Sequels don't get much better than this. Horizon Forbidden West puts the franchise's captivating sci-fi story front and center, further exploring this new civilization of humans grown from stored DNA following the eradication of all biomass on Earth. It expands on the original's fascinating premise, including ideas hinted at but not fully explored in the first game, such as what mysteries may lie in the far west and what really happened to that mysterious project to send humanity to another star system. The result is a gripping adventure that sees Aloy searching for answers and making some shocking discoveries along the way. She remains a beautifully realized character: fierce, intelligent, and physically capable, but with a reasonable amount of self-doubt as well as some minor character flaws that only make her more human -- like her deep-seated obsession with her mission that allies sometimes misinterpret as a coldness. Players will become invested in her as a character, fearing for her physical and emotional well-being in tense situations, basking in the praise she receives from those she helps, and laughing along when she cracks the occasional joke. This is large-scale storytelling and world-building at its best, anchored by one of the most likable and fully developed characters in modern games.
That the rest of the experience is a match for the narrative is just a bonus. The visual presentation is simply jaw-dropping, with light from vivid, living skies flowing over mountains and filtering through the branches of towering redwoods to the landscape below, which is filled with fields of flowers, moss-covered ruins, and orange desert dunes dotted with dust devils. This setting is a luscious backdrop for the wildly intense and strategic combat, which only gets better as you learn to use all of the many traps, weapons, combinations, and elemental abilities at Aloy's disposal. The satisfaction that comes with anchoring a giant machine bird to the ground with a ropecaster, blowing off its armor plating with precision arrows, soaking it in acid with slingshot bombs to weaken it, and then letting another bird you've overridden swoop in to peck it to death is tangible. It's not a perfect game -- most players will reach Aloy's level cap well before the story's end, scaling walls and cliffs can be a little awkward at times, and the occasional glitch might pull players out of this grand fantasy for a couple of seconds here and there -- but these problems barely dent the overall vibe. Horizon Forbidden West is a magnificently ambitious follow-up that somehow manages to outdo its much beloved predecessor in almost every way.