Let’s start with the big stuff. Forza Horizon 5 is absolutely, 100%, a step forward in total blind video game accessibility. I will explain how in the subsequent paragraphs. However, my aim with this review is to make one thing clear. There is still a long way to go. Other reviews I’ve seen have claimed that Forza Horizon 5 is a few simple tweaks from full playability… I do not believe this to be true. To begin to explain this, however, we need to identify the specific definition of playability I refer to.
For context, I want to say that I absolutely understand the need for a one-button mode in a game like this. Games should be for everyone, and that includes those who can only utilize one input at a time. It is impossible to be a good advocate for accessibility without respecting this need. However, I believe that, in order to achieve accessibility and playability for as many disability types as possible, multiple methods of play need to be available. And, as an accessibility consultant myself, specializing in total blind accessibility, I strive to help create an experience that is as close to that of a sighted player as we can get, within reason. It is with all that in mind that I urge you onward in this review.
Here’s how the gameplay of Forza Horizon 5 works if you’re a totally blind person, and have all the necessary assists on. You… hold the right trigger. That’s it. That’s your game. Now, you could argue that one need not turn on all of the assists. There are individual options for steering assist, breaking assist and so on, but there is no actual indication of what you should be doing at any moment in the game, (save for the tutorial messages which thankfully are narrated), so if you’re blind, why wouldn’t you turn them all on? Not doing so, and attempting to handle nearly any part of this on your own is just asking for trouble. Even breaking on your own will likely just slow you down, because you’ll still be guessing at when that is necessary. With breaking assists on, you automatically break when you should, and with steering assists on, you turn when you’re supposed to, and without any other ways of determining when any of those things should happen, a totally blind person is best off playing that way. There is haptic feedback in this game, but I’m almost certain its primary purpose is to indicate terrain, and the rumble of your engine and so on, not to give you any sort of navigational cue. And this, folks, is the reason I say that Forza Horizon 5 is nowhere near what I would consider playable. As a totally blind person, I still want to feel like I am in control. I want any mistakes to have been my mistakes, and any successes in a race to have been my successes. I do not feel this is the case. I do not feel pride when completing an event in Forza Horizon 5, because I feel outside of it. As far as I’m concerned, this game feels to me like I’m watching a massive cut scene which, for some inexplicable reason, requires me to hold a button to continue watching. That, to me, is not the goal. That is not what we in the total blind gaming community should strive for. We are not required to simply accept something that is less than the experience we seek, and call it good. What I want for us, what I believe is possible, is a game like Forza Horizon 5 where we are in total control. Until that happens, I think I will continue to feel this way. However, the control of the game isn’t its only issue. Let’s talk in greater detail about its features, positive and negative both.
First and foremost, the game does feature narration, which I hinted at before when mentioning the fact that tutorial messages are narrated. This is, of course, a positive. Unfortunately, this positive is coupled with 2 negatives. Firstly, like in so, so many Xbox games, narration is woefully incomplete. Some menus aren’t narrated, and even some important screens, screens the player would care about, (race results for example), also aren’t narrated. So we aren’t even given enough information to fully appreciate our accomplishments. That said, narration this time around is still better than Forza Horizon 4, which didn’t read its menus for car selection and so on. Those are narrated in FH5, with the weird exception of the first car choice you get, which isn’t narrated at all. The long and short of this is that we should be past this by now. Partial narration does not work. This doesn’t just apply to totally blind people. Even those with low vision use narration on occasion, and heck, maybe someone who just wants to rest their perfectly working eyes might use it. So why is it still OK for it not to be complete? It’s not. If narration is going to exist at all, then every single text/UI element should be covered. It shouldn’t be an afterthought, and there shouldn’t be any exceptions. Simple as that.
The second negative with the narration is that, in a way, it is actually overdone. The narration in Forza Horizon 5 is absolutely obsessed with telling you every single control type, and when every single option is highlighted. This is a negative because even the totally blind don’t need the words “option highlighted” before reading every single option. Why not just read the text of the option we’re currently highlighting? I’m fairly sure that would indicate that we are highlighting it. That, plus the narration’s insistence on adding the words “control type” before telling you whether something is a button or a slider, plus a few other things, combine to make the narration experience, quite honestly, slow and unpleasant. It’s still good that it’s there, but browsing menus in FH5 definitely is not fun or quick.
Let’s talk about the big positive for a second. This one feature is the reason FH5 is a step forward in total blind accessibility. While I have been pretty clear about my dislike of the need to use all the assists, there is now something neat that applies to them. The assists are now applied to the open world experience of Horizon, so as long as there is a waypoint set, either on the map or via the Anna interface, the assists will take you to it. This is absolutely still a big deal, despite everything else I’ve said, because it is something we’ve needed in an open world game for a long time. I have my opinions about the controls, but there’s no denying that this particular feature is still pretty cool. One of the biggest concerns we’ve had with open world games is getting from point to point in a truly monstrous environment. Forza Horizon 5 addresses this in its way, and I appreciate that.
Yet even now, I must circle back to narration. The map interface in Forza is completely unnarrated, meaning that setting a waypoint using it is nearly impossible without sighted assistance. And here’s the real killer, folks. Setting a map waypoint is actually required during the game’s opening sections… at least twice. You can’t use the Anna interface until, I believe, the end of the tutorial, meaning we have no accessible method of getting where we need to go until then in spite of the assists. I managed to get past one of these required map sections by randomly clicking around on the map for something like 10 to 15 minutes. Seriously, it took me that long. That kind of frustration is certainly not something I’m looking for in my experience, and the second of these situations is actually worse. The first time, at least, you are locked into the map screen because you absolutely must select the correct destination to proceed. The second time, you are no longer restricted, so you can absolutely set your destination to the wrong place, exit the map screen, and drive there… to the wrong place. Yet the story won’t continue until you drive to the right place, so… worse.
So here we are. The big question. What does Forza Horizon 5 need to be totally blind accessible? Quite a lot. It needs full narration. It needs a comprehensive audio cue and navigation system. It needs an accessible map, preferably not just narrated, but fully equipped with the ability to snap between available events to negate our need to zoom around with a cursor. It would be one heck of a lot of work and time to make this game fully accessible to the totally blind based on its current state, and factoring in the level of playability I would personally seek. Complete narration and the map alone wouldn’t be enough to satisfy me, and I’d wager, many other blind players. It would be a start, absolutely it would, but I would still feel like I was on the outside of each and every moment, witnessing them only because I happen to be holding a button.
I want to give a brief nod to the other accessibility features in Forza Horizon 5. My specialty is and always will be total blind accessibility, but there is some good stuff here. Very customizable difficulty, color blind modes, and a few more do make Forza playable to a much larger audience. I understand there are a few issues with subtitles, (none for the radio DJ’s according to Caniplaythat), but for many, this is a very, very accessible racing game, and that is absolutely excellent news.
To sum up, Forza Horizon 5 is a long way from being playable by the totally blind, but it definitely has its positives. The assists working to get you from point to point is still a very good thing. Narration being present, though incomplete, is still good. Even the GPS giving you directions is kind of neat, as it at least gives you some idea of the environment around you. Heck, I even like the little detail of some characters, and the Anna system, referring to you by name. That’s a really nice touch. But in spite of all this, I can’t help but feel as though total blind accessibility was just barely considered. Narration still feels like an afterthought, especially given the specific places where it’s lacking. We’re supposed to feel great about being able to complete events after holding a button for several minutes, but then we aren’t even told what our placement was. That’s just one of many examples. I will say again what I have said many times now. Despite what Microsoft tells you, games are NOT for everyone until they are. And while a step forward, Forza Horizon 5 isn’t for the totally blind. Thanks for reading.