Why underwater sections in Horizon Forbidden West succeed where most fail

When I was a kid, the only thing that frightened me more than spiders was the now infamous drowning music (opens in new tab) in Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Genesis. The track’s sharp beats would get faster and faster to warn you that you’re about to run out of oxygen and every time it would build up a rising sense of panic in my young heart far too effectively. Since then, I’ve always somewhat dreaded underwater sections in games, and (even if you’ve yet to experience the nightmarish Sonic music) I know this is a sentiment many share. 

After all, underwater levels have earned a negative reputation as a result of often having frustrating controls, stressful time limits, and other restrictions that make them feel like a chore. When I first found out there were sections in Horizon Forbidden West that take you below the water’s surface, I can’t say I was looking forward to them. Happily, upon taking my very first deep dive, I quickly warmed to the idea. It’s been a pleasant surprise to discover just how enjoyable it is to use the new diving mask in Guerrilla Games’ latest adventure. Controlling Aloy as she swims is so much fun, and the introduction of underwater sections also opens up the world in a new and exciting way that I just can’t get enough of. With so much to see and discover in the oceans and rivers, I find myself actively wanting to take the plunge whenever I get the chance. 

Hidden depth 

Horizon Forbidden West

(Image credit: Sony)

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Horizon Forbidden West

(Image credit: Sony)

How Horizon Forbidden West humanizes the end of the world

It takes quite some time to get your hands on the diving mask in Horizon Forbidden West, but it comes along as part of the main story. In the lead-up to this point, I had encountered several underwater locations that were blocked off to me and I couldn’t help but be intrigued. It’s a bit like finding a sealed box you can’t open, and you’re just dying to find the key to see what’s inside. In fact, there was even a rather fascinating side quest I couldn’t complete since it required me to dive into the depths for an extended period. In a way, I think these blocked-off locations heightened my sense of anticipation, which began to steadily outweigh the apprehension I had initially felt about the prospect of underwater sections. 

When you do get the diving mask out in the desert lands of Horizon Forbidden West, you put it to the test right away. With the task of diving down through a flooded elevator shaft that’s part of an old-world structure, I quickly adjusted to the change in the environment and how Aloy moves. While I did feel a touch claustrophobic below the water’s surface in certain enclosed spaces, I was already enjoying myself within the first five minutes of underwater exploration. 

This is partly thanks to the way Aloy can dart nimbly through the water, and I was relieved to find that it was easy to guide her in any direction I wanted without some of the usual frustrations. For the most part, swimming in games tries to account for the physics of being underwater, which can make movement feel slow and awkward. In Horizon Forbidden West, you of course don’t move as fast as you can on land, but swimming doesn’t feel like such a slog thanks to the game’s smooth controls and Aloy’s fluid motions. 

The main reason Horizon Forbidden West’s undersea locations have won me over, though, is that you can take your time. The panic of running out of oxygen is entirely removed thanks to the diving mask, so you don’t have to worry about finding pockets of air or racing to the water’s surface to catch your breath. So many underwater levels in games feel like sections you just want to get through quickly in order to avoid drowning, which is why I so often associate them with a feeling of panic and unease. As Aloy, all of those fears are gone. The only disadvantage you have is that you can’t fight any machines that are swimming around the same location. When spotted, you either have to zip away or take cover in some nearby kelp.  

Underwater world  

Horizon Forbidden West

(Image credit: Sony)

“During my journey with Aloy in the Forbidden West, nothing has pleasantly surprised me quite as much as the underwater sections.”

While water levels and locales may not always deliver in terms of execution, I can see why the idea of them in games is appealing. Seas and oceans can set a visually striking and diverse scene, with a different ecosystem where you encounter enemies and challenges that wouldn’t otherwise work on land. There’s also something mysterious and otherworldly about the deep depths – it feels so far removed from the life we know. When it comes to Horizon Forbidden West, the underwater locations are home to sunken buildings and areas you want to explore. So much of the old world is hidden below the water’s surface, and it adds an additional layer of exploration and environmental storytelling. 

During my journey with Aloy in the Forbidden West, nothing has pleasantly surprised me quite as much as the underwater sections. From exploring sunken caverns to swimming through ancient buildings submerged in the depths of the ocean, the underwater world is just as fascinating as the one above sea level. And thanks to Aloy’s adept movements and the handy introduction of the diving mask, Horizon Forbidden West is helping me get over my rocky relationship with underwater levels. Sure, I may never be able to forget that one Sonic track, but when I’m venturing through the depths of the ocean, surrounded by remnants of a forgotten time, it couldn’t be further from my mind. 

Want to read more? Here’s how Horizon Forbidden West nails its open world by making every side quest matter.

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