, with iffy voice acting and the unusual placement of citizens making it a trivial task to pick things apart, knowing how this was pieced together with a variety of moving parts. The illusion quickly fades away, with the standard open-world formula it follows only serving to make additional foibles all the more noticeable. With a deeper focus on freeform exploration and more realistic placement of towns and people across its world, Forbidden West could supersede many of these problems and become the juggernaut it was always destined to be. The foundation its predecessor helped establish has so much potential, and as a sceptic, I really want to see where it goes.
The demo also features a few more obvious notes of inspiration from Breath of the Wild. Instead of climbing back down the way she came or hopping aboard a zipline, Aloy can now use a paraglider when leaping off cliffs and buildings, floating safely below or to ambush enemies from above. It’s a small addition, but one that will have a huge impact on how we approach movement and combat. Being able to explore underwater, on the ground, and in the sky also teases so many possibilities, teasing that perhaps Guerilla has learned from the last game’s flaws, and wishes to draw players in more than ever.
Several new weapons have been added, plus melee combat seems far heavier and more responsive, encouraging Aloy to partake in fights that aren’t concluded after a few clumsy whacks of her staff. Instead, enemies will dodge, counter, and react to each and every movement. I much prefer this approach, since spamming arrows from a distance could grow rather boring in the last game. We didn’t see much of the open-world at all, so it’s possible that Guerilla is waiting to show off the true advancements of the sequel at a later date, since a scripted quest sequence still leaves us with so many questions.
I promise I’m not trying to tear Horizon Zero Dawn to pieces for the sake of it. It’s just not a game I clicked with, while I recognise exactly why so many of my friends and family adore it. Despite this, I’m ready for Forbidden West to take hold of me and refuse to let go. Guerilla is learning lessons from all of the right places, so I can only hope this results in something truly special when it comes to PS4 and PS5.
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