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Horizon Forbidden West: Burning Shores Review: Flaw in the Machine

When Horizon Forbidden West, Guerrilla Games’ sweeping post-post-apocalyptic epic sci-fi action RPG, came out in February last year, its highs and lows embodied the double-edged sword of video gaming. Its next-gen graphical fidelity, dynamic combat sandbox, and ambitious open world design were all dimmed by the lack of an emotional core. Not for a lack of trying, Forbidden West failed to ground its chaotic action with considered writing. Despite upgraded facial capture technology, fully animated cutscenes, and a crew of new support characters who all talked a lot, the game often felt bogged down by artificial clunk. While its lush flora, azure waters, and pristine mountains came to life in breathtaking visual detail, its people, more often than not, refused to do so. Even the series’ torchbearer, the redheaded huntress Aloy, remained elusive.

Fourteen months on, Horizon’s plucky protagonist returns to add another page to her saga with Horizon Forbidden West: Burning Shores, the game’s first expansion. It adds a sizable new map section, new tools and toys, and new stories to the base content. Released April 19 on the PS5, Burning Shores attempts to address some of these complaints made against the main game, and expands on the series’ lore as it dives deeper into science fiction territory. There are some novel mechanics at play, too. Aloy has a few new tricks up her quiver, and her aquatic adventures have received special attention in the DLC, with a focus on more ways to traverse the watery world. She’s not alone in her travels either; while previous games in the series have included companions who join Aloy on quests, this time she has a proper partner in crime.

On the whole, Burning Shores seems to be a meaty package, with a fresh set of islands to explore, secrets to uncover, and favours to complete for your friends, but the main questline itself remains a lean affair. This could be good or bad, depending on how much mileage one wants out of their DLC. The star attractions, as with all Horizon games, are the machines. There are couple creative new ones here, including a familiar and formerly dormant foe that wakes up for a big finale. Despite all this new promise though, the smoke that billows from Burning Shores smells mostly like Forbidden West. And if there’s more of the same good stuff at the core of the experience, much of the bad is carried over, too.

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Horizon Forbidden West: Burning Shores expands the game world to include Los Angeles — or what remains of Hollywood. Set in the ruins of LA, which is now a volcanic archipelago spitting fire and ash, the game adds a new cluster of islands south of its main map. The expansion questline can only begin if you’ve completed the main story in Forbidden West. Sylens, the voice in Aloy’s ears and perhaps the series’ most interesting character (played by the late great Lance Reddick), informs our protagonist that the Zenith threat is far from over. Zeniths, ancient humans who left Earth upon its destruction and returned to take it back in Forbidden West, were thought to have been taken care of, but one of them remained. Aloy travels to Burning Shores on the trail of Walter Londra, the surviving Zenith, and finds members of the Quen tribe washed ashore. They’ve set up a small town and find themselves separated and stuck, without the aid of marine navigators who seem to have vanished, along with some other members of the tribe.

When she crash lands on new shores, Aloy meets Seyka, a Quen marine on the trail of the lost members of her tribe. The two strike up a partnership after they quickly realise their quests might lead in the same direction. Aloy agrees to help Seyka find her people, while the Quen informs her of strange occurrences and anomalies that have plagued the Burning Shores in recent times. The two set out after Londra to stop his sinister plans, which involve the lost members of the Quen tribe. Londra, as an antagonist, is much like the Zeniths from the main game — a narcissistic superhuman whose motivations are doused in villainy. Burning Shores fails to establish him as a distinct threat, painting him with the same colour of evil as the Zeniths who came with him and served as the antagonists in Forbidden West. On the trail of Londra and his machinations, Aloy is barrelled into a bombastic final set piece that lands with Hollywood-level heft, but fizzles out with a cagey, on-the-rails boss fight. The battle is a series-high spectacle, but offers little room to stretch your legs. A little more open-ended approach would have probably served this game better.

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In Burning Shores, Aloy and Seyka find themselves on the trail of a new threat
Photo Credit: Screenshot/ Manas Mitul

Aside from its villain, the only other new major character of note in Burning Shores is Sekya. She is established as Aloy’s equal, adept at hunting machines and braving the dangers of their unpredictable world. She accompanies Aloy on her excursions, driven to find her people and discover more about Londra’s threat. Up until now, across two main games and an expansion, Aloy has ventured out pretty much on her own. In fact, she has refused help, choosing to fight her battles alone. As an outcast, she never quite figured out companionship. But with Seyka, she forms an understanding as their relationship develops and they share more about themselves. Their dynamic almost seems to be a direct response to criticism about Aloy’s lack of human connections in the main game. Forever the hero set on saving the world, she seemed not to care much for the people who inhabit it.

And while her bond with Seyka tries to address her emotional reluctance to form meaningful relationships, it does feel a little contrived. There isn’t a visible chemistry between the two, and their friendship isn’t given enough time to bloom and justify what it becomes. Aloy and Seyka’s dynamic does represent a step in the right direction though, despite falling short of feeling earned. It at least attempts to ground Aloy, who until now has avoided the mess of human emotion and has preferred to stick with the clarity of her higher calling. She is still busy saving the world, but her continued march towards the next fight only makes sense if there are things and people in her life worth fighting for.

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In Seyka, Aloy finds an equal she can admire and, perhaps, even love
Photo Credit: Screenshot/ Manas Mitul

In addition to this new approach to characters, the game makes its action to feel fresh in imaginative ways too, adding more strokes to its already freeform robot dinosaur-hunting sandbox. You carry over all your upgraded armour, weapons, and abilities from the main game, and find a host of new ones in Burning Shores. It took me a little while to get back into the groove of high-level combat and recall all the right controls. It was messy at first, but once locked in, I was able to switch seamlessly between hunter and sharpshot bows, bomb slings, traps, and ropecasters to take on the game’s menacing machines. All the familiar metal monsters are here, and there are some new ones, too. The Bilegut is modelled after a colossal toad that, true to its name, has corrosive acid stored up in its gut and lashes out its long robotic tongue to deal damage and steal your resources. Then there’s the Waterwing, an amphibian cousin to the Sunwing from the main game, which, in addition to taking to the skies, can dive deep into water bodies and cover great distances in a short time. Just like the Sunwing, the Waterwing can be tamed, mounted, and taken for a dip. This machine isn’t the only way to explore the waters of Burning Shores; Aloy also has a makeshift motorboat at her disposal this time to navigate the map’s many islands.

Burning Shores has new perks for Aloy’s skill tree, which add some handy abilities to combat. The standout is Grapple Strike, which lets you quickly zip to a downed machine and strike with your spear using a context action button to energise the target for a follow-up Resonator Blast attack. You can also now use your weapons in the air while gliding down to the battlefield and rain fire down on the machines before you get up close. And you can also craft and deploy shields to act as barriers between you and your enemies. In addition to traditional bows and a selection of new armour sets, you also get a new weapon, more futuristic in both design and application, pushing the series further into sci-fi territory.

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A Waterwing takes flight in Burning Shores
Photo Credit: Screenshot/ Manas Mitul

The LA of Burning Shores is barely recognisable and exists as a group of lava-spitting islands with overgrown flora. There are a couple of familiar landmarks, including the iconic Hollywood sign and the Capitol Records Building, but there is no city of angels to be found here. The only town is Fleet’s End, a bustling Quen encampment that houses the adrift members of the tribe. Fleet’s End is incredibly detailed and feels lived-in, with its denizens out and about on their daily chores, its shopkeepers calling you to peruse their wares, and its guards eyeing you with mistrust. Besides the main storyline, you can take on side quests to help out the townfolk, look for ancient collectibles scattered across the map, and clear enemy outposts. While the map of Burning Shores is bursting at the seams with detail, actual interactive tasks are few. It is a short DLC, shorter even than Frozen Wilds — the expansion to the first game, Horizon Zero Dawn. Still, it offers just about enough to warrant a dive into its waters.

And it does help that all of this arrives in a beautiful package. Horizon Forbidden West was one of the best-looking games on consoles when it came out last year; its expansion remains just as stunning. It’s full of breathtaking vistas, bathed in excellent lighting and painted in a vibrant art style. On the PS5, this game runs flawlessly, flexing the muscles of its underlying Decima Engine. You can choose to favour resolution for a crisper image, or performance for smoother gameplay. There are some technical issues — mostly related to popping — and a thin layer of video game jank that especially flares up during platforming sections. But, on the whole, Guerrilla Games’ latest DLC is a refined package that the fans of the series have come to expect from them.

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The LA in Burning Shores is home to Hollywood in ruins 
Photo Credit: Screenshot/ Manas Mitul

Horizon Forbidden West: Burning Shores often feels like one long side quest, but it attempts to fill some gaps left by the main game. As an experience, it’s not very different from its parent. It presents yet another world-ending threat, riding on the back of an antagonist who doesn’t fall far from his predecessors. There is an element of repetition, not just in its open world design, but also in its closed narrative. The world keeps ending and Aloy keeps saving it — run it back a few times and it leads to an insincerity in what’s at stake. Burning Shores does try to add more shades to Aloy’s personality, but choses spectacle over what could have been a more personal story. The burgeoning scope of the Horizon series has pushed its games to tell a fascinating transhumanist tale of apocalypse and rebirth; man and machine. But perhaps a bit more of a human touch was just what it needed this time.

Pros

  • Excellent visuals
  • Improvements to machine combat
  • Detailed setting
  • New traversal mechanics

Cons

  • Short length
  • Unearned character moments
  • Uninspired antagonist

Rating (out of 10): 8

Horizon Forbidden West: Burning Shores released April 19 on PS5.

Pricing starts at Rs. 1,664 on PlayStation Store for PS5.


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