Originally released back in February 2017, Horizon Zero Dawn is an open world action adventure game set in a world roamed by animalistic murderous machines. You play as Aloy, a woman outcast for being motherless, who seeks to put an end to the destruction that is being escalated by these machines, while in the process learning how the old world fell into ruin.
The game’s sequel, Horizon Forbidden West, releases a few days after this video goes live, and sees Aloy set out in search of a cure for a blight which is slowly making the planet uninhabitable.
While very mechanically similar to Zero Dawn, Forbidden West releases in a very different accessibility context to its predecessor. Horizon Zero Dawn released back in early 2017, when Sony had not yet begun its public facing push into accessibility with titles such as 2020’s The Last of Us 2. Sony’s first party accessibility output today is very different, as are the features their games have begun to include as standards.
So today, on Access-Ability, we’re going to be talking about the accessibility settings on offer in Horizon Forbidden West. We’re going to talk about which settings are present, which are lacking, how the offering compares to the settings found in Zero Dawn, and which settings feature practical drawbacks that impact their utility.
Let’s start off by talking a little bit about Horizon Zero Dawn’s gameplay mechanics and accessibility settings, before moving on to those present in Forbidden West.
Horizon Zero Dawn does feature a handful of accessibility settings options, but a fairly small number compared to more modern Sony first party studio games.
Difficulty options range from Story, designed to present very minimal challenge to players, through easy, normal, hard, and very hard, each featuring a short text description. The game also supports options for quest pathfinding and waypoint pathfinding, to help players find their way to objectives piece by piece, rather than simply being pointed as the crow flies toward their end goal. We will talk more about this feature a little later in the video.
Players can also invert their X or Y axis, change axis sensitivity, tweak aim assist, set ridable mounts to follow roads, change running between a hold and a toggle, and remap their controls.
For audio, players can balance the mix of music, speech, and sound effects, turn on subtitles, but not much else. And basically the only visual option of note is the ability to alter the game’s brightness.
While Horizon Zero Dawn covers many of the accessibility basics, what it largely fails at is the specifics. Subtitles for example are simply an on / off toggle, and not in any way customisable. It’s functional accessibility support, but it’s not up to more modern Sony standards.
Released five years later on February 18th 2022, Horizon Forbidden West is a definite improvement on Zero Dawn in terms of offered accessibility support options, but comes with a few omissions that feel odd from a Sony published game, most notably a lack of High Contrast Mode support.
I know that the Horizon series is made by Guerrilla Games, who have never included High Contrast Mode support in their past titles, and Sony has never said that High Contrast Mode is an official standard for their first party software going forward, but the mode’s inclusion in most of their recent releases over the past few years makes its absence feel notable here, particularly given this game’s overall sameish colour palette. When lots of in-world elements are very detailed shades of similar colours, high contrast mode support becomes all the more useful.
I have said this in other videos, but the main thing I would love to see from Sony going forward in terms of accessibility is predictable standards for their first party studio releases.
So, what settings does the game support? Well, alongside Zero Dawn’s Quest and Waypoint pathfinding, the game now supports options to make your HUD permanent rather than dynamic. You can also alter what shows up in your HUD, whether or not to receive regular context reminders while playing, toggles for how greatly time slows down while you’re selecting items in your weapon wheel, how long time slows down with concentration when you aim a weapon, whether that concentration is triggered automatically or not, whether or not you automatically heal from low health after combat, and whether or not your new glider deploys automatically when in the air.
While many of these settings additions are really useful, particularly the options allowing for increased concentration while aiming and greater slowdown while the weapon wheel is active, others have pretty noticeable issues, most notably the Quest and Waypoint Pathfinding, which have been iffy in their execution ever since Zero Dawn.
While these accessibility settings work as intended while exploring the overworld, creating a series of smaller waypoints that will lead the player safely along a path to progression so they can avoid getting lost and stuck during gameplay, these accessibility tools have strange points of omission where they cease to function. Most notably, during dungeons the game turns off this feature entirely, pointing the player as the crow flies toward the exit, and not pointing them piece by piece toward the path to progression.
I understand wanting the player to have to engage with the puzzles in a dungeon environment, but for players who are using this as an accessibility tool, a use case the developers are aware of as they list the setting in the Accessibility settings menu, having the setting cease to function in dungeons feels really jarring. If a player needs that kind of support to get through a puzzle environment in a dungeon, they should be able to opt into that support, even if that needs to be a sub option rather than the default. Don’t turn off accessibility settings you’ve offered disaabled players arbitrarily.
One of the most interesting additions to the game’s general settings options is the inclusion of Co-Pilot mode, a system level accessibility feature on Xbox where two controllers can be used at once to control the same character. This can allow a disabled user to spread out their controls to places they have better access to, or hand off a controller to a friend to help with certain in-game actions. This is one of Xbox’s most interesting accessibility features, and while I would ideally love to see this implemented on PlayStation as a system level feature, I am glad we’ve got at least one first party game implementing it as an option.
While all the control tweaking options from Zero Dawn are still present, they come alongside a bunch of new additions too.
Players can tweak the intensity of rumble in game, as well as tweaking it on a per source of rumble basis, if certain rumble types are helpful mechanically, or particularly distracting. You can also turn off adaptive trigger support on PS5.
Forbidden West features aim assist support for players who struggle with shooting enemies, but it works a little differently to other games in a way that I struggled to understand for a while. While most games with aim assist will magnetise your aiming reticle to snap to a target point for you, Forbidden West seems to instead correct the course of your arrow mid air to better hit its target. This was not well explained by the game, and as such I for a while felt like the setting was not functioning as intended. I could see my Reticle was not aiming at the correct spot, so it was confusing when it still hit its target correctly. This does not feel good in action, even if it is still technically making me more likely to hit my target correctly. It’s an unsatisfying execution of the mechanic.
Though turned off by default, you can turn on motion controls as an option for fine tuning your aim.
All hold button prompts in Forbidden West can be changed to toggles as a single setting.
For subtitle users, you’ll be pleased to know that Forbidden West finally supports subtitle size alteration, as well as the addition of subtitle backgrounds. That said, in a disappointing omission, the game features no “overheard subtitles”. If you’re walking with a main character having a conversation, any smaller characters around you who are having side conversations will not be subtitled. This can lead to some missed flavour text, and even in some cases characters calling you over to tell you about a sidequest being missed.
In-game audio can now be forced to mono, and you can turn off sound effects in game that mimic the effects of Tinnitus.
For players with low vision, Horizon Forbidden West disappointingly lacks High Contrast Mode support, but does feature a setting where climbing annotations are always visible, meaning that at a glance places that are climbable will be somewhat lightly highlighted.
For motion sickness prone players, motion blur and camera shake levels can be tweaked while playing.
While Forbidden West features a dedicated accessibility settings menu, listed on the game’s main title screen, this menu is made up exclusively from settings options found in other settings tabs, and omits a few settings which feel like they come under the remit of accessibility.
The only other notable change to Horizon Forbidden West, compared to Zero Dawn, is the inclusion of swimming mechanics, which function fairly well, with dedicated buttons for rising or descending while submerged. That said, there is an oxygen metre while underwater, and there is no option in the settings to extend its use or disable the mechanic. With some sections of water needing to be navigated successfully before you run out of air, if you struggle with underwater segments you may find points that cause progression issues. The game would potentially benefit from accessibility options around this oxygen metre.
One other nice feature the game has, which I appreciated, was the option to set a quest marker which would point you toward where to find items needed for weapon or armour purchases. If there’s a specific upgrade you’re trying to achieve or something particular you want to craft, you can make that its own quest, which really helps improve the ease with which you can find those items.
While Horizon Forbidden West is a definite step up from Zero Dawn in terms of accessibility settings and options offered, the omissions here are noticeable. I have said for a while that Microsoft’s biggest accessibility strength right now over Sony is their consistency of execution from their first party studios, and Sony’s weakness in this area is noticeable with this game.
As a player with coordination issues, I appreciate the game’s ability to increase concentration time while aiming, but I wish I could turn it to a lengthier amount of active time than the top setting option offers.
I am glad the game supports aim assist, but I wish it made me feel like I was aiming accurately, rather than just hitting the enemy while not aimed properly at them.
As a player with aphantasia I wish the game’s pathfinding options were consistently applied and didn’t turn off in dungeons where they are most useful. I wish high contrast mode was an option,
and I wish oxygen was considered as a progression blocker which might need tweaking by disabled players.
I am glad to see a Sony studio step up and mirror Xbox’s Co-Pilot mode functionality, even if it is being offered as a one off for this game rather than a system level feature.
Horizon Forbidden West is a step forward for accessibility for its series, but still has room for improvement. It’s not the Sony game I would point to to demonstrate the company’s best work on accessibility, but is still a step forward compared to Guerilla Games previous output.