Horizon Forbidden West is almost out, and it basically picks up exactly where the previous game left off. The opening hours will pelt you with strange names, supposedly familiar faces, and a helpful but extremely brief recap of the events of Horizon Zero Dawn. If you’re planning on jumping into the new game or you’re just wondering why, for example, robot dinosaurs roam its vast and beautiful world, here is a crash course in everything you need to know.
Horizon Zero Dawn was a big game steeped in sci-fi jargon, exposition, and background lore. Much of this worldbuilding was also relegated to audio logs and collectibles, as well as the game’s post-launch expansion, The Frozen Wilds, making it easy to miss. Even if you played the game back when it was released in 2017, I promise you you are going to want a refresher. And if you skipped Horizon Zero Dawn entirely, well, you might want to go back and fix that, but if not, the below rundown should have you covered.
Spoiler Warning: If it wasn’t already obvious, this post will be full of spoilers for Horizon Zero Dawn and The Frozen Wilds.
The game takes place in the American midwest in the 31st century. People live a feudalistic existence among warring tribes while giant robots that look like prehistoric beasts patrol the land. Now let’s unpack why.
The heady concept behind Guerrilla Games’ open-world sci-fi series is that in the year 2048 a tech bro named Ted Faro created militaristic machines that could self-replicate and consume biomass for fuel. With the planet facing refugee crises and civil unrest due to global warming, the machines were used to put down protests and protect those in power.
This line of robots, called Chariot, supplants every major army in the world, and then, obviously, glitches big time (for mysterious reasons, of course), threatening to wipe out all life on the planet in an endless cycle of resource exploitation and reproduction. This menace becomes popularly known as the Faro Plague.
At this point the scientist Elizabet Sobeck, Faro’s former business partner who split after she realized he was more interested in military contracts than fixing the environment, comes up with a solution called *ominous pause* Project Zero Dawn.
Instead of trying to save humanity, Sobeck decides to preserve it through a complex series of AI programs called GAIA. This friendly computer will 1) eventually hack into the robots and shut them down, 2) terraform the planet and restore nature and 3) repopulate the earth with clones once everything is ready.
GAIA has nine, count them nine, subordinate functions. One of these, MINERVA, was in charge of hacking into and eventually disabling the Chariot drones. Another was HEPHAESTUS which would create brand new machines modeled after nature to help fix the planet and take care of the new humans. (Why do so many of these new machines look like dinosaurs? No reason really other than Guerrilla Games thought it would be cool). A third was APOLLO, in charge of storing humanity’s collective knowledge and teaching it to the new humans. Finally there was HADES which was responsible for killing everything on the planet and starting the process over from scratch if things went sideways.
Before Project Zero Dawn can be completed, Sobeck sacrifices herself to buy the team working on it extra time. Faro goes haywire himself and destroys APOLLO because he thinks the new humans will somehow be less flawed if they remain ignorant of their past. He also kills the rest of the scientists once Project Zero Dawn is complete.
If things had worked out there would not be a Horizon Zero Dawn, let alone an entire series, but by the early 31st century it seemed like everything had gone according to plan. That is, until a mysterious signal was beamed into GAIA granting each of its subordinate AIs sentience, including HADES. GAIA blows up the Project Zero Dawn facility to slow HADES down but it infects GAIA with a virus to free itself and the other subordinate AIs. In response, GAIA uses one of the remaining Project Zero Dawn incubation facilities to create a clone of Sobeck and leaves it on the doorstep of the Nora tribe (An incredible Hail Mary for a super computer capable of running an entire planet). The clone grows up to be Aloy, Horizon’s central hero.
To destroy everything, HADES begins corrupting the world’s caretaker robots with the ultimate goal of rebooting the dormant Chariot machines from the Faro Plague. HADES also enlists the help of a mysterious wanderer named Sylens who’s thirsty for knowledge from the past and convinces a splinter group from the Carja tribe called the Eclipse to worship it like a cult. Aloy ultimately thwarts all of their plans in a final showdown with HADES. Instead of HADES being destroyed, however, it’s captured by Sylens with the intent to learn more about humanity’s history and who or what caused HADES and the other AI to go haywire in the first place.
Horizon is home to a sprawling cast and complex network of competing political factions. Here’s a quick list of the ones we haven’t touched on so far:
- Sun Carja - One of Horizon’s main military powers residing in the city of Meridian below one of MINERVA’s transmission towers. Responsible for the Red Raid atrocities during the rule of King Jiran.
- Shadow Carja - Group that broke off during the Carja Civil War when Jiran’s son, Avad, enlisted the help of the Oseram to overthrow his father and prevent further religious sacrifices aimed at “healing” corrupted machines.
- Nora - Hunter-gatherer society with strong taboos and a general dislike for old-world technology and outsiders. Aloy is raised among them but not accepted by them.
- Oseram - Loose confederation of tinkerers and metalworkers who mine ruins for resources and technology.
- Banuk - Hunters and shamans who prefer to remain isolated from the other clans and live in the harsh cold lands to the north.
- Tenakth - Clan of raiders who acquire the ability to override and take control of certain machines.
- Utaru - Distant tribe which controls a vast portion of fertile land in the “Forbidden West” but whose harvests are succumbing to a growing red blight.
- Eclipse - Mysterious warring cult that serves HADES and tries to destabilize the other main clans and kill Aloy but are mostly wiped out by the end of Horizon Zero Dawn.
Other important characters:
- Erend - Head of the Sun Carja Vanguard after his sister is killed, Erend carries a big hammer and has trouble talking about his feelings. He’d do anything for Aloy but I don’t think she’d return the favor.
- Varl - Son of Nora War-Chief Sona who grew up alongside Aloy, his sister was killed by the Eclipse and he’s since become a close friend of Aloy, aiding her whenever she’ll accept it.
- Rost - A Nora warrior who went on a quest of vengeance after his family was killed, Rost becomes an outcast and is tasked with raising Aloy and later sacrificing his life to save hers during an attack by the Eclipse.
- Helis - A follower of Jiran who killed many during the Red Raids, Helis became leader of the Eclipse after the Carja Civil War and became the main vessel for HADES’ plan until Aloy eventually put him down.
- Travis Tate - An irreverent hacker who worked with Faro and Sobeck on Project Zero Dawn, Tate was in charge of the HADES AI and was killed along with the other scientists when Faro betrayed them.
- Demeter - AI in charge of restoring earth’s plant life.
- Artemis - AI in charge of restoring earth’s animals.
- Poseidon - AI in charge of purifying the oceans.
- Aether - AI in charge of the weather.
- Eleuthia - AI in charge of growing and taking care of humans.
- Hephaestus - AI in charge of producing more robots.
TL;DR: As a young girl Aloy falls into an ancient facility where she finds a small earbud-looking thing called a Focus that lets her bluetooth her way through most problems. Her efforts to earn acceptance into the Nora Clan where she was raised are cut short when an attack by the HADES-backed Eclipse led by Helis kills her surrogate father Rost and many others. She decides to track down her origins, discover what’s corrupting the world’s machines, and get revenge against the Eclipse.
A mysterious man named Sylens links up with her and promises her answers in return for her help. Together they piece together the history of the Faro Plague and Project Zero Dawn by exploring old ruins. Aloy eventually learns that the Eclipse are trying to restore the old machines that wiped out life to begin with, and that she’s a clone, and that Sylens has been a double agent for HADES the whole time. Aloy prevents this, and in the Frozen Wilds DLC heads north to stop a facility called Thunder’s Drum from creating corrupted machines.
It turns out the facility is being remotely controlled by the rogue HEPHAESTUS AI. Once Aloy liberates the facility, she learns from the AI CYAN that’s in charge of preventing the super volcano below Yellowstone National Park from erupting that the Faro Plague apocalypse was originally set in motion by global warming.
While Aloy succeeds in preventing a second apocalypse in Horizon Zero Dawn, huge questions remain. What was the glitch that caused the Faro Chariot machines to go rogue in the first place? Who sent the signal that caused GAIA’s subordinate AIs to become self-aware and start causing trouble? And what’s Sylens’ goal in all of this?
Sylens aided HADES in the formation of the Eclipse and exploited Aloy on a number of occasions, but Horizon Zero Dawn also hints at his intentions being much more complicated than greed or curiosity. Faro’s decision to destroy APOLLO and deprive future generations of knowledge is a special sticking point for him, especially since he’s seen its violent consequences firsthand with the Red Raids and Carja Civil War.
As far as Aloy is concerned, the main threat from HADES is over, but GAIA’s other rogue AIs are still loose and causing chaos and, as the setup to Horizon Forbidden West reveals, a new blight is taking over the land. How will she MacGyver her way out of this one? We’ll find out soon enough.