Misclassifying Horizon: Forbidden West

Another year, another opportunity for gaming discourse on the proper approach to open worlds. The typical argument puts Elden Ring and Zelda: Breath of the Wild on one side, Horizon: Forbidden West and Ubisoft franchises like Assassin’s Creed on the other. Elden Ring and BOTW have more emergent gameplay, with little hand holding, clearly laid out objectives, and access only gated through character leveling and player skill. Horizon and Assassin’s Creed are more prescriptive. There are icons and waypoints all over the map, with the game’s mechanics, stats, and side quests all laid bare to the player.

Modern critical consensus points to emergent open worlds as generally more satisfying. Prescriptive games drown the player in unfulfilled objectives, busy UIs, and too many icons on a map to follow and check off. The net result can feel like a game on autopilot or lead to “open world fatigue.”

Having played and completed Horizon, I find this argument unfair to Sony’s latest blockbuster, misclassifying its genre and intent. While critical discourse pits Elden Ring and Horizon as open world action RPGs first and foremost, in reality, I view Horizon as more of a linear adventure similar to a game like Uncharted or The Last of Us. Its open world elements are a secondary “hook” to string narrative segments of the game together.

Admittedly claiming Horizon isn’t a true open world RPG sounds ridiculous at a glance. It’s got a big map with icons, leveling up a character, and a skill tree. There are side quests presented alongside many items to loot, craft, and upgrade. Sony’s marketing refers to the game as “an epic action RPG adventure.” But when you push past initial impressions, Horizon is a “narrative first” game in a way few other games with RPG elements can hope to emulate.

It starts with the high level of detail Guerrilla showers its game characters. Horizon’s skin and clothing textures, unique outfits, motion capture, and voice work are top notch quality, some of the best I’ve seen, only matched by Sony’s other flagship games titles like The Last of Us Part II. Remarkably, this quality control remains high for not just the player controlled character Aloy and the main cast but also across many minor side characters.

Compared to your average action RPG, dialogue options are often extensive, with branching inquiries to dig further into the plot for those invested in the lore. Cutscenes can run for several minutes at a time. Horizon also regularly breaks up its extended combat missions with story driven interludes. There are no attacking, looting, or skill tree upgrades; it’s just Aloy traversing space and chatting through her discoveries.

Guerrilla also leans on several affordances to help keep the player pushing through the main game narrative. All quests are categorized by type, with “main” storylines listed at the top. After the player completes any side quest, the game automatically shifts the objective to the next mainline quest. Level upgrades are incredibly generous compared to most action RPGs; I rarely needed to grind in extra monster battles or side quests to be ready for the next story chapter.

Those design decisions make it easier to stay on track with the main narrative across quests, but even mid quest Guerrilla keeps completion within reach. Most quests are steadfastly linear, with the occasional open ended decision punctuated by Aloy talking to herself about what to do next (to the point of annoyance.) Also, if combat ever gets too difficult, players can dial down difficulty at any time without penalty.

Because the graphics, UI, and overall gameplay focus overwhelmingly on the main story, Horizon is best played as more of a linear blockbuster narrative adventure, not a “traditional” open world RPG. A linear focus adds to the game’s plot momentum and helps the player connect with Aloy and the supporting cast. You still get to see almost all of the world’s divergent settings, paced out by natural breaks as Aloy traverses across different main quests. Players get the best of what Guerrilla offers over an engaging, original storyline.

If that sounds like an experience counter to the RPG genre, you can lobby a similar argument around most big first party Sony releases from the past few years. The Last of Us is survival horror, but with less crafting, difficulty, and more focus on the story. God of War and Spiderman are well polished “standard” action adventure but with way more focus on story and character depth. Sony’s “house style” has a pattern: it takes core elements from a familiar genre while streamlining and eliminating others in service of a muscular, blockbuster narrative adventure.

So circling back to the beginning of this post, the criticism of Horizon shouldn’t be with its footing in the RPG genre. Instead, it should be how Sony’s first party playbook can flatten RPGs and other genres in favor of an approachable story. Put another way, Horizon’s narrative prominence is a litmus test to its audience. Those who love the game tend to find Aloy’s narrative compelling, while those who reject or skip it find it a well-made but otherwise less standout RPG.