America - Front
America - Back
By Paul Broussard 30th Apr 2023 | 3,256 views
Sometimes I like to scroll through other reviews of games before publishing my own, partially because I’m curious to see what fellow critics have to say but more because I like to have a general estimate of how many insults directed at my mom I should be expecting after my review goes live. This time around I happened to take a look at the expansion for Horizon: Forbidden West and never even made it to the critic segment because... well, let's just say the name "Burning Shores" wound up being unintentionally apropos as the entire user segment was engaged in a massive flame war. This might be the first time I've ever had a major plot development spoiled by looking at a score alone, as I could immediately glance at the discrepancy between critic and user score and guess what was written into the narrative to cause such a ruckus.
But let's put that to the side for a moment and talk about the actual expansion. Burning Shores takes place shortly after the events of the main game, with the ghost of Lance Reddick warning our hero Aloy that one Zenith escaped after the battle at the end of Forbidden West, and that we need to chase him down. After the main game ended on a massive cliffhanger with humanity needing to drastically shore up its defenses in order to survive, it feels a little weird how readily the survivors opt to send Aloy - their single best explorer/fighter - to deal with what seems like a relatively minor issue in the wake of the Earth being potentially destroyed, but whatever. This last Zenith was spotted in what was once Los Angeles, and so Aloy embarks on a new quest, arriving in Southern California to find a treacherous hellscape with constant fires and flooding - so basically no change from the present day. Aloy then meets up with a new character, Seyka, and the two quickly team up and become BFFs while plotting to thwart the last Zenith’s schemes.
Seyka herself is worth examining in detail because of just how much of a focus she is, both from a gameplay and a story standpoint. Being a local and a warrior, Seyka is portrayed as a much more capable companion than Aloy’s had in the past, and she’s a constant story presence as well, unlike previous Horizon partners who would generally only stick around for a short while at any given time. The game does a decent job of making her feel like a genuine help, rather than a tagalong that you’re stuck babysitting. A lot of work was clearly put into Seyka's AI in this regard; she constantly makes smart decisions, like employing traps, drawing enemy aggro, and making use of the proper elemental arrow type to deal effective damage. There are even some Resident Evil 5-esque puzzles where you have to work with your AI partner to solve them, though thankfully Seyka's AI is much better than Sheva's.
Unfortunately, it feels like in the midst of trying to design Seyka well from a gameplay standpoint, Guerilla probably didn’t give her the attention she needed from a narrative standpoint. Don’t get me wrong, she’s hardly a bad character, and certainly not unlikeable, but for a significant portion of the story she just kind of… exists, for lack of a better way of putting it, without much in the way of development or really even any significant character traits being established to set her apart from Aloy. The presence of some late game dialogue definitely suggests that they really intended for the player to have a significant connection to this character, but some design choices undermined that from fully paying off for me. It’s tough to say too much more without going into spoilers, so I’ll save that for later, but suffice to say I think Burning Shores misses a lot of the story potential it had by crafting a narrative so closely intertwined with a single partner character.
I was surprised then that I mostly enjoyed the main villain, especially after the Zenith in Forbidden West fell flat for me. He doesn’t get a ton of screen time himself, but he does a pretty good job of being a sort of Andrew Ryan-esque “mustache-twirling charmingly evil” type of guy. His motivations aren’t especially compelling, and there’s a certain cartoonishly bad thing he does late-game that just feels like it was stuck in to make you hate him more at the last second, but for a series that’s struggled to create memorable villains that stand out, this is probably the best one they’ve created so far. Sam Witwer takes a break from recording Callisto Protocol podcasts to lend his voice to Burning Shores’ baddy, and he does a spectacular job.
The core gameplay probably isn’t worth spending too much time addressing, since it remains pretty much the same as in Forbidden West. If you liked it in the base game, then you’ll enjoy it here. If you didn’t, then Chop Goblins is available on Steam for only $5. What we do have here that’s new are a few extra monsters, new locales to explore, and uh… a boat. Yes, you’ll be pleased to hear that if swimming isn’t your style, Aloy can now Wind Waker it up and sail around flooded Los Angeles, to the inevitable chorus of “guess there are worse ways to get around” every single time.
There’s not a ton of new enemy variety to be found, which is a bit of a bummer. Burning Shores introduces three new regular enemy types, with one being very similar in appearance and behavior to the base game’s Sunwing. The other two - Stingspawns and Bileguts - are much more unique and genuinely interesting to engage with, although given how much the core gameplay revolves around fighting these giant machines I was hoping for a bit more. Boss fights are a mixed bag as well. The final boss is fantastic, feeling almost like a Shadow of the Colossus encounter in some ways. But the gap between it and the other three bosses in Burning Shores is significant. After Forbidden West took some serious steps to amp up the machines from Zero Dawn, both in terms of scale and variety, this feels like a step back.
Conversely, the amount of new content and territory to explore is massive for a DLC, with a map over a third of the size of the base game. Much of it is pretty interesting to traverse too, with lots of verticality to the landscape and plenty of hazards that keep you on your toes while exploring. I think the extra dimension of interactivity helps a lot with making things more interesting to navigate than Forbidden West’s overworld; exploring a ruined city with lava flows is just a lot more appealing than several kilometers' worth of relatively unbroken wilderness. I’d love to see Horizon 3 adopt a similar approach for its entire runtime; I think I’d be willing to accept a significantly smaller map as well if it meant the terrain itself was more engaging. I do really wish that we could move away from the dreaded yellow/orange lines marking what is and isn’t a climbable ledge, as it still tends to make the world feel less like an organic place and more like a… well, video game, but this is progress, and I’ll always applaud that.
Aesthetically, Burning Shores is absolutely gorgeous. Forbidden West was already a looker and Burning Shores looks significantly better than that. The decision to move to PS5-only is obviously unfortunate for those who bought the game on PS4, but you can definitely tell Guerilla has made the most of not having to develop for a previous generation console. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to call this the best-looking content on PS5 currently, and maybe gaming as a whole, at least when it comes to more realistic art styles. The sound design is solid as well, with music and sound effects on par with the base game.
That said, if I can make an appeal to the sound team: please, let Aloy’s VA take a break now and then. I appreciate the attempt to endear Aloy to the player by having her talk to herself and share her own perspective on things with you, but there is such a thing as trying too hard, and Aloy’s chattiness has, for me at least, officially come back around to start being annoying. I think the line crossed here is one where Aloy’s in-game comments have started to move from random observations (e.g. “this should be useful” when picking up herbs) to actively sounding like a backseating Twitch commenter. I lost track of how many times I got told to be careful not to alert enemies while sneaking around, or to shoot an enemy’s weak point, and while this sounds small at first it becomes exceptionally grating after the same comment has played for the 15th time in the same 10 hour campaign. Sony games have done this a fair bit lately, from NPCs in God of War Ragnarok spoiling puzzles, to the narrator in Ratchet & Clank 2016, and even the base game of Forbidden West. I imagine it's part of an attempt to provide additional accessibility, and while I can appreciate the desire to provide extra help to those who may need it, there really needs to be an options slider for this sort of thing if it’s going to be detrimental to the characters for those who do not.
Speaking of characters, let’s take a moment to revisit that lovely matter of those very angry Metacritic users back at the start, since I've completely given up all hope for this comments section. It’s the culmination of basically everything the DLC builds towards, as well as a major moment for Aloy as a character, so I do feel it deserves a deep dive. Up front: a SPOILER WARNING for some dialogue towards the end of the DLC. So, y’know, channel your inner Albert Wesker and wear sunglasses indoors for the next few paragraphs if you don’t want spoilers.
Yes, at the end of Burning Shores, after the final boss is defeated, Seyka and Aloy have a celebratory conversation where the former reveals she has feelings for the latter. The player then has the option to accept or refuse her advances, or, alternatively, respond with the romantic equivalent of leaving someone’s text on “seen.”
I do think the opportunity for Aloy’s first romantic relationship feels a tad underwhelming, although, and I can’t believe I need to stress this, it is not because the potential partner in question is same-sex. Remember Elisabet Sobeck, the person that Aloy is a biological clone of, was herself involved in a same-sex relationship, so those no doubt very well socially adjusted individuals review bombing on Metacritic claiming that there’s never been any hint of a possible inclination for Aloy aren’t paying much attention to the games they’re playing.
It’s not even necessarily the writing, which while certainly not The Witcher quality, is mostly fine. There’s a decent job done in building up the relationship between Aloy and Seyka, and while any romantic talk between the two ends up sounding like two shy high schoolers awkwardly trying to flirt while waiting for their parents to pick them up, that sort of makes sense; they’re both fighters who have presumably never had much time for love. I think a few more scenes focusing on them and their relationship before the confession at the end probably wouldn't have been amiss, but it’s believable enough as it stands.
No, what ultimately brings it down for me is how hollow this decision feels, because even after going through and picking all three options to see what happens, I struggle to articulate how exactly any of them differentiate Aloy's standing moving forward. Regardless of what you choose, Aloy and Seyka immediately part ways, presumably so the inevitable Horizon 3 can kick off with Aloy by herself again. So, as far as the DLC goes, the big pay-off for Aloy is that she’s... effectively right back where she was. It winds up all just being, at most, set-up for the next game.
And because this was worked into a DLC storyline, the impact it can have on that next game is itself likely muted, because it means not only would Guerilla have to work in dialogue options and character appearances for people who chose different options, but would also have to re-introduce Seyka entirely for everyone who played Forbidden West but not Burning Shores. While this drifts into speculation about Horizon 3 more than being a critique of Burning Shores itself, it’s a little tough for me to imagine them doing all of that, or at least doing it in a way that makes the decision at the end of Burning Shores feel especially weighty. Even Mass Effect struggled to do that with its romance options from one game to the next, and while Guerilla's writing is certainly not bad, I don't think it's on the same level as peak BioWare.
Perhaps the issue was to have such a defining moment for a character even be a choice at all. The decision to fully commit to giving her a relationship might have allowed for the two characters to bond more in the post-game and really flesh out Aloy as a person, exploring a side of her we haven’t seen. Alternatively, opting to not go in a romantic way at all could have freed up more room to focus on other elements of the world and characters. Instead, we get a compromise, which in theory should please everyone, but in reality winds up being the worst of both worlds, since the post-game (and presumably Horizon 3) has to accommodate any option taken. It feels like Guerilla is caught between wanting Aloy to be an avatar-esque vessel for the player and her own character with defining personality traits, and the same person can’t really be both.
This may be a good metaphor for Burning Shores as a whole; it feels like it's caught between extremes, with great highs and disappointing lows. Very good exploration, but a disappointing amount of enemy variety. One great boss, and three middling-to-bad ones. Significant development for Aloy, but an unwillingness to commit to it really changing her as a character. Burning Shores flickers between highs and lows constantly, and while there are still enough positives here for me to say it's "good," I come away from it feeling somewhat uncertain about the franchise. When Horizon 3 does launch, I feel like it could benefit significantly from a narrowing of scope; trying to picking a few things to really excel at rather than simply being competent at everything.