I can’t remember the last time I enjoyed a game as much as Horizon Forbidden West whose big third act reveals ranged from underwhelming to utterly ridiculous. Maybe Mass Effect 3? Forbidden West has different problems, and it feels like the middle of a trilogy rather than the end, but there’s more than a few similarities with BioWare’s sci-fi RPG trilogy. Sometimes the headiest plot threads are better left untangled. Forbidden West has more than a few that should have stayed that way. Kotaku staff writer Ari Notis and I discuss why.
Spoiler warning: since this is a chat about Forbidden West’s ending it will obviously be full of spoilers!
Ethan Gach: Ari, if a 1,000-year old roided-out Elizabeth Holmes in a transformer asked you to follow her across the galaxy to reboot life on an alien planet, how would you respond?
Ari Notis: I’d say yes without even blinking, but I also don’t have the archery skills or cryogenically enhanced rocket launcher bows of Aloy, so my calculus is a bit different... I think you’re the only other person I know who’s (so far) committed the 800 necessary hours to finish Horizon. How bonkers was that ending?
Ethan: It was truly next level. I’m trying to think of another sequel that so desperately tried to up the ante by pulling the curtain back in the 11th hour to reveal the REAL THREAT. At this point Horizon 3's final act will launch Aloy into the multiverse.
Ari: Yeah, I have a normie friend who’s just a bit too busy these days these tackle massive open-world games, and he asked me about the ending after I beat it, and I was like, “Well, the part where Aloy battles immortal, invincible aliens who turned out to actually just be the humans who caused the original dino-robot apocalypse but are now running across space from an amalgamated version of their consciousnesses–” and he interrupted me and was just, like, “Okay, if you’re not gonna be serious, you don’t need to tell me.”
Ethan: Wow! I have had that exact experience before. I didn’t have cable growing up and only so many episodes of Dragon Ball Z were localized on network TV before Cartoon Network picked it up. For years I never knew what happened on planet Namek and then one day a friend told me that Captain Ginyu switched bodies with Goku and then eventually became a frog and I hopped off the swing set and walked home. When did Horizon Forbidden West first start to lose the thread for you?
Ari: Man... there’s this very specific moment, like running up to the final stretch, where Aloy whispers something in Beta’s ear. And for the first time in the whole game, after spending like 100 bazillion hours with Aloy, your perspective switches to someone else (in this case, Evil Optimus Prime’s mom), and it’s so crystal clear the game does that for absolutely no other reason than to advance the plot. Like, it was so obvious what they were trying to do, felt completely unnatural. How about you? Where’d the downhill slide start for you?
Ethan:I think as soon as you show up to Faro’s Tomb. Everything is so spaced out in the first two-thirds of the game and then you start getting slammed with exposition about a new clan for which there’s no real payoff, despite the implications for the world and who else exists on it being huge. And from there it spirals into everyone you thought was dead is actually still alive somehow because of science magic. But to what end? You can only have so many different egotistical rich megalomaniacs before I stop caring about any particular one of them, let alone the extremely complex web of lore you’ve spun around them.
Ari: OMG, the Quen! Their leader, what, the “ceo” or something? He’s gotta be the most face-punchiest guy in the series so far, right?
Ethan: I have a conspiracy theory that every big NPC was intentionally rendered to look like a Hollywood actor and that guy definitely looks like Jason Clarke from Zero Dark Thirty. One of the things I loved about Horizon Zero Dawn was learning about what led to the apocalypse and seeing the consequences from 1,000 years ago ripple into the present. Forbidden West feels like it very much closes that gap in a way that I found not just disappointing but also unsatisfying. Faro for example. Instead of deepening his character he’s turned into an off screen Cronenbergian Elon Musk. I’m sure he’ll be back in Horizon 3, but it was just extremely jarring and seemed like there was no plan for the reveal after the initial gasp.
Ari: Horizon Forbidden West is like a firehose of exposition and the Ted Faro moment is maybe the only moment where I actually wanted more and...didn’t get it. (It also is not lost on me that that mission is one of the ones we were explicitly barred from talking about per the embargo.) Would the reveal have been more effective if they’d shown what he turned into? Or if they’d explained the science beyond the hand-waving?
Ethan: Yea, I think you got at this really well in your review that there was a space between what Horizon Zero Dawn told you and your own speculation where the characters you heard about through recordings and notes could take on extra dimensions. Forbidden West shuts a lot of that down. Faro was a psychopath! Tilda is a scorned lover! The aggro Zenith AI consciousness light years away wants revenge for being lonely! I can appreciate, on the one hand, the way Horizon sets up this big and varied futuristic world that still can’t escape the extremely petty machinations of the people who destroyed it in the first place. But Forbidden West’s characters were crushed under the sci-fi burdens they inherited from the last game.
What did you think of the reveal for why the Zeniths came back to Earth?
Ari: Oh, I thought it missed the mark in every way. Not only does the key plot point not make logistical sense—a whole galaxy, and you’re going back to where you started, because Reasons?—but it also completely fails to mesh with the rest of what makes Horizon’s villains so great. Regalla is such a fantastic villain because you understand where she’s coming from, right?
I’m not saying it necessarily justifies her actions, but at least there are well-defined reasons for why she does what she does. Whereas with the Zeniths, it seemed like the explanation was, “Oh, they’re immortal so therefore cool with genocide”—except for, so very visually conveniently, the one person who wears all-white to their standard-issue jet black outfits. Case in point: When the Zeniths first popped up for real, what in your wildest imagination did you think the explanation could’ve been? And how let down were you by the real reveal?
Ethan: I assumed they had just been in some hidden bunker somewhere. The Wreath project already made clear that there were multiple initiatives going on that didn’t know what the other was doing. Also there’s still the question of why the Faro Plague glitched out in the first place. Maybe that’s a mystery only I wonder about and everyone else just accepts it was a run-of-the-mill AI-becomes-sentient thing. I do think the ending, as is, also creates some weird questions. So the Zenith’s sent the original signal that caused GAIA to fail? It seems like an extremely elaborate and unpredictable plan for trying to then fix and remove GAIA again so it could be taken off world. [Correction: 3/9/22, 9:01 a.m. ET: It was the Squiggly AI, AKA “Nemesis,” who sent the signal that originally set everything in motion with GAIA and HADES, because robot revenge.]
I’m just reading this all back and I can’t imagine trying to have this conversation with someone who hasn’t combed through the Horizon wikis. Mostly Tilda’s turn just felt forced, and also led to an extremely bad boss fight. Squiggly AI monster, “Nemesis,” from the stars does not excite me for Horizon 3. (Is it warship? A collection of space junk? Just a signal like the other AIs?) And what’s up with Sylens? One of the more compelling non-front of the box characters Sony’s had and his motivation just seems to melt at the end when he decides to stay on Earth. I’m sure he’ll have some ulterior motive, but it just felt like a really clumsy attempt to give him some warmth and set up the Chess pieces for the next game.
Ari: Big time, yeah—and that’s why so much of the ending stumbles, since it seems like they had a conclusion and wrote their way to it. It makes total sense for Sylens to bail, that completely dovetails with his character. But it’s better for the sequel (and, cynically, for the sequel’s marketing) if he stays. Is there anything about this ending that has you pumped for the inevitable follow-up?
Ethan: To be honest, no! Which isn’t to say I hate the game. I think there are things about it that are quite good. But there’s nothing left that I’m really wondering about. In Mass Effect 2, which I think also floundered narratively but in different ways, you still had the question of what to do about the Reapers. Horizon technically still has the threat of the AI squiggle (for anyone who doesn’t know I keep calling it that because all you see of it is a projection of what looks like a neon tumbleweed) but I’m just not interested in what that showdown is, in part because none of the groundwork has been laid for intrigue around its motivations or what will need to be accomplished to defeat it.
With the exception of another impending apocalypse, there aren’t any obvious political rifts or character tensions to mine. And while I’m sure there will be, I just have no idea what they are at this point or why I should care, which is where Zero Dawn’s post-credits ending (and Frozen Wilds DLC) really succeeded. It’s a bummer! And Varl died. For what?!
Is there one thing about Forbidden West’s last act that didn’t ruin the world building for you, or maybe even exposed an interesting new thread for you?
Ari: Yeah, I’m with you and wanna be crystal clear that I don’t hate the game, that I in fact like it very much. Five years ago, I think I actually read the sentiment here on Kotaku, Horizon Zero Dawn ended with the feeling of basically, paraphrased, “You could just give me more of this without changing a thing or expanding on the story at all and I’d be happy.” And after Forbidden West, yeah, I’m feeling that more than ever. Forget the AI squiggle monster (which is now its official name, sorry Guerrilla). Just give us an open-world where Aloy runs around shooting robot dinosaurs and helping people in need. Horizon Infinite Side-Quests. (edited)
Ethan: It definitely raises an interesting question of what the future of the series is without the big lore questions hanging over it. Some franchises revolve around characters, moods, mechanics. Horizon, for me at least, felt pegged to its unsolved mystery, in part because so much of its gameplay feels pulled from better established games. Maybe there’s a future where GAIA continually reboots the planet and there’s always an Aloy and there’s always a dinobot ready to be harvested for the grind.