Horizon Forbidden West was too big. I enjoyed the game overall, but my main takeaway from the experience was that it was entirely too much of a good thing. At a certain point the open world just felt overwhelming, and as a result the sprawling story began to lose its punch. Burning Shores, the first and only announced major expansion to Forbidden West, takes place in an entirely new area with a narrowed focus that hits the spot for Horizon fans, while introducing a handful of creative new mechanics and weaving in intriguing plot threads to pay off in the future.
Unlike the Frozen Wilds, the major expansion to the first game, Burning Shores is explicitly an epilogue to the main campaign, not a side story. It picks up exactly where the cliffhanger ending left off, and it heavily references a mount you only received near the very end of the campaign.
Spoilers for Horizon Forbidden West follow.
This placement after the campaign makes it a special treat for fans who have seen their way through, but anyone else will have their access gated behind finishing an already substantial game. As someone who finished the main game nearly a year ago, I was eager to have another journey into this world I loved. If it had come as soon as I finished the campaign, I probably would have felt too fatigued.
Guerrilla couldn't have predicted the death of actor Lance Reddick, who provided the voice and likeness of the cunning Sylens, so his appearance here is bittersweet. Sylens bookends the experience--both pointing Aloy in the direction of her new quest at the beginning, and stage-setting their next moves at the end. His character even gets an emotional payoff, albeit one that feels like it was written to set up further development in the next game. Still, hearing his inimitable line delivery one more time felt special, knowing that we've lost him.
Sylens informs Aloy that after the climactic battle against the Zeniths, one of them is still unaccounted for--a playboy industrialist named Walter Londra, who fled to the area formerly known as Los Angeles, but now simply called the Burning Shores, so Aloy goes to track her new target. Upon getting there, she discovers that he's essentially locked down the area with a deadly tower that prevents her flying mount from approaching, and in the process, stranded a set of Quen marines.
The setting in Burning Shores is gorgeous. This is post-apocalyptic Los Angeles, but despite the name Burning Shores, it frequently looks picturesque. The city has largely flooded, leaving pockets of islands and skyscrapers jutting out of the ocean. Higher ground like the Hollywood hills provide larger landmasses, but they all have an overgrown, nature-reclaimed look to them. It's unique and eerily beautiful, which describes many of Horizon's settings, but especially when applied to familiar territories like LA.
Aside from Londra, the major new character addition in Burning Shores is Seyka, a Quen marine who is somewhat of an outcast from her own military. Aloy sees some of herself in Seyka, as a determined woman who has been shunned by her tribe, and their developing friendship is a major throughline of the story. That especially comes into play as the two investigate Londra, with the sharp-eyed Seyka realizing there must be some reason he's so desperate to get off-planet, and Aloy increasingly straining to avoid telling her about Nemesis. Since all of Aloy's allies learned about the impending threat alongside her, this dynamic of information asymmetry is new and adds a wrinkle to their relationship.
Since Burning Shores follows after the main campaign, Guerrilla can count on you to have all of Aloy's tools at her disposal. This is nice, though I'll admit that after such a long absence I had forgotten about some of them. The game helpfully prompted me to use some less-common tools like the Pullcaster when needed, which I appreciated because otherwise I'd be staring at a wall, wondering what I'm supposed to do. There's also one significant new traversal tool--a machine that fires metal posts into a wall to create your own handholds for climbing--but this is limited to a single mission.
For the most part, Burning Shores is familiar--you fight machines, you traverse and climb, and then you do it again. There are new weapons and armor available from the Quen at their shops, which require trading a rare new resource. And as you progress through the campaign, you do get an entirely new weapon type, finally borrowing tech from the Zeniths, which feels significantly different and more powerful than any other weapons across both games. There are only a few new machines to hunt, including the tiny swarming Stingspawn and the massive toad-like Bilegut. The only other standard machine, the Waterwing, is extremely similar to the existing Sunwing. Still, if you're looking for more opportunity to hunt down resources and pick apart robots, this will keep you occupied.
Londra isn't unique as a villain. All of the Zeniths have essentially been narcissistic sociopaths who look down on the surviving tribal populations as lesser beings. Londra does take this mindset to uniquely horrible lengths, though, which provides ample motivation to take him down. The battle against him culminates in a setpiece so grandiose that the ending of Forbidden West feels humble by comparison. It's difficult and thrilling, and serves as a showpiece both graphically and mechanically.
With Londra resolved, Burning Shores turns to addressing the burgeoning relationship between Aloy and Seyka. At roughly 8-10 hours, I was skeptical that a new character introduced in the DLC would have enough time to develop emotional resonance, but it pays off believably and beautifully. This is mostly due to the performances, especially Ashly Burch as Aloy, whose expressions show a shocking amount of wordless emotions as she recognizes and sorts through her feelings. That said, it leaves on a sweet but slightly melancholy note.
That's because, as always, Aloy is looking to the future. Horizon: Burning Shores lays even more groundwork for the future of the franchise than Forbidden West, which had already signaled a clear direction for the next entry. It does this in a tight, engaging little package that reignited my love for the world and its characters without feeling burdened by it. While much of Burning Shores feels familiar, it's a sweet, condensed experience that captures what makes Horizon games great. After feeling more exhausted than excited at the end of Forbidden West, I'm glad for the reminder.